The central mitzvah of Pesach is to re-enact a primal experience of the Jewish people. The seder provides script, artifacts, and choreography for reenacting moments of our redemption, of the transition from enslavement to the opportunity to build lives inspired by God’s vision for humanity. We enter this drama annually by quoting and interpreting scripture, by singing poetry, by engaging theological debate, and by silently embodying the textures and tastes of sacramental foods whose ingredients contain the power to transport us to another time and place, if only for a few seconds. The Rambam’s codification of the mitzvah to re-enact this experience at the seder is clear:
According to a biblical positive command, we must tell on the night preceding the fifteenth day of Nisan all about the miracles and wonders that were performed for our forefathers in Egypt. As it is stated (Exodus 13:3), “Remember this day that you went out of Egypt”; just as it is stated (Exodus 20:8), “Remember the day of the Shabbat.” And from where [do we know] that [the remembering] is on the night of the fifteenth? [Hence,] we learn to say (Exodus 13:8), “And you shall recount to your son on that day, saying, ‘Because of this'” — at the time that there is matsa and bitter herbs (being ‘this’) laying in front of you. And [this is the case] even though he does not have a son. Even great scholars are required to tell about the exodus from Egypt. Anyone who relates at length about the events that occurred deserves praise. (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Chametz uMatzah 7:1, Rambam, based on the Mechilta & Talmud Pesachim 116a)
The primacy of Pesach is deeply rooted in our consciousness as a foundation, along with the revelation at Mt. Sinai, of Jewish identity. Expressing gratitude to the Creator of the universe for intervening in human events and redeeming our ancestors from slavery, and then pledging loyalty to the values and commitments of the Torah from Sinai inform what it means to be an active member of the Jewish people. So powerful is our constant participation in the narrative of slavery to freedom that the rabbis included its recitation daily in the third section of the Shema prayer. Furthermore, the Torah commands us from ever abusing anyone who finds themselves in a similar condition. The Torah commands the Jewish people no fewer than 36 times to treat “strangers” with empathy and compassion, referencing the fact that our ancestors were once “strangers” in the land of Egypt. (See the short article by Rachel Fabriaz for references: Treatment of the Stranger) Furthermore, the unfortunate translation, “stranger,” obfuscates its clear meaning. The Torah’s sensibility is about how one looks upon, thinks about, interacts with and treats immigrants. (For a reading of Genesis as essentially an immigrant narrative informing Jewish identity, see, Rabbi Saul Berman, The Torah’s Views On Immigrants? Let The Bible Speak For Itself)
Regarding the injunction to exhibit empathy for immigrants, abjuring the Jewish people from any abuse or discrimination, the Ramban explicates the legal force of the prohibition against taking advantage of them. He wrote:
Do not wrong an immigrant, nor oppress him, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt….The correct interpretation appears to me to be that God is saying: “Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking as you might that none can deliver him out of your hand; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppressed you, and I avenged your cause on them, because I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there is power, and I deliver each one from him that is too strong for him. (Ramban, Exodus 22:20)
The Ramban read this prohibition as an injunction against the abuse of power. Populations who are disenfranchised, disempowered, disadvantaged by force of societal law and custom, are enslaved. The Ramban is essentially saying, “If we are empowered, and are living with groups of people who are powerless, it is our responsibility to make certain that we do not participate in their abuse. This seems to be treated as a foundational norm; societal disenfranchisement dehumanizes, and God will always favor the dehumanized over the powerful.
It seems to me that this is precisely the lens through which the entire seder should be engaged and the entire Haggadah should be read. The seder cannot be only the particularistic story of the Jewish people. We are commanded to re-engage and retrace our existential steps in the particular contours and terrain of our journey from slavery to freedom, precisely to that we can then work towards the eventual rehumanization of all peoples. In light of the Ramban’s words, how can we possibly remain content in thinking that only we, the Jewish people, somehow deserve the humanity that comes from the fullness of freedom, while remaining passive in the face of the dehumanization of so many others all around us? And I would add: Antisemitism has nothing to do with the authenticity of this rhetorical question. We need to defend ourselves against and cry out wherever there are voices of antisemitism, voices of hatred, and actions of horrific violence against Jews. It is precisely because we understand that, that the Torah commands us to do the same for all human beings. Otherwise, our own self-understanding will remain broken and atrophied.
