Scott Kahn
Scott Kahn
Director of JewishCoffeeHouse.com

Ha Lachma Anya: Jewish Unity and the Secret of the Seder

Maggid, the recounting of the story of the Exodus and one of two Biblically-mandated mitzvot of the Seder, is recited on the night of Pesach following Kiddush, washing and eating the Karpas vegetable, and breaking the middle matzah. As soon as Maggid begins, immediately preceding the Four Questions and the remainder of the Rabbinic selections that are used to describe Yetziat Mitzrayim, a short paragraph beginning with the words Ha lachma anya is recited:

This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat; all who are needy, let them come and celebrate the Passover! This year we are here; next year – in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves; next year – free men.

What is the purpose of this paragraph? It seems to be out of place, for a true invitation should come at the beginning of the Seder, rather than after Kiddush. Moreover, there is no indication that people are supposed to cry this paragraph aloud at their front doors, as would befit a true invitation; rather, it seems to be ceremonial and, accordingly, disingenuous. Finally, the invitation itself is Halachically dubious: only individuals who had previously arranged to eat the Korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) together are legally permitted to partake of the sacrifice, whereas the above paragraph states that, “All who are needy, let them come and celebrate the Passover” – technically an invitation to eat the Korban Pesach with the rest of the household. Should someone accept, the Halacha would demand that this invitation be immediately rescinded.

The answer can be ascertained by noting that only two holidays in the Jewish calendar carry with them the potential punishment of karet – being “cut off” – should they be violated: Pesach, by eating chametz or refusing to offer the Korban Pesach, and Yom Kippur, by eating during the fast or by doing forbidden melacha-work during the day. While the nature of karet has long been debated, the simplest manifestation of this unfortunate consequence is clearly defined in the Torah: it means that the person is cut off from the Jewish People. (The various Rabbinic interpretations of karet are simply attempts to understand the ramifications of this reality, rather than alternate interpretations of that which is plainly stated in the Bible.)

According to the scholars of Jewish mysticism, the Jewish People as a metaphysical entity (“Knesset Yisrael”) is identified with the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Knesset Yisrael does not refer to an individual Jewish person, or even the sum total of all Jews alive today, but instead to the Jewish People across time and space: the Jewish Nation, that is, as a single, indivisible unit that transcends its current spatial and temporal boundaries. In a manner impossible to quantify scientifically, then, this metaphysical unit of which every Jewish individual takes part is the Divine Presence Itself.

The course of Jewish history, both ancient and modern, bespeaks this equation. We can never fully trace the sources of our faith; indeed, the experience of the Divine should exceed the intellectual content of any attempted proof of the truths of religion. Nevertheless, who is not struck by the strange, almost unbelievable reality that is the Jewish People? Its history is singular, its accomplishments unrivalled, its hold on the human imagination inexplicable. It was the primary source of monotheism, the most important idea in history; it gave the world the Bible, the most influential book in history; it spawned two religions that encompass half the population of the globe; it has repeatedly violated every rule of historical empiricism. People can love the Jewish People or hate the Jewish People, but no one can remain indifferent to the Jewish People. The greatest crime in history was perpetrated against them; the most unlikely occurrence in modern history – the emergence of a thriving State of Israel despite its being the most scrutinized and hated country on earth – happened to them. Their contributions to technology and medicine, academia and law, business and entertainment, physics and economics exceed their expected impact a hundredfold, or perhaps more. Whatever this phenomenon means, it is unquestionably a source of wonder.

I firmly believe that only one explanation makes sense of this perplexing reality: the equation of Knesset Yisrael and the Divine Presence. In a mysterious way, the Shechinah acts through the Jewish People; and the Jewish People, regardless of their religious observance or belief, are permeated with Ruach HaKodesh, the spirit of G-d. The unmatched creativity of Knesset Yisrael is the unseen workings of G-d; the powerful emotions the Jewish People evoke are unconscious responses to the Divine Presence.

If violations of Pesach and Yom Kippur result in injury to a person’s bond with Knesset Yisrael, we can accordingly assume that giving these days the special regard they are due results in a strengthening of this same connection. For reasons known only to G-d, Pesach and Yom Kippur are the two particular holidays that allow us to connect to Knesset Yisrael – that is, to connect to the Divine Presence. Experiencing Pesach and Yom Kippur is, in fact, the experience of contact with the Shechinah.

Indeed, Rav Soloveitchik zt”l described this reality, as well:

“In my experience – that is, in my experiential, not intellectual, memory – two nights stand out as endowed with unique qualities, exalted in holiness and shining with singular beauty. These nights are the night of the Seder and the night of Kol Nidrei. As a child I was fascinated by these two nights because they conjured a feeling of majesty… In a word, as a young child I felt the presence of kedushah on these nights…” (Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, volume 2, p. 172)

However, there is one condition for such an experience to take place.

Because of the equation of the Divine Presence with Knesset Yisrael, the Divine Presence can only be experienced if Knesset Yisrael is experienced, as well. The fundamental attribute of G-d – His unity – must also be applied without exception to the People of Israel. The attempt to encounter the Divine without simultaneously encountering Knesset Yisrael is a contradiction in terms. A heart that is closed to Knesset Yisrael in toto is de facto closed to the Shechinah.

For this reason, Maggid begins with an invitation to every Jew to join us at the Seder. This is not a message to any individual person as much as it is a message to ourselves: in order to properly observe the Seder, in order to mystically experience the Shechinah, we must first open our hearts to every member of the Jewish People. By accepting every Jew, religious or not, rich or poor; by internalizing the phrase, “All who are hungry… all who are needy”; by finding reasons to bring someone close, rather than developing excuses to push him away; we give voice to our desire to literally feel the Divine Presence joining us during the Seder. When we are receptive to the entirety of Knesset Yisrael, we are accepting the Divine Presence into our homes.

Yom Kippur, accordingly, begins with the same message. Moments before the onset of the day, before the emotional and spiritual power of Kol Nidrei, we loudly state, “We give permission to pray together with those who have been excluded from the community.” In other words, we drop all communal divisions, deserved or not, and invite every Jew back into the synagogue. In fact, we must do this, as it is the sine qua non in order to experience the Divine Presence on Yom Kippur.

The Seder night and Yom Kippur are linked in an additional way, as well: these are the two occasions on which the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem” is formally included in the liturgy. One reason for this is certainly the oft-cited reality that no holidays have been changed by the Temple’s destruction as much as these two dates, with their extreme emphasis on the service in the Beit HaMikdash. But I believe that there is a second reason – directly connected to the first – for its recital. As the primary annual occasions when the Divine Presence is exceptionally near, the Seder night and Yom Kippur represent the ultimate opportunities for experiencing the Shechinah in time. Nevertheless, while the experience of Divinity in time may be powerful, it is not as intense as experiencing Divinity in both time and space. By praying that we celebrate next year in Jerusalem, we are asking to move forward from this wonderful yet partial experience, and allow it to become the complete experience of feeling G-d’s presence on the days when He is exceptionally available, and in the place where He is exceptionally available.

May the Divine Presence be felt this Seder night through our acceptance and love of every member of Knesset Yisrael; and may this feeling be a prelude to the complete experience of finding G-d in both time and space that, we hope, will take place next Pesach in rebuilt Jerusalem.

About the Author
Rabbi Scott Kahn is the director of Jewish Coffee House (www.jewishcoffeehouse.com) and the host of several podcasts, including Orthodox Conundrum, Intimate Judaism, and Baseball Rabbi.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments