“Ha Lachma Anya! This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All who are hungry – let them come and eat. All who are needy – let them come and celebrate the Passover with us. Now we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year may we be free.”
With these words we will, each in our own way, begin the Magid – the retelling of the Passover story – during our seders. There is something transcendent about this passage, something that speaks to the very core of what it means to be a Jew. As we prepare to celebrate this beautiful holiday in the days ahead, let’s consider the power of Ha Lachma Anya.
The story of Passover is more than just a story – it is our story. It captures the communal memories which shaped the formation of our people, our values, our way of life.
In an archetypal Jewish way, our story begins with suffering, and not just regular run-of-the-mill affliction but real tzuris! Why do we begin with such a gevalt? Because, Jews should be soft-hearted and should guard against ever becoming like Pharaoh. So, we remember the hardships we suffered in Egypt with all five of our senses: “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” When we eat matza in our seder, we experience an intimate reminder of our defining story. It is not enough to know that suffering is bad, it is not enough to feel sympathy – for us, empathy should drive our values and decisions. When we understand what it is like to suffer, then we are able to truly provide help. This is why, in the same breath that we remember our painful past, we are called to share our celebration of bounty and freedom: “All who are hungry – let them come and eat. All who are needy – let them come and celebrate the Passover with us.”
So far so good. Memory, empathy and tzedakah are key components of Jewishness. What about the next lines? “Now we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel. Now we are slaves; next year may we be free.” The rabbis first penned these verses during the tumultuous period following the destruction of the Second Temple. As Jews were scattered across the Roman empire in exile, the rabbis understood that we were facing a crisis that could last for generations. Without our religious center in Jerusalem we were at spiritual risk, and without sovereign control over our homeland we were at physical risk. They wondered, ‘how would we remain true?’ They asked, ‘What can we do to ensure a Jewish future?’ These last two verses of Ha Lachma Anya offer a partial answer. For those times when we were most oppressed, these phrases acknowledged our harsh realities and offered hope. We might still be in Egypt, but if we hang in, next year we might govern ourselves in our own land! Today, we are free citizens of a great democracy. We do not feel the same level of oppression as our forebears, but we are never fully free. These verses challenge us to identify what still needs to change, and inspire us to act to repair that which remains damaged – in our lives and in our world. We hope not only for a physical return to Israel, but return from millennia of wandering in the wilderness of the spirit to the place of Promise – in the land of Israel and everywhere.
Ha Lachma Anya and the Passover seder are powerful reminders of what it means to be part of Am Yisrael (the people of Israel): we cultivate long memories, deep empathy, realism about the world we live in, a dogged refusal to accept the world as it is in favor of God’s vision for what the world can be, hope for the future and the determination to do our part to eventually make it happen.
Now and always, I am both proud and grateful to be part of this tradition – and I hope you are as well.
From my family to yours, warm wishes for a Happy and Inspiring Passover!