Seder - a jolt to consciousness

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The heart of Pesach is the seder and the heart of the seder is a collective memory, the Jewish story of freedom.
by ADINA ROTH | Apr 06, 2017

On seder night we remember our slavery and recall how G-d delivered us with miracles and wonders to become a people. But the seder is more than an experience of memory. If it is important to inform our children, that “once upon a time we were slaves in Egypt”, it seems much more prescient to consider what does it actually mean to be free and to explore the current vicissitudes of freedom in our world, for ourselves and for others.

To simply re-tell the same story every year as a kind of Jewish nationalist triumph is not the point. The Pesach seder is an invitation to a wider and perhaps deeper sense of ethics.

The ethical weight of the seder emerges in the Magid section as we start to tell the Exodus story. The matzah becomes the focal point as we chant, “Hah lachma anya this is the bread of our affliction”.

The Aramaic word Anya points to the Hebrew word “oni” which reflects dual, intertwined meanings; poverty and affliction. Matzah, unleavened bread is the poor man’s fare. Matzah is also the bread of affliction for it points to when we were slaves. 

The song continues: “Kol dichfin yeitei veyeichol, kol  ditzrich yeitei veyifsach, Let all who are hungry come and eat, Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.”

We sing these lines with aplomb (perhaps even wondering, how much longer till we actually get to eat?). But the seder is not intended as a simple read-along sing-along.

In the Talmud we are told that before commencing any meal, Rav Huna of Babylonia would get up, open his front door and announce a refrain that has echoes of “Kol Dichfin”: “Let all who are in need come and eat”. Indeed, Rav Matityahu Ga’on of the 9th century says it was a custom in Babylonia to leave one’s door open on Pesach night so that poor people could join for the seder.

Our seders start through casting our consciousness and indeed our place settings, towards the hungry in our community. For South Africans, the concept of hunger is not some abstract idea. We have probably passed a few homeless people on our way home from work that very day. 

What would it be like if our doors were open on seder night and if Jewish people called from their windows and gates: “You who don’t have a meal tonight - join us, we are celebrating our festival of freedom”?

That we start our freedom celebrations by including the hungry, points to a fundamental understanding of freedom apprehended by the rabbis in the Talmud: “political freedom without economic freedom is not freedom”.

The dual meaning of matzah as the bread of both slavery and poverty reflects the same notion. As we sit down to celebrate Jewish freedom at our tables of abundance, we are immediately invited to reflect: Where is there still economic slavery? Where is there still political imprisonment?

But the reflection is not simply theoretical.  The Haggadah text calls us to action, immediately as it were, by inviting those on the street to join the meal. Our freedom is worth less if others are still in chains. And the message of “Kol dichfin” is clear, freedom begins with challenging poverty.

At times, Jewish South Africans think of the widespread poverty in South Africa in paternalistic terms: “How can ‘we’ help ‘them’?”

But Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik offers a profound interpretation of these two lines which jolts us to consider the host and the “hungry guest” as each needing the other.

He suggests that the first line “let all who are hungry…” refers to those who are materially poor. But “Let all who are in need…” points to a different kind of impoverishment - loneliness.

The poor person is not fully liberated. But, a person disconnected from community lives also in a narrow prison and must be included in the discourse on freedom.

Jewish South Africans might want to consider the dialectic between material poverty on the one hand and loneliness on the other.

If we tell the Pesach story solely about our own people without casting our consciousness to the wider communities among whom we dwell, we are in danger of starting to feel disconnected from the wider South African population, which creates a kind of communal isolation and loneliness.

Pesach is a potential bridge to help narrow that divide. Instead of stopping with our own story, let us take the invitation of “Kol dichfin” to connect with the unfulfilled longing of our fellow-South Africans for full freedom.

Ironically, as we connect across communities, Jewish people might feel less lonely and disconnected from our fellow-South Africans, thus experiencing Soloveitchik’s alternative reading of freedom as a sense of belonging. 

Pesach as a call outwards, towards the “other” seems like the only way to become our best ethical and liberated selves. (This Pesach, may we ponder the different types of freedom, material and existential and consider how to realise freedom more deeply for ourselves and our neighbours.)



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