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Passover: Reading the Haggadah – Mandatory Generosity at our Seder

Tonight, at our first Passover Seder, we will begin telling the story of our exodus from Egypt raising the matzah and saying in one voice:

Ha lachma anya… This is the bread of affliction, the bread of simplicity, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all in need, all who have become estranged or alienated come and eat.

In so doing we will begin a process of reenacting the enslavement that our ancestors suffered in Egypt in order to become aware of current enslavements both personally and in the world at large. We invite in those who are destitute, the poor and the excluded, with — on one level — the understanding that these are metaphors for the disowned parts of self. At the same time we know that, as we sit around a table of plenty, there are others on the streets, cold and hungry, living lives of alienation. Maybe our rabbis began the telling of the story this way to quash relentless complaints of a Seder that “drones on and on,” causing everyone to “starve.” When the Seder is used as a tool to give us a taste of what it might be like to be a slave, to be poor and hungry, then its length becomes a means to give us access to what real hunger feels like; dipping our parsley in salt water becomes an opportunity to taste the tears of despair, and eating a slice of horseradish root on a dry tasteless piece of matzah an occasion to feel the bitterness of hardship.

But what most strikes me in reading this passage is that our telling the Passover story begins with a mandated act of generosity: we are to invite the poor and the destitute to partake in our Seder. Mandatory generosity, in our tradition, is called tzedakah. Though often mistranslated to mean “charity,” the word is best understood as “righteousness” or “justice.” The Shulchan Aruch, the Set Table — the Jewish book of mindful living and practices — obligates one to give tzedakah in a way commensurate to one’s ability. While giving ten percent of one’s income is advised, the practitioner is warned not to give beyond his/her means and to watch for the shadow side of over-giving which is often the ego showing up clothed as generosity.

One reason that generosity, or tzedakah, is made mandatory is to help one overcome the ego-enslaved heart walled-off by the inner voices that see only scarcity, where fear and attachments keep one’s heart and hand from opening. As giving is required, one is made to face these inner resistances, while the ego’s rationalization is circumvented. As the practice unfolds, the inner Pharaoh of fear and attachment begins to loosen his grip on our heart, and after giving a thousand times just see if you can avoid being spiritually transformed.

Ha Lachma anya – this is the bread of affliction,” supports our remembering that the poor, the hungry, and the stranger are part of who we are. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” gives us the practice of tzedakah as a pathway to free all who are enslaved by poverty. Tzedakah. helps open our hearts, move beyond the constriction of the ego and live more generously and compassionately. As we practice giving tzedakah, it is we who, paradoxically, are richer for it.

Chag Sameach!

© 2011 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.