13 April 2014

"Seder Night: The Invitation"

13 Nisan 5774

Seder Night: the invitation
by Daniel Pinner

As befits a Jewish celebration, the master of the house introduces the Seder Night with an invitation: Ha lachma anya… This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt; all who are hungry – let them come and eat!

This seems appropriate enough. After all, the Rambam defines how a Jew is supposed to celebrate a Festival – any Festival: “There is no rejoicing without meat and there is no rejoicing without wine. And when he eats and drinks he is obligated to feed ‘the convert and the orphan and the widow (Deuteronomy 16:11) together with other poor and unfortunate people. And he who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks, he and his sons and his wife, and does not give food or drink to the poor and the desperate – this is not the celebration of a mitzvah, but rather the celebration of his stomach. And about people like this, the Prophet said ‘their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners for them, all who eat it are defiled, because their bread is only for themselves’ (Hosea 9:4). And a celebration like this is a disgrace for them, as the Prophet said: ‘I will scatter filth – the filth of your festive celebrations – on your faces’ (Malachi 2:3)” (Laws of Festivals 6:18).

The Mishnah Berurah (529:17), the Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav (Orach Chayim, Laws of Festivals 529:11), and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (103:9) all say much the same as the Rambam.

So on the Seder Night, as on all Festivals, one is obligated to invite and feed the poor and indigent. So the invitation “all who are hungry – let them come and eat!” seems highly appropriate.

Yet there is something extremely strange about this invitation. Have you ever looked closely at the words and their inference? “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt; all who are hungry – let them come and eat!”. Doesn’t this sound like a somewhat meagre, stingy, even grudging invitation? The master of the house is saying: I’ve got a miserable piece of bread – but if you’re hungry it might do.

This is a serious invitation? Why not be a bit more generous? Why not, Soon we’re going to have a veritable feast: all who are hungry – let them come and eat! Wouldn’t that be a more generous, a more appropriate, a more welcoming invitation?

I suggest two answers here.

The first is that this “bread of affliction”, this miserable piece of bread that the Haggadah (and therefore the master of the house) mentions in this invitation, is the entire reason for this celebration. Without this humble matzah, without this flat, uninspiring, somewhat tasteless bread of affliction, there would be no festival and therefore no celebration to which to invite the poor and the lonely, no beautifully arranged table at which “the convert and the orphan and the widow” could recline and feast.

Let us see the context in which the Torah commands this. After commanding us to celebrate Pesach and Shavuot, the Torah continues: “You shall rejoice before Hashem your God – you and your son and your daughter, and your slave and your maidservant, and the Levite who is within your city gates, and the convert and the orphan and the widow who are in your midst, in the place wherein Hashem your God will choose to rest His Name; and you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you will keep and do these decrees” (Deuteronomy 16:11-12).

That is to say, this “bread of affliction” which is the remembrance “that you were a slave in Egypt”, is the sole reason that we celebrate, is the sole reason that we invite the convert and the orphan and the widow. Hence it is supremely appropriate that the Haggadah (and therefore the master of the house) begins the invitation, “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt; all who are hungry – let them come and eat!”.

The second answer is rooted in our earliest history. On the 15th of Nisan 2047, exactly 3,727 years ago, “Hashem appeared to [Abraham] in the pains of Mamre, when he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1). That was the day when three angels passed by Abraham’s tent, and Abraham invited them in to show them hospitality.

The chronology is simple enough: the angel promised Sarah that she would bear her son Isaac exactly one year hence (18:10), and the 400 years of Abraham’s seed living as “strangers in a land not their own” (15:13) began with the birth of Isaac and finished with the Exodus from Egypt. Since the Exodus occurred on the fifteenth of Nisan, Isaac was born 400 years to the day earlier, i.e. also on the fifteenth of Nisan. And since the angelic prophecy to Sarah was one year to the day before Isaac was born, this episode also happened on the fifteenth of Nisan.

We note however that according to the Midrashic commentary Yefeh Toar (Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi, Turkey, 1525-1595), this happened on the 14th of Nisan: he interprets the phrase “pros ha-Pesach” (Bereishit Rabbah 48:12) to mean not “the season of Pesach” (the 15th of Nisan) but rather the second half of Pesach-eve (the 14th of Nisan), at the time when chametz is already forbidden.

Abraham invited the three men (whom he did not yet know to be angels) into his tent with the very modest words, “Let a little water be brought now for you to wash your feet, and rest under the tree; and I will bring bread for you to eat – and then pass on” (Genesis 18:4-5). In the event, Abraham told his wife Sarah to make cakes from three se’ah of flour; three se’ah is equivalent to about 25 litres (6½ US gallons), which gives an idea of the size of the feast that Abraham prepared. And this was just the appetizer! He also prepared an entire calf – a veritable feast fit for a king.

This is the paradigm for Shammai’s famous dictum, “say little and do much” (Pirkei Avot 1:15). Or, in the words of Rabbi Elazar, “From here we learn that tzaddikim say little and do much” (Bava Metzi’a 87a).

The Alshich ha-Kadosh (Rabbi Moshe Alshich, Israel, 1508–1593), following the idea that this was the day of Pesach, suggests that when Abraham told Sarah “Hasten – knead three se’ahs of meal, fine flour and make cake cakes” (Genesis 18:6), he was instructing her to hasten to complete the baking within 18 minutes, to prevent the dough from leavening. This was also the reason that he did not entrust the cooking to any of his servants.

Two of these angels in the form of men continued on their way to Sodom, there to warn Lot and his family of the impending annihilation of the metropolis. And that evening, in Sodom, Lot invited the two men into his house with an even more modest invitation than his uncle Abraham had extended earlier that day: “Behold now, my lords, turn aside please to your servant’s house; rest, wash your feet, get up early and go on your way” (Genesis 19:2).

Lot did not mention so much as a slice of bread or a cup of water. But when they reached his house, “he made a feast for them, and he baked matzot, and they ate” (verse 3).

And on the phrase “he baked matzot,” Rashi simply says: “it was Pesach”. (According to most understandings, it was the second night of Pesach; according to the Yefeh Toar cited above, it was the Seder Night.) This is an incredible tribute to Lot, putting him on the level of the Forefathers: just as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob kept the mitzvot before the Torah was yet given, so did Lot. And the fact is that Lot and his family merited to be saved from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Both Abraham and Lot demonstrated tremendous self-sacrifice by inviting those men (who only later would be revealed as angels) into their respective homes, as Abraham was just recovering from his circumcision three days earlier, and Lot risked severe punishment for hosting foreign guests which was forbidden by Sodomite law. And both invited them in with very modest invitations, but later treated them to feasts.

So it is appropriate that we, year by year, begin our Seder service with a similarly modest invitation: “This is the bread of affliction which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt; all who are hungry – let them come and eat!”.

We begin with this modest, meagre, stingy, even grudging invitation. But like Abraham and Lot 3,727 years ago this night, we “say little and do much”. A veritable feast awaits.

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