Indeed, the Haggadah opens with just this call to action. At the very beginning of Maggid, we recite the poem, Ha Lachma Anya, “This is the bread of affliction,” “This is the poor bread.” Here is the text:
This is the poor bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. /Let all who are hungry come and eat./Let all who are in need, come and celebrate Passover./Today, we are here. Next year, we hope to be in the land of Israel./Today, we are slaves. Next year, we will be free.
Many commentators explain the line, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” as a call to feed the poor and the hungry. The seder is regarded as an opportunity to reach out to those who have no home, not enough money to prepare a meal, who live from day to day. Rabbi Yochanan ben Yosef Treves, 16th century Bologna, Italy, wrote that this line is designed to evoke a sense of compassion. The seder needs to be regarded with deep emotion, motivating us to reach out beyond ourselves. He wrote,
This text is called the Haggadah because of the verse, “You shall tell (v’higadita) your child on that day etc.” (Exodus 12:8). Some say that the word, “tell” comes from the Hebrew word for drawing the heart, or inspiring, and this seems correct to me, as in the verse, “O Lord, open up my lips; that my mouth may declare (yagid) your praise.” (Ps. 51:17) The sages interpreted yagid to mean, “my mouth shall draw your praise.” That is, everything derives from the intention of the heart. In human books, wonders and awesome acts arise from the natural order of the world, inspiring love, joy and spiritual pleasure. Yet who has heard such things as the Exodus without trembling? (Commentary, Kimcha Davshuna)
These opening moments of the seder require additional sensitivity to those now included in the ritual of our narrative of humanization. The moment requires contextualization, lest those otherwise disenfranchised participants feel even more alienated and uncomfortable. Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Harush, 19th century Sefrou, Morocco, addressed this point in his commentary, Kos Eliyahu:
We begin the Seder with this statement, ha lachma anya, so that the needy who come to our home Passover will not take offense at the type of food that we are serving them. They might assume that the reason we are serving matzah is because this is the common fare of the needy. As a result they might take offense and refuse to come to our homes. We, therefore, begin by explaining that this is the type of food our ancestors ate in Egypt and that we are following their example on this night. By explaining it in this way they will understand that we are not eating such food because we are being miserly toward the needy. Just the opposite; having referred to the matzah as the bread of poverty, we continue, “All who are hungry come and eat!” That is, even if you have enough to eat the week of Passover, if you are hungry right now (because you have been fasting in anticipation of the Seder), come and eat. “All who are needy,” – those who do not have enough provisions for the whole week of Passover “Come and celebrate Passover,” with us all the days of the holiday.
Rabbi Eliyahu emphasized the commonality shared by all those at the seder table. Everyone, in their own way and for their own reasons, is or has been “hungry” in their lives. He wrote, it seems to me, about an extremely difficult phenomenon. How do people from very different social strata in society bridge that distance? How do people transform the inexplicable distance between them into a moment of genuinely shared nourishment, recognizing each other’s humanity? Rabbi Yedidya Weil, 18th century Germany, developed a response to this question in more detail:
One should empathize with the needy person in his misery and speak to him with consolation. If one greets him with an angry countenance then he loses all merit for the mitzvah of giving tzedakah even if he gives him money or food. This is what the prophet Isaiah wrote: “and you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature.” Isaiah 58:10 This means that one should first speak to the needy person and ask him about his troubles. One should not humiliate him since the world is a turning wheel – the needy person who sits on the dung heap may eventually sit with princes. He should placate the poor person and encourage him to come to his house. But once the meal begins, he should not speak about the other’s poverty; rather he should treat him as if he were the host’s best friend and happy to be with him. They should eat and drink happily together. When the poor guest prepares to leave, once again his host should console him with soft words and tell him that God will help him and that he will see better times just as we all wait for the final redemption. (Commentary, Marbeh Lesaper)
Rabbi Weil introduced two significant values in these comments. First, recognizing another person’s humanity requires talking together. One’s demeanour, facial expressions, body language, words, all reflect the sincerity of valuing another person simply by virtue of our shared humanity. Secondly, however, Rabbi Weil quotes the prophet Isaiah. The prophet emphasizes this approach to the disenfranchised and powerless. Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Wisser, known as the Malbim, 19th century Volhynia, commented on this verse from Isaiah. The Malbim’s comments on this verse in Isaiah emphasize the relational quality of the interaction between the empowered and the disempowered:
Beyond your obligation to feed the person, you must go beyond yourself and give with a full heart, joyfully. Hence, the prophet is not enjoining us to merely give bread. He is telling us to give of ourselves. You are being instructed to nourish the person’s body with bread, and the person’s soul with your spirit, openly and willingly, through words of kindness and consolation. (Malbim on Isaiah 58:10)
The Malbim understood Isaiah to be saying that our obligation is to provide a human relationship. It is relationships that the person requires. We are to give of our humanity.
