Pesach Dvar Torah by Ari Hart
A few nights ago, millions of seder leaders across the globe began maggid, lifted up their matzot and declared:
This is the bread of oppression, that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
All that are hungry, come and eat.
All that need, let them celebrate Passover.
Today we are here, next year in Israel.
Today we are slaves, next year we shall be free.
How powerful a framing for our seder experience! In our opening declaration, is no mention of God, no mention of the glories of the Jews, not mention of miracles, manna, or Moses! Rather, we frame the seder with the recognition of the real hunger, needs, and oppression that exist in the world and a responsibility to act upon them, and to look towards a world where they do not exist. These words, ha lachma anya, demand that as even as we enjoy the seder, we go beyond our comfortable pillows and engage with the world as it truly is.
It is fitting then, that in his commentary to the haggadah, the Gaon of Vilna takes this section, ha lachma of anya, to deliver a discourse on the different types of poverty that exist in the world. The analysis of this 18th century genius hold true today. In the spirit of understanding and eliminating poverty and oppression, let us explore the Gaon’s perush on the word oni – oppressed person.
Jumping off the word anya, the Gaon writes that there are 4 types of oni, and each is represented in ha lachma anya.
1. The oni who does not have food to eat, who cannot sustain his life. Today, we might call this absolute poverty. He is represented by kol difchin (all who are hungry), and our response is to feed him – yetei v’yichol (come and eat).
2. The oni who has food and isn’t in danger of immediate death, but is impoverished and cannot meet her other basic, societal needs. Today, we might call this relative poverty. She is represented by kol dizrich (all who need). Our response is to provide her with what she needs to perform the Passover seder – yitei v’yifsach (come and celebrate Passover).
3. The oni who is oppressed on a journey. Today, we might call this a refugee. He is represented by hashta hacha (today we are here), and we are to answer by pointing him towards Jerusalem, or wherever his home might be.
4. The oni who is afflicted by oppressive working conditions. Today, we might call this a migrant worker, a sexually harassed employee, or any worker who is denied her rights to compensation and workplace protections. She is represented by hashata avdei (today we are slaves), and we work towards the next year, when we are all free (bnei chorin).
The depth of the Gra’s thinking about different types of poverty couple with his identification of these timeless issues within the classic haggadic text is inspiring. His work serves as a call to deepen our intellectual engagement with social justice this Passover, and to deepen our commitment to pursuing it this year. Next year, may we all be free.