Behold! The bread of affliction—the very same bread of distress that our ancestors ate while slaves in Egypt. All who are hungry, come, I’ll share it with you! All who are in need, come take part in this dry, brittle Passover fare.
What kind of invitation is that? If I lifted up a platter of brisket and invited the hungry to partake, it would be devoured in seconds, but the haggadah instructs us to lift up a broken piece of cardboard-like matzah and say, “If you’re hungry, this is what I’ll feed you. And by the way, I’m not going to share the whole piece with you, only half of it, and the smaller half at that…so I hope you’re not too hungry!”
Furthermore, what is the difference between hungry and needy? In either case, the invitation to partake of the Passover meal seems to address both conditions, but why do both terms appear in this part of the haggadah? On some level, this section of the haggadah is a declaration of welcoming guests, a mitzvah (commandment) that has been a core Jewish commitment since the days of Abraham and Sarah.
According to tradition, the Talmudic Sage Rav Huna would begin every meal, not just the Passover meal, by opening his door and inviting anyone who was hungry to come eat with him. It’s a beautiful story, and Rav Huna was a true righteous person, but how many of us do such a thing nowadays? Although the haggadah I use says that “we open our doors to those who are homeless,” I think most of us would probably hesitate before inviting a homeless stranger off the streets of DC into our dining rooms. Is this therefore a declaration about the future messianic era when we will truly care for the needy in our midst? Perhaps.
Deuteronomy chapter 15 says that there will always be poor people, including poor Jewish people. Maybe the haggadah is envisioning a world in which we all act like Rav Huna and truly welcome and feed the poor at our own tables, rather than by the extension of charity or third-party donations to pantries or shelters, a world in which the poor have the dignity of being seated at our pristine holiday tables and eating off of our good china. In the meantime, we remind ourselves that hunger and poverty shackle plenty of people in our world and in our own community.
But as I mentioned earlier, we are not just referring to hunger or starvation, we are also referring to those who are in need. The haggadah proclaims, “All who are hungry, come and eat; all who are needy, come and participate in Passover.” “Need” can encompass a whole range of concerns: loneliness, estrangement, apathy, confusion, distance from Jewish life or practice, depression. To those who have needs like this, we extend a broken matzah and say, “Come, there’s a place for you at this Seder.”
Why does the host extend a broken matzah instead of a whole one? Perhaps it is to acknowledge that everyone is needy, even the person who can afford to put on a big, fancy Passover feast. There is not one person who is completely whole, or who has never experienced pain or disillusionment.
This, I believe, is what the “bread of affliction” is all about, and why we end this section by acknowledging that we are all still enslaved—not to Pharaoh’s taskmasters, but to plenty of other oppressors, both physical and emotional. The shackles are released through the gift of human companionship (and sharing of food). The lonely, the heartbroken and the confused all feel less so when they are welcomed and beloved by others. By opening our hearts lovingly to one another, just maybe l’shana haba’ah bnai chorin, next year, we will truly be free.
Top photo courtesy of Creative Commons/paurian.