Sunday, April 1, 2012

Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!

Food plays such an important role at our seders.  Of course there is the symbolic food on the seder plate.  No seder would be complete without matzahs, marror, charoset, and salt water.  Menu planning, shopping, and cooking the festive meal requires weeks in advance planning.  Despite scouring all the advertisements for Passover sales, our grocery bills go through the roof.  One local cantor posted a parody called Matzah Balls lamenting this fact.  He sings “I have blown my whole life savings shopping for food and it’s all made from over priced cardboard.” (

Besides the symbolic food and the actual food on the table, food serves as one of the thematic threads that tie the Haggadah together. Raising the matzah the leader of the seder begins the Maggid section of the Haggadah saying “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.  Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!”  

Immediately afterwards the youngest child asks the four question.  Do you really think that eating matzah and having hor dourves, the dipping the karpas in salt water prompts him or her to say “How different this night is from all other nights!”  Passover isn’t the only time we eat matzah.  Many times people use matzah for lechem mishnah (the second loaf of bread) on the Shabbat table when they don’t have a second Hallah.  Although not customary, everybody has seen hors dourves served at a cocktail hour.  These things are different but really not so strange to raise questions.


A long time ago, I read a commentary that states the invitation “Whoever is hungry-let him come and eat!”  prompts the child to question the father’s behavior.  For on all other nights whenever the father sees a poor person begging for food in the street, he crosses the street in order to avoid all and any contact with the hungry beggar.  Tonight he invites him into their home.  No wonder the child says, “Ma Nishtana-How different this night is from all other nights!”


Too many of us are like the parent above who avoids or just doesn’t see hunger in our midst.  I wonder how can there be so people going to bed hungry every night in America, this land of plenty.  World hunger is great tragedy. The world is facing a hunger crisis unlike anything it has seen in more than 50 years.  925 million people are hungry.  Every day, almost 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. That's one child every five seconds.  There were 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty in 2005. The World Bank estimates that the spike in global food prices in 2008, followed by the global economic recession in 2009 and 2010 has pushed between 100-150 million people into poverty.
Like Rabbi Elezar be Azariah in the Haggadah who wasn’t able to show that the Exodus must be recited at night until Ben Zoma gave him the correct interpretation, I was always troubled by the penultimate line of birkat hamzon, grace after meals.  That line “I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.” just doesn’t jive with reality.   We all have witnessed when bad things happen to good people and children going to bed hungry.  I use to say this line silently because I just couldn’t pray a lie out loud.   I didn’t know how to understand that sentence until Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ interpretation.
He writes:

I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.

This line, from Psalms 37:25, has often raised questions.  Surely throughout history there were times when the righteous were forsaken?  Indeed this is one of the questions that, according to the Talmud, Moses asked God:  “Why do the righteous suffer?

I once heard a beautiful explanation from R. Moses Feuerstein of Boston. The key phrase in the verse is lo ra’iti, standardly translated as “I have not seen.”  The verb ra’iti, though, occurs twice in the Book of Esther with a quite a different meaning. “How can I bear to watch (eicha uchal vera’iti) with the disaster which will befall my people? And how can I bear to watch the destruction of my family?” (Esther 8:6) The verb there doesn’t mean “to see.”  It means “to stand by and watch, to be a passive witness, a disengaged spectator.” Ra’iti  in this sense means to see and do nothing to help.  That for Esther as for the Psalmist, is a moral impossibility.  We may not “stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.”  We are our brother’s keeper.

Translated thus, the verse states:  “I was young and now am old and I have not merely stood still and watched when the righteous was forsaken and his children forced to beg for bread.”  Read this way, not only does it make sense. It also emerges from the core of Jewish sensibility. It ends grace after meals with a moral commitment. Yes, we have eaten and are satisfied.  But that has not made us indifferent to the needs of others.

The conclusion of the meal, so understood, echoes the opening of the seder service with its invitation to “all who are needy-Come and eat.”

The challenge of Passover is to refashion the outside world so that all may be free.  Of course supporting organizations like Mazon and Hazon are worthwhile endeavors.  Beyond that, the Haggadah may just be the educational tool to teach our children how our tradition demands us to bring redemption nigh.  Maybe the act which rouses the child’s question in the first case can spur us to action in our own little corner of the world.  Perhaps instead of stepping over or crossing the street to avoid a hungry person, we can buy them something to eat to satisfy his/her immediate needs.  This would be such a valuable chesed example to teach our children to imitate. 

Our final redemption would be all that closer when our children see us invite the hungry to our table and not think, “How different this night is from all other nights!”


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