Commentary for Passover

22 Apr

The Passover seder is a very precise and structured ceremony.   The word “seder” literally means “order,” and in a very precise order, we follow its steps as we follow the journey of our ancestors from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.   The chronological pattern followed by the seder is a relatively simple one: Everything from Kiddush through the paragraph after the “four sons” section combines the present with the past, serving to set up our trek through history by establishing and combining its religious, cultural, and educational importance. From there we start a roughly chronological journey of Passover-related customs and material through Jewish history from Abraham through Second Temple times, complete with Talmudic commentary, explanations, and the eating of symbolic foods. This is then followed by a festive meal, just like the large meal our ancestors would to ensure that they were full because the paschal sacrifice- symbolized in our meal by the afikoman, could only been eaten when one was fully sated. After reciting the Grace After Meals, we then turn our attention to the future, hoping to have our seder “next year in Jerusalem the [re-]built.”

There are just two anomalies in this sequence. One of them is a few lines in the middle of the blessing at the end of the recitation of the story of the Exodus, which shares the same sentiments as the end of the seder, hoping that we will once again be able to bring a proper paschal offering in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. The other is the “Ha Lachma Anya” paragraph, located during the “past and present” section of the seder, and is officially considered the beginning of the retelling of the Passover story. It reads as follows:

“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry come in and eat from it; all who are in distress come in and celebrate Passover. This year we are here, but next year we hope to be in the land of Israel. This year we are servants but next year we shall be free.”

Ha Lachma Anya is notable not only because it combines the part, present, and future parts of our journey, but also for the custom that arises from the line, “All who are hungry come in and eat from it; all who are in distress come in and celebrate Passover.”

The front door is opened before this paragraph is recited (and according to some customs the paragraph is read while standing in the doorway or on the street) so that any needy people within earshot will hear it and come in to join the seder. Ha Lachma Anya is one of two times during the seder that we open the front door. The other time is right after the Grace After Meals, when we open the door for Elijah the Prophet (whose cup is also filled at this point in the seder), marking the transition from focus on the past to focus on the future.

These are the only two times the door is opened during the seder. Once we have invited the poor in, we close the door and do not open it again until the meal is completed. Looking at the text of Ha Lachma Anya it would be easy to conclude that we are supposed to invite the poor in, give them some of the “bread of affliction” that we just mentioned in the previous line and send them on their way, having not only given them something to eat but also allowed them to fulfill an important mitzvah of Passover. Instead, we invite the needy in and close the door behind them. We sit them at our table and we share our entire meal with them, and do not do anything to even suggest that they should leave until the meal is over.

When we open the door to let the needy out after we have shared our meal with them, that is the moment when we are opening the door to let Elijah in. Elijah is the harbinger of the Messiah, and in order to merit his coming- to merit the future that we sing about at the end of the seder, that we hope for in Ha Lachma Anya, and that we ask God to bring us in the blessing at the completion of the story of the exodus- we must care for the needy in our society the way that God cared for us during the exodus and throughout the generations.

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