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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lamrot HaKol Haggadah: Ha Lachma Anya

The Haggadah begins with a paragraph that is either taken for granted or misunderstood by the vast majority of Jews. I thought I'd post something about it, with Passover coming up and all.

This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.
All who are hungry, come and eat;
All who are in need, come and partake of the Paschal offering.
Now we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel;
Now we are slaves, next year we will be free men.

I know some people who have a custom to open the door at this point in the seder (the very beginning), believing that "All who are hungry, come and eat" is an invitation to the poor. Now... don't call me a Scrooge. Judaism is absolutely replete with such sentiments; it's just that Ha Lachma Anya doesn't say that. In fact, while it may not be immediately obvious to the average Jew, the paragraph is full of seeming contradictions and puzzles. It's a riddle.

There are two kinds of riddles. One is the "What's black and white and red all over" kind, which is mostly for entertainment purposes, but the other is an educational tool which has been used by cultures all over the world since time immemorial. It's a teaching device which forces the reader to figure out what's going on. Ha Lachma Anya is that kind of a riddle. And unraveling it will give us insight into the seder and the holiday.

Let's start with the first line:

This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Part of the problem is that if you're Jewish, you grow up hearing this every year, starting with your earliest memories. So it may not occur to you that this is a weird thing to say. But it is. It's a very odd thing to say. The Torah doesn't say that we ate matzah in Egypt when we were slaves. In fact, we first see matzah associated with Egypt when we're leaving. The Torah tells us that we hurried out of Egypt, so the bread didn't have time to rise. Was this the bread of affliction? It sounds more like the bread of redemption, which symbolizes our leaving Egypt; not our time in Egypt.

Let's put that question aside, and come back to it later. The next two lines, to anyone familiar with the laws of Passover in normative times, seem mutually contradictory. First, let me explain what I mean by "normative". In terms of the Torah's worldview, the normative situation is one in which Jews are able to fulfill all of the Torah's laws, including bringing the paschal offering. This is a lamb or kid goat which is slaughtered and barbecued in a specific way. And there are three pieces of information which are pertinent here:

  1. The paschal offering may only be eaten al hasova -- once you are sated, and no longer hungry.
  2. The actual seder meal was meat from a different sacrifice: the chagigah, or festival sacrifice.
  3. In order to eat from a particular paschal sacrifice, you have to be part of the group which got together before Passover for the purpose of obtaining and sacrificing that particular animal.

So here are the next two lines of Ha Lachma Anya:

All who are hungry, come and eat;
All who are in need, come and partake of the Paschal offering.

First off, let's correct the translation. The second line actually says "all who need", or "all who require". So we're saying, "If you're hungry, come and eat. If you need to eat the paschal offering, come and do that." But you can't have it both ways. If you're hungry, you can't eat the paschal offering. And this can't be an open invitation, because anyone who isn't part of the group for that particular animal is forbidden to eat from it.

We can actually resolve this apparent conflict without the other lines of Ha Lachma Anya. First, we can see that these lines are addressed to members of the group which signed up to share a paschal offering. And what it's saying is: if you're hungry, so that you can't yet eat the paschal offering, come and eat some chagigah offering until you aren't hungry any more. If you're already full, and you now need to partake of the paschal offering, come and do that.

Let's go on to the last two lines, which also seem like a matched pair:

Now we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel;
Now we are slaves, next year we will be free men.

The first line doesn't seem very odd to Jews who live outside of Israel. But if you live in Israel, why would you say such a thing? It's not as though the rabbis had a problem using different formulae for Jews in Israel and Jews elsewhere. On Hanukkah, the letters on the dreidl spell out "A great miracle happened there." But in Israel, dreidls say "A great miracle happened here." This is the first of the problems we see, and the smaller of the two.

The last line has most often been read as being metaphorical, because otherwise, it makes no sense. "Now we are slaves." Really? We're celebrating our release from real slavery. Backbreaking, killing slavery. How are we slaves today? Slaves to money? Slaves to luxuries? Slaves to a foreign lifestyle? Sure, but those are just expressions. Do we really have to resort to metaphorical explanations in order to understand these simple words?

The answer, like most riddles, is pretty straightforward once you see it. There is a case where everything in this paragraph is literally true, and all of the apparent contradictions fall away. And that's if the person saying it is doing so at the very first seder. The night before we left Egypt.

At this point, matzah as something which we eat because we didn't have time for the bread to rise is still in our future. That'll happen tomorrow. Right now, it's the tasteless slave food we eat here in Egypt. This year, we're here, in Egypt. But next year, we'll be in the land of Israel, where we belong [the tragedy is that this expectation turned out to be false]. This year, we're slaves. But next year, we'll be free.

And this leads to a very important idea about Passover. There are different categories of laws in the Torah. Some are chukim, which are ritual laws that we don't necessarily understand, like kashrut. Some are mishpatim, which are laws that make society run properly. Don't beat up the neighbor. Don't covet his 52" flat screen TV. Don't kill the annoying kid who's playing his music too loud. And then some are eidot. Witnesses. These are laws which commemorate things that have happened. Passover commemorates the Exodus. Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Sukkot commemorates the booths we lived in in the desert, and the clouds of glory which were up in the sky while we were in the desert.

We do more than commemorate these events. We relive them. We eat and sleep in booths on Sukkot. We stay up all night learning Torah on Shavuot. And the Haggadah says, "A person is required to see himself as if he had gone out from Egypt." It isn't enough to talk about the events of the Exodus as something that happened to our ancestors. We need to put ourselves in their place. Ha Lachma Anya is the first thing we say at the seder, and this is precisely why. It's a kind of meditation, intended to get us into the mindset that when we're sitting down at the table, we aren't in 2010, celebrating a holiday. We're in 1311 BCE, in Egypt, scared and excited and full of the knowledge that tomorrow, the whole world will change.

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6 Comments:

Blogger 星美 said...

thank you for you to make me learn more,thank you∩0∩

3:10 AM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

This was lovely. I'll have to send myself a reminder to print out it for next Pesach.

9:25 AM  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

I spoke a summary of this at one of my sedarim and it was well received. I also told it to several other people during the chag so far. I'm careful to credit you when I do so.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thanks! I'm glad you like it.

10:28 AM  
Blogger Miriam said...

I love this original interpretation - thank you. One question: why would the Jews in Egypt say, "that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt"? Wouldn't they say, "which we eat /ate in the land of Egypt"?

1:18 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

That's a great question. I'm not sure. I mean, it'd be accurate for them to say that their fathers ate it, but why omit the fact that they ate it as well? I don't know.

3:05 PM  

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