All of these explanations can be taken narrowly. I am arguing that they must not be. I am arguing that every statement about the “poor,” about the “stranger,” about the “immigrant” is a universal statement about human conditions. Even those commentaries that understand the mystical dimension of matzah as Manna from Heaven, as a food containing the spiritual ingredient of God’s will (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi), as a food that is pure and transforms us into angels, can apply to all humanity. Those mystical hermeneutic traditions saw the poverty of our ancestors, the “‘oni,” as meaning we were “poor in mitzvot, that we were famished spiritually. Is not all of humanity now starving spiritually? Is there not so much physical and spiritual angst throughout the world today? Is not the narrative of our redemption, and the seder, a theatre for engaging our participation in humanity in general, and not only the story of our own faith, redemption, gratitude, anger, frustration, and ultimate freedom? Did not God create all human beings with ambition and yearning and deep desires that can compel us towards mendacity, avarice, cruelty, violence and hatred? Were we not all created with a yetzer hara that needs to be channeled and directed constructively to care for each other and the garden God created for all humanity to inhabit and tend? Do not the opening chapters of Genesis tell the story of humanity, setting the stage for God’s expectations of the Jewish people as an exemplar of that greater humanity in the future? And should not that future start now? The seder is not about our freedom if it is not about the freedom of all people.
Rabbi Don Isaac Abrabanel, who suffered the exile from Portugal and Spain in the 15th century, read Ha Lachma Anya and wondered why it was written in Aramaic, in the vernacular, the language that everyone in that ancient Babylonian society would understand. After noting and rejecting several answers to this question, he wrote:
It seems more reasonable that the reason for Aramaic is because of the declaration, “All who are hungry come and eat; all who are needy come celebrate the Passover.” The Sages decreed that this passage should be recited in Aramaic. Because they were in Babylonia and not in Jerusalem, they could bring the poor and needy to their table (to join in the Seder).8During the temple period one could not invite guests to partake of the Passover offering once Passover arrived. The participants had to be assigned to a particular sacrifice before the Passover offering was sacrificed. They decreed that every householder should increase his gifts to the needy, as stated, “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you, your sons, your daughters, and the Levite…” Therefore, when he sat down at the table, the head of the household would raise his voice to the needy who were outside and say in the name of God, “All who are hungry come and eat; all who are needy come celebrate the Passover.” He would invite them to come to his table. Since the needy might not understand him if he spoke Hebrew, they decreed that the declaration should be made in the lingua franca, Aramaic so that everyone would understand and come inside. Thus, the prophet said regarding charity, “It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home…then your light shall burst forth like dawn and your healing spring up quickly; your protector shall march before you, The Presence of Adonai shall be your rear guard.” (Isaiah 58:7-8) (Commentary Zevach Pesach)
The Abrabanel quoted the same section of Isaiah. There is something universal about writing in the vernacular. This call is for everyone. Everyone outside needs to come inside. There is a sense of shared humanity in the story of bondage, the yearning for freedom, and the mysterious, magical dignity that accompanies feeling fully human.
