Survival Requires Both Sustenance and Sweetness

(Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like)

Rather than create my own haggadah for our 2nd night seder, my family builds upon a basic template like The Promise Haggadah or, this year, The Kitchen Passover Game. We add readings, songs, and reflections (one of mine appears on the Jewish Women’s Archive Blog, “Jewesses with Attitude”), as well as a break for discussion just before dinner. This year’s discussion topic appears below:

The earliest version of the Passover seder appears in the Mishnah, a rabbinic text from 2nd century Israel. While most of the rules deal with commemorating the Passover sacrifice, the final chapter lays out the rites and rituals of the seder itself. The very first instruction is this:

“On the eve of Passover from the time of the afternoon offering, no one must eat until nightfall. Even the poorest Israelite should not eat on the night of Passover until he reclines at his table. And they should provide him with no fewer than four cups of wine, even if the funds come from public charity” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).

The rabbis took their responsibility to care for the poor very seriously. Though the members of the Jewish communities of that era were by no means part of the one-percent, they pooled resources and provided handouts to the poor on a daily basis, assessing each person’s need and responding accordingly: whether that was bread and water, wine and meat, a horse and driver, or even a house and a wife! (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67a-68a).

Today, we find ourselves in a society in which we debate whether the poor are entitled to assistance even to meet their most basic needs. Lawmakers and commentators argue about whether the poor deserve “luxuries” such as fresh produce, quality education, or even disposable diapers.

Here, the rabbis make a powerful statement about how we care for the poor. In the Mishnah, including the poor in the celebration does not stop with providing ha lachma anya, the bread of affliction. We must also provide the most decadent aspects of the seder experience:

Though the Torah commanded to eat the original Pesach offering with “your loins girded, sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…hurriedly” (Ex. 12:11), the rabbis demand that even the poorest among us have the freedom to stop working for several hours and recline. How many of today’s working poor would have that same freedom? How many on public assistance could afford to buy a bottle of wine, and not face any judgment for doing so? Though the Torah mentions nothing at all about four cups of wine, the rabbis insist that we provide even our poorest neighbors with this luxury.

Which means, of course, that the rabbis did not define these provisions as luxuries, but rather as necessities. The celebration of a festival such as Passover was not an “extra,” but an integral part of every Jewish life. Survival, then, is not about meeting one’s most basic needs. Survival requires joy and celebration. Because otherwise, what’s the point?

At the end of our seders we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” and throughout the seder we remember God’s promise to “bring [us] into a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). This reminds us that true redemption requires both sustenance and sweetness.

Milkhoney

As we gather around our seder table we ask ourselves: What is it that a person needs in order to survive in our society today? What is it that a person needs in order to thrive? And how can we be a part of providing both sustenance and sweetness to everyone in our community?

Questions to ask at your Passover Seder:

  1. What is something you need in order to survive?
  2. What is something you need in order to thrive? What brings you joy?
  3. How might we help those in need to have access to what brings them joy?

Chag sameach and a Zisn Pesach (Sweet Passover) to all!

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