A Passover Reflection By Rabbi Dan Ornstein
Each year at the Passover seder, the Jewish ritual meal at which we reenact the story of the Exodus, I find my greatest inspiration when we come to the beginning of the Passover story. We lift up the matzah, the traditional unleavened bread, point to it and chant:
This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in need come celebrate the Passover feast.
This year we are here, next year-- in the land of Israel!
This year we are slaves, next year--free people!
This is a distinctively Jewish liturgy, since it echoes deeply the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people to be free. It is a reflection upon our many centuries of experiencing hatred and anti-semitism. We Jews re-live the slavery of our ancestors in Egypt, and their subsequent liberation, as the paradigm for our people's struggle to be redeemed from persecution, a free people in our own land.
However, as with all great religious traditions, powerful messages about slavery and freedom await all people of faith who look for inspiration from these words. I suggest two of those messages:
Matzah, unleavened bread, is identified as the bread of affliction, recalling the suffering and deprivation of slavery. Yet in the Hebrew Bible, Exodus 12, matzah is also the unleavened bread that the people of Israel hurriedly carried over their shoulders as they left Egypt for freedom, with no time to let that bread rise. As a symbol, matzah demands that we reenact both experiences - oppression and liberation - simultaneously. All of us are challenged to think of ourselves as constantly straddling the fence between slavery and freedom, so that we never take freedom for granted.
The Passover meal, beginning with matzah and extending to the whole evening, is really an invitation to those who are hungry and in need to be part of a caring community. Slavery is not only about a person or government holding others in its thrall. Not having enough food to put on your table to feed your family or not having enough money to afford health insurance are forms of slavery as well. This passage is telling the poor and the hungry that they are welcome to be part of our community, to dine at our tables. It is also telling the community that our job is to do that work of welcoming by feeding and caring for those who need it most.
This Passover, let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need join us for the feast:
The nearly three million New Yorkers living in poverty.
The men and women forced into taking two or three jobs for less-than-decent wages with no health insurance, so that they barely feed their families.
The children living under the oppressive Pharaoh of hunger and deprivation, especially those who are homeless.
The residents of our state, young and old, who suffer persecution from racism, homophobia, sexism, and societal apathy.
The young people facing a life-time of Egypts, as they are forced further and further down the suffocating school-to-prison pipeline.
We who are free have the opportunity and the obligation to not only to pray for freedom for all, but to work for freedom for all. Now is our time and our challenge to raise our voices well beyond mere whispers, to make certain our government officials and communal leaders hear those old/new words:
We must make certain that all who are hungry can come and eat.
We must insure that all who are in need can come join us in the feast of plenty that belongs to every resident of our state.
A blessed Spring holiday season of peace and plenty to all of us.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.