Something from law and tradition
The Mishnah, edited c. 200CE, gives a clear impression of what the Passover Seder would have been like in Temple and immediate post-Temple times. It states:
They should not provide even the poorest person with less than the four cups of wine. (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1)
One can easily be so preoccupied with one’s own needs and arrangements that one fails to see the basic concerns with which others are struggling. This Mishnah instructs us to take note of the needs of even the poorest. We are not allowed to begin our own festive Seder until we have helped enable everyone else to do the same. The Chafetz Chaim comments on the practice of providing the poor with flour for baking matzah, noting that we also need to give them sufficient fuel to bake it, and that this is part of what the Torah stipulates when it requires us to give ‘sufficient to supply [the poor person’s] need’ (Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim 429:1 note 4)
That need is immense today. Our community is particularly concerned for those escaping the fighting in the Ukraine. (We are investigating how best to support a local food kitchen. Fleeing westwards, people arrive destitute in already overstretched and impoverished communities. The world is more riven by fighting than perhaps at any time since WW2 and there are millions of refugees. Our responsibility begins with our fellow Jews, here, in Europe, Israel and everywhere. But it does not end there, and we are forbidden to sit ‘idly by’. Whether we can contribute more, or less, we are not at liberty to do nothing.
How can we sit down to eat ‘the bread of poverty’, as the matzah is described, without concern for the poor?
Something from history
‘I remember Seders in the bomb shelters’, our friend Olga Deaner told me. ‘I must have been very young’. She made a circle with her arms, indicating the small circumference they must have formed down there in the shelter. ‘We kept the Seders very short. But one night the Blitz was really awful, the bombing was very heavy and for some reason we didn’t go down but stayed at the Seder table. My grandfather, who spoke Yiddish and was a very gentle man opened the door. He looked up at the sky, shook his fists and let forth a stream of swear words at the Luftwaffe’. Olga laughed. ‘I couldn’t follow a thing, but I understand the language was very choice. We didn’t think he even knew words like that’.
(If you have a personal or family memory you’d like me to share, please tell me!)
The Haggadah (literally means ‘the telling’, isn’t just refer to a ‘story’. It’s a story of stories; stories woven round a story. The central thread is clear: the account of how we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us from bondage. But wound around it are the stories of the Jewish People throughout the ages, and of other peoples also (think of where and by whom ‘Go down Moses…’ was sung). The Haggadah becomes real when we weave the stories of our own lives and times, of our own journeys, fears and struggles for freedom into it. Ask your friends, guests, children to help you do that this Seder night…