Why God Loves Good Meals: Commentary on Passover 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
As we anticipate another Passover seder, our minds may be on the guests who will enter our homes and eat the food we have prepared for this holy moment. But what makes the seder the seder has never been merely the guests who grace us with their physical presence. An anonymously composed centuries-old piyyut (“prayer-poem”) known by the question that kicks off the composition, “מַה נֺּאכַל בַּסְּעוּדָה הַזּוֹ” (Mah Nokhal BaSe’udah HaZo, “What Will We Eat At This Meal?”), introduces to us a multigenerational wish-list of VIP guests and their talents:
אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן יְֿבָרֵךְ אוֹתָֽנוּ
אֵלִיָּֽהוּ הַנָּבִיא יְֿבַשֵּׂר לָֽנוּ בְּֿשׂוֹרָה טוֹבָה
דְּֿבוֹרָה הַנְּֿבִיאָה תָּשִׁיר לָֽנוּ
מִרְיָם הַנְּֿבִיאָה תֵּצֵא בְּֿמָחוֹל לָֽנוּ
דָּוִד הַמֶּֽלֶךְ יְֿנַגֵּן לָֽנוּ
שְֿׁלֹמֹה הַמֶּֽלֶךְ יַגִּיד לָֽנוּ חׇכְמָה
מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּֽנוּ יַגִּיד לָֽנוּ דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה
Aaron the Priest will bless us;
Elijah the Prophet will bring us good news;
Deborah the Prophet will sing for us;
Miriam the Prophet will emerge dancing for us;
King David will play music for us;
King Solomon will tell us words of wisdom;
Moses our master will tell us words of Torah.
The act of recalling these seven holy invitees brings to mind that our seder may never feel fully complete. There will always be somebody missing from our seder. Sometimes work or geography separates us from one another. Sometimes our favorite seder guests have passed on. When instructing us to plan for a table that feeds more than just ourselves though, our haggadah focuses most deeply on a different sort of absence. Passover traditions emphatically remind us that our table will never be full until we can feed all individuals who were born into enslavement or food insecurity. Once we’ve had some wine for kiddush, washed our hands for sanitary purposes, and dipped some karpas (כַּרְפַּס, “parsley”) into salt water to feel the distastefulness of slavery, we begin the long Maggid (מַגִּיד, “Storytelling”) section of our seder and concentrate on that ‘bread of affliction’ (i.e., matzah) as we recite:
.הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם. כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח… הָשַׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין
This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry will come and will eat. All who are in need will come and will offer the Passover sacrifice… This year, enslaved people; next year, free people.
As much as the rabbis of yore loved talking, they most admired the words that accompanied action. For millennia, Jews have kicked off their morning prayers by praising the God “שֶׁאָמַר וְהָיָה הָעוֹלָם” (she’amar vehayah ha’olam, “who spoke, and [by virtue of God’s speech], the world became [real]”). By the time we have sat down and begun our seder—no matter how loudly we recite the text of the haggadah—it is unlikely that we will find any new guests midmeal, especially if they are unhoused, hungry, and outside our social circles. The seder is not the time when we can complete the work of ending poverty once and for all, but the time before the seder is when we must remind ourselves of those whom circumstances have prevented from participating in this sacred meal. In this light, our spiritual forebears centuries ago adopted the practice of donating either Passover ingredients or me’ot chittin (מְעוֹת חִטִּין, “money for wheat”) to those in need. The Ashkenazic scholar Rabbi Mosheh Isserles (1530–1572), in his Mappah commentary to Shulchan Arukh—composed by Rabbi Isserles’ Sephardic colleague Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488–1575)—declared:
ומנהג לקנות חטים לחלקן לעניים לצורך פסח
It is a custom to purchase wheat and to distribute it among those who are impoverished for any Passover-related need. (Orach Chayyim 429:1.)
