The Passover paradox
In early March, the United Nations announced that the world is facing — and this is not hyperbole — “the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945.”
If you’re thinking Syria or European migrants, you’re wrong. Neither of those issues was mentioned once.
Right now, the great humanitarian crisis of our world is food insecurity — a condition afflicting tens of millions of people who have limited or uncertain access to nutritional and safe food.
According to the U.N., an estimated 20 million people will face the threat of starvation and famine this year in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. The New York Times devoted a special section on April 2 to the stories of 130,000 people forced from their homes by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, who have camped next to a highway in the Niger desert in search of food and water.
UNICEF is warning that “1.4 million children could starve to death this year.” And I hesitate to describe the accompanying pictures of children already in peril — their faces sunken, desperate, nearly deformed from malnourishment.
Now comes Pesach, a harvest festival. It arrives every spring when the earth is bursting with blooms, when crops are growing and nature renews itself, offering its bounty.
And yet, it forces us to confront hunger.
The relationship between hunger and the Passover seder is so central to the holiday that reiterating the connection is stating the obvious. Early on, before we do almost anything else, we hold up the matzo, and we sing “Ha Lachma Anya” — behold, the bread of affliction. The central symbol of Pesach literally is the poor man’s bread: It is the bread of the persecuted, degraded and displaced who could not afford to waste a single second letting dough rise when the moment for liberation came.
On Pesach, our task is to relive the experience of slavery and its infinite deprivations so deeply, so viscerally, it should be as if each one of us had personally gone out of Egypt.
And yet, when I think of the modern Jewish seder table, I think of abundance. Most of us probably enjoy multiple courses of food, flowing wine, crystal glasses, fine china, luxurious table linens. Others partake of popular Pesach “vacations” with kosher buffets so ample they could feed a king, a queen and their court. And I wonder if all of this abundance on the holiday when we are meant to recall deprivation is missing the point. Slavery is having to do without; but our seder tables sometimes are paradigms of excess.
The year 2016 was the second year in a row in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development named Los Angeles as the city with the most chronically homeless people in the country. An estimated 44,000 people sleep on the streets of our city each night. On Pesach, we’ll sing, “All who hunger, you are welcome here,” but how many of us will invite a hungry person to eat at our table? How many of us will welcome the stranger, the orphan, the refugee?
Our tradition is clear about our obligation, as Jews, to make the world better. We all understand this. That’s why we give to charities, and pay taxes, and support food kitchens, and engage in the fight for political equality and justice. The Shulchan Aruch demands that every Jewish community establish a kupa, a welfare fund to be distributed to those in need. It also prescribes a tamchui, a communal kitchen that provides food for the poor.
But it doesn’t end there.
Our tradition also recognizes that something different happens when you invite a hungry person into your home. That it is spiritually elevating to break “bread” with someone who is not like you — who does not share your background, your skin color, your socioeconomic status. The holiday table can become an extraordinary equalizer in allowing us to realize our shared humanity. What makes us human is not what we have; it is what we have to give.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to invite one of my mother’s former students to spend Shabbat with my family and me. He is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who lost nine family members in a horrendous slaughter. He and his brother, a former child soldier, and a young woman who also survived the conflict sat in my grandmother’s living room as we lit yahrzeit candles together and remembered all of the people we had lost. That night, we counted more dead among us than living. It was one of the most profound moments of human connection in my life. A Shabbat meal bound me to refugees as we ate, sang, shared and danced to real African drums.
What would it look like if more families modeled this kind of exchange the way my mother did for me? What is the point of digging into our formative pain as a people if it does not awaken us to the pain of others? It’s not enough just to tell the story.
Our communal destiny is to write a new one.
Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.