הא לחמא עניא די אכלו אבהתנא בארעא דמצרים.
כל דכפין ייתי ויכל
כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח.
Our Passover story famously begins, Ha Lachma Anya, "This is the bread of affliction/poverty (lechem oni) that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry, come and eat. All who are in need, come and do Pesah."
This teaching embodies the Haggadah's aspiration for true liberation for everyone – no matter one's income level. Everyone deserves to celebrate being free at Passover. The Mishnah even teaches us that even the poorest of the poor are required to have four cups of wine at their seder (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).
Every year, this profound declaration challenges us to imagine a kind of hospitality and economic justice that is ever-expansive and all-inclusive. Most years I wonder how I can say these words and mean them. Could I be inviting folks I meet on the street, especially folks who ask me for money, to literally come join me in my house? Could I be posting on listservs or social media, gathering folks who are looking for a seder at the last minute? Could I be spending the morning cooking Food Not Bombs-style and serving a meal in a public space?
But this year, even more so, as we prepare for a Passover like none other, what might it mean to say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat," when I literally cannot invite anyone to my house for seder?
As it turns out this line has been the cause of sufficient curiosity for centuries. I learned with Rabbi Elie Kaunfer this week that throughout Jewish history our teachers have interpreted this statement in different ways.
Three different, relatively literal interpretations suggest the following:
Take a moment to note that the latter two are actually quite possible this year. And yet, I think there is important spiritual insight in another interpretation from the Talmud to guide us in our seder preparations.
אמר שמואל: לחם עני (כתיב) - לחם שעונין עליו דברים.
Shmuel teaches: "The bread of affliction [lehem oni]" refers to the bread over which one answers [onim] questions, (i.e., one recites the Haggadah over matzah) (B.T. Pesachim 115b).
Passover is, at its heart, a night of questions. And matzah is our magic 8-ball. It is meant to inspire in us generative thinking and creative problem-solving. We are instructed to be abundant with our answers. This feels like an essential practice this year. Most of us have not had the time or presence of mind to sit and luxuriate around a table, to get lost in conversation about freedom and justice. To imagine our way out of these narrow times. To imagine what new things are now possible.
What it means to be free, says the Haggadah, is to spend a night, reclining, pontificating, asking and answering questions big and small. To know that the work of the world can wait. Tonight we are free to wonder. To allow a spaciousness to descend in our homes that might lead us toward clarity.
How will this night be different from all other nights?
How will this Passover be different from all other Passovers?
We will each answer these questions differently. But as we learn from Shmuel, the real mitzvah is in our courage to lean back and indulge our curiosity. Whether you are celebrating alone (and the Haggadah is your companion), with your housemates, or on Zoom, may the questions you ask and the answers they inspire bring you closer to freedom and may you have a zisn Pesach, a sweet and joyful Passover. May we all pass through these narrow times together.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.