Hunger on the verge
Parshat Metzora, Leviticus 14:1-15:33
Toward the beginning of the Passover seder, we raise the matzahs and say, “Ha lachma anya — This the is bread of …” what? Is it the bread of affliction or the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt?
Perhaps it is both. As slaves, we were afflicted, and we were poor.
But while the Torah describes the cruelty of our enslavement, it doesn’t mention, yet, what the Israelites ate. The first narrative reference to matzoh appears as we are leaving Egypt in such haste that the bread dough hasn’t had time to rise and is baked unleavened. Yes, we are poor, but the affliction has just transformed from slave labor to homeless wandering.
If anything, the food we ate as slaves in Egypt was tasty and plentiful. Numbers 11:5 mentions fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic — and it was free! But now we remember our torment and misery and even invite all who are hungry to share our poor food.
Of course, at the seder we are eating in comfort, even leaning on pillows, and preparing to enjoy a feast even as we share the bread of poverty. That bread is there to remind us that it was not always thus, and even now it is not so for many.
Poverty is an ever-present condition. In our country and in the world, there are many who lack nutritious food and clean water. There are dictators whose policies starve their citizens, depriving them not only of bodily sustenance, but also of adequate medical care, education and the opportunity for dignified work.
Even here in Pittsburgh, there are “food deserts,” whose inhabitants have to expend extra time and labor to buy and bring home nutritious food because they have no conveniently located grocery stores. Crime flourishes in the same neighborhoods whose streets await the repairs that come promptly to more affluent areas.
At the seder table, we share the experience of those whose basic human needs are not satisfied. We share their hurt and should be inspired to turn anew to the nurture of those who are in want. Despite the tasty fish and fruit of Egypt, we remember what it feels like to be poor.
So too do we remember what it feels like to be afflicted. Our homeless wandering after Egypt translates today to being refugees. Nor was it very long ago that so many of us Jews were refugees from most of Europe and from many countries in the Middle East and North Africa. And we are witnesses today to yet another overwhelming refugee crisis.
All over the world, people suffer oppression and hunger for justice. In our own country, we continue to struggle for fairness, equity, dignity and mutual respect. Slavery still exists among us in agriculture, in sectors of the service industry and in sex trafficking.
At the seder table, we share the pain of those who suffer injustice as individuals and in groups, and we should be inspired to let our concern radiate from our circles of family and friends to all who are oppressed.
The seder is one of the rituals most observed by American Jews. Perhaps, this is because the underlying story is of God attending to our needs, needs we experience both individually and all together. We hunger for the basics of food, nurture and justice — for ourselves and for others. Reminding ourselves that we share the bread of poverty and affliction brings us closer to God.
But this sharing gains enduring meaning only if we rededicate ourselves to the needs of those who don’t have sufficient opportunity and means to live dignified and fulfilling lives. When we say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” we are praying for the end of poverty and affliction for all.
May next Pesach see us very much closer to our goals for the world and for ourselves; may we be blessed to participate in the fulfillment of our most cherished hopes.
Rabbi Paul Tuchman is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Israel. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.