Inasmuch as customs come and go—as they do not have the same legal force as actual laws—Rabbi Yisra’el Me’ir Kagan (1838–1933) felt compelled to emphasize more starkly why supporting those in need should not be taken lightly. In his Sha’ar HaTziyyun commentary to his own work Mishnah Berurah (itself a commentary on Karo’s and Isserles’ work), Rabbi Kagan wrote:
תקנו קדמונינו בפסח יותר משאר רגלים, משום שהוא זמן חירות ויושבין מסובין וכל אחד בביתו בשמחה ואין זה כבוד לה’ שהעניים אז יהיו רעבים וצמאים, ולכן נותנים לו את צרכו לכל ימי הפסח כדי שיוכל לספר יציאת מצרים בשמחה
Those who preceded us ruled [that we should contribute to those in need] on Passover, more than [we contribute to those in need] for [any of] the remnant of the pilgrimage festivals [i.e., Sukkot and Shavu’ot], for this [Passover holiday] is a time of freedom, and we sit and lean [like ancient Greek and Roman elites at a triclinium], and every person is in their home with joy—but it would be no honor to Adonai for those who are poor to be hungry or thirsty. Therefore, we give to that [person in need] all the needs of that [individual] for all of the days of Passover—so that they may tell [the story of] leaving Egypt joyously. (429:10.)
The word כָּבוֹד (kavod) means both “honor” and “substance.” Rabbi Kagan’s notion that “it would be no honor to Adonai for those who are poor to be hungry or thirsty” (“ואין זה כבוד לה’ שהעניים אז יהיו רעבים וצמאים”) could be translated more sharply: “there is no substance to Adonai when those who are poor are hungry or thirsty.” The God who enjoins that there will be no poverty within the midst of God’s chosen people (as in Deuteronomy 15:4) could in fact be a God whose holiness fades away whenever humans let money and resources be so mismanaged that God’s creatures suffer from lack. From the Torah’s many laws surrounding how money should be handled, we know that Judaism does not forbid wealth—but we sense easily that Godliness and poverty struggle to coexist. Poverty does not cause God to make God’s self absent; poverty is a societal failure, when the holiness and ethics for which humans were created to uphold have been insufficiently followed if not outright abandoned. Poverty is a tragic shortcoming of our species. When we passively permit poverty to increase, we divorce ourselves from God’s presence. Rabbi El’azar ben Azaryah taught nearly two millennia ago, “אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה” (“if there is no flour [or food for us to consume], there is no Torah”)—for God’s word is erased and God’s reality denied when we cannot sustain God’s creatures (Mishnah, Avot 3:17).
We cannot solve world hunger overnight, and increasing access to God’s presence certainly is no quick job either. Yet, in the words of the 2nd-century CE sage Rabbi Tarfon, “לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶּן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה” (“the [holy] work is not for you to complete, but you are not a free [enough] person to be cleared of that [task]”) (Mishnah, Avot 2:16). We can still make small and positive impacts on the inequities of this world—and having regular, if not expanding, practices of donating to good causes is one of the finest tools we have for improving the world around us. Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes, “Giving even a small amount of tzedakah forces us to recognize the extent of poverty in the world, awakens our compassion toward others, and helps us to see our wealth as God’s loan to us, rather than as a tribute to our own worth” (There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law & Tradition [Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010], p. 85).
This Passover eve, I encourage all those with the capacity to do so to donate to a cause that will aid someone whose earthly and spiritual needs may feel like a larger burden than our world can handle. I made small donations today to Hebrew Seminary—to support emerging Jewish leaders who may be in greater need than we may know—and to Mazon—which works to end food insecurity across the United States and Israel. This Passover, and every Passover, we set aside a glass for Elijah, whether or not he will show up. This Passover, and every Passover, we have to set aside resources for everyone whom God has invited to participate in Passover: all Jews, all seekers, all who have been oppressed, and all who seek freedom—regardless of whether they all will show up at our own seder. The civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody is free until everybody’s free.” Providing me’ot chittin is a similar affirmation: Nobody can leave Egypt tonight until everyone can leave Egypt tonight.
If we want God’s presence to join us at the seder, we need to send out more invitations.
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