Indeed, Rabbi Saul Löwenstam, 18th century Amsterdam, wrote explicitly that Ha Lachma Anya is a call to bring anyone who is hungry to join in the seder:
The text says, “Let anyone who is hungry come and eat.” This is a call to go out, gather and invite those who are starving, and bring them into your house. At your house, they will eat and drink without feeling ashamed of themselves. We are told to do this, because we were once slaves with little food, starving and poor. From the reward we get for doing this mitzvah, we will be given the opportunity again next year to behave with humility and bring more poor, homeless or neglected people into our homes…
Rabbi Yaakov Emden, known as Ya’avatz, 18th century Germany, was even more clear when he wrote explicitly that Ha Lachma Anya is a call to bring non-Jews to the seder:
The text says, “Let anyone who is hungry come and eat.” It is obvious that this text is about all poor people, and not only Jews. This is why the custom was literally to go into the streets and make an announcement, inviting the poor to join in the festivities by inviting them into our homes. …That line means, “Let all human beings who are hungry, come and eat, so that the world can be filled with more kindness and peace and wholeness.” Then the text specifically commands us to invite and feed Jewish poor people to come and eat from the korban Pesach.
This tradition that I trace from the Abrabanel is based on the significance of imposing the prayer in the vernacular. A universalistic, outward-looking, broad perspective emerges from the decision to write a prayer in a common language that everyone understands, as opposed to the specific sacred language of one’s own culture. What emerges from this reading are so many layers of meaning.
Our Jewish identity is nourished through our reenactment of the specific contours of our own historical experience, mediated by appropriating our symbols in our language through our own melodies and tastes and aromas and practices and customs and understanding. At the same time, recognizing that a person’s identity is nourished by their own particular experiences, we are called upon to look outward towards a shared humanity. Our own, collective experience enables us to relate to other human beings, each from their own experiences. Since we were enslaved, our empathy compels us to draw others close and advocate for, fight on behalf of, empower, recognize, and support the humanity of others. This simple piece of bread, this simple matzah held up over our heads at the beginning of the seder, speaks to the malnourishment and starvation of humanity. It represents humanity’s physical and spiritual famine. It demands nourishment for all human beings. It requires returning to basic needs, its ingredients are so simple: flour, water, and the will of the Creator, all baked together within 18 minutes in the name of Matzah shel mitzvah, the bread of spiritual renewal for all human beings.
A final note. Matzah, called Lechem ‘Oni, the “bread of affliction,” is the food that nourishes humility. For the idolatry of arrogance is what brings suffering and cruelty from one person against another. About the matzah as the bread of humility, Rabbi Yerachmiel Yisrael Dancyger, the 19th century master of Aleksander Hasidim from Aleksandrow Lodzki, Poland, wrote:
The Bread of the Humble: לחם עוני – שעונין עליו דברים הרבה. Shmuel said : Lechem oni – Bread through which we are humbled exceedingly. (Page 43a – b) The purpose of matzah is to bring us to a state of submission and self-abnegation, and to learn that everything comes from God (and not through our own abilities). This is a lesson we learn from the sages : “A person says: I have learned wisdom and Torah, what need have I in performing mitzvot?” The Holy One responds: ‘Acquiring knowledge of Torah and wisdom are a simple matter. Acting in a God fearing manner is another matter! One who fears me and then performs acts of Torah, wisdom and Torah will be in his heart as it is written in Psalm 111:10: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord; they have understanding who perform all of his commandments…” Through humility and self-abnegation one comes to a state of fear of the Lord. All wisdom is already present in his heart but it is only through this state of submission of one’s ego that one becomes worthy of learning Torah freely. Through matzah we derive fear of God from above and through fear and awe that we merit the learning of Torah and many other blessings.
There is much work to do towards the redemption of humanity. May the Jewish people begin to lead the way, so that other nations will be inspired and say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That God may instruct us in God’s divine ways, And that we may walk in the paths of the Creator.” (Isaiah 2:3)