Seeing Ourselves as Slaves

My favorite line in the entire Haggadah comes just after the explanation of the 3 main ritual foods of the seder, the Pesah, the Matzah, and the Marror.  You may remember that section – we turn to each of the ritual foods, we explain that the Pesah sacrifice was eaten because?  God passed over the houses of the Israelites, and the offering harks back to the lamb’s blood that marked the Israelite homes as distinct from the Egyptian homes.  The matzah?  Matzah is explained as a symbol of leaving hurriedly, as Moses tells the people they must leave immediately and they don’t even have time to let their dough rise.  And Marror?  The bitterness of slavery – as it says in the Haggadah, שמיררו המצרים את חיי אבותינו – – the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors.

And the line that I love comes right after the marror section, where the Haggadah tells us that when we sit down at the seder table we have an obligation to see ourselves  – personally – חייב אדם לראות את עצמו – as if we had been slaves in Egypt, and we were actually redeemed from our slavery by God.

In many ways I feel that this is the most difficult of all the commandments we are supposed to fulfill at the seder table.  It is true that our patience may wear thin as we try to get through the telling of the story before we eat.  And if you have particularly hot horseradish for your HIllel sandwich that can be a difficult moment.  But these are things we can do if we choose to do them.  Being asked – for an evening -to actually believe that you were a slave and were given your freedom is far more difficult.  Forst of all it is a task of imagination, a task of the mind, which is hard to measure in and of itself.  We know if we’ve eaten the bitter herbs or not – but did we really feel like we were slaves?

And that difficulty is compounded by the fact that our experience, our lives, our day to day, is so far removed from the sense of oppression and persecution and degradation that marks the life of a slave.  When my grandparents sat at a seder table they at least had a sense of what that life feels like – they knew hardship, they were poor, they came from eastern Europe where they had been persecuted.  But the majority of Jews today have an entirely different experience – we’ve grown up in comfortable homes, many of us never needing to worry about money, let alone whether we would have food on our table or a roof over our heads.  And that I think is our challenge at the seder table – growing up in that kind of comfort and privilege, how are we to fulfill the command of tasting the experience of slavery?

And to try to answer that question I would like to turn for a moment to a theological conundrum that is tucked into the very end of the Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meals that is traditionally recited after the seder.  What is a theological conundrum?  Essentially a problem with God, or maybe better stated a problem with how God seems to work or not work.  The problem stems from a verse that actually comes from Psalms, the 37th Psalm if you are keeping track of these things, and it appears in the very last paragraph of the Grace After Meals, in fact it is the second to the last sentence.  Anyone know what it is?  נער הייתי גם זקנתי ולא ראיתי צדיק נעזב וזרעו מבקש לחם – I was young, and now am old, YET I have never seen a righteous person forsaken or his children  begging for bread.

So what is the theological problem here?  It is not true.  In fact, the opposite is true!  We have all seen a righteous person who has had terrible sadness and pain in their life, who had to struggle with illness, or loss, or failure, or poverty.  The list could go on and on.  The verse from the Psalm seems to indicate that if you are righteous your life will be good, but we know that there is not really a connection between those two things – a person might be righteous and have a difficult life.

Now I am not the first person to recognize this problem in the Grace After Meals, in fact a tradition developed over time to not even say that line out loud, or to whisper it when the Grace After Meals is being sung.  Because what if you are singing the prayer and right at your table is a righteous person who is poor?  You don’t want to throw this idea right in that person’s face.  You would be implying that maybe they aren’t righteous.  Maybe they’ve done something wrong to deserve their sorrow.  So you whisper.

But I would like to suggest a different way of understanding the problematic verse that may enable us to say it out loud without concern at our seders tonight, and also might help us in some way to reconnect with, or at least to remember in a more powerful way, the experience of slavery.  To arrive at that different understanding we have to redefine one word in the verse, the verb ראיתי which means ‘I saw.’   You remember the verse?  I was young, now am old, yet have never seen a righteous person forsaken – לא ראיתי I have never seen it!

That same word – raiti – is used in a very different way in the book of Esther.  You may remember the famous scene in Esther where she musters up her courage to enter the King’s throne room uninvited to plead for the Jewish people.  The King extends his scepter, and then Esther speaks so movingly to him he decides he will annul Haman’s decree, and the Jews will be spared.  At the very end of her speech she says this:  eichacha uchal v’raiti – how can I bear to see the destruction of my people.  And how can I bear to see the destruction of my family?  And in that verse, the verb raiti, repeated twice, has a very different meaning than it does in the Grace After Meals.  Esther is saying ‘how can I stand by, and watch, and NOT do anything?’  It is a rhetorical question – what she is really saying is I cannot stand by and see this, and not do something about it.  And with Esther’s understanding of the verb the problematic line from the Grace After Meals might be translated this way:  I was young, and now am old but I have done my best NOT to stand still and watch while others suffered.

That is not a bad message to bring in at the end of a seder.  Stuffed with food, grateful for our lives and our blessings, we say ‘yes, we’ve eaten, we have so much, but that has not made us insensitive to the suffering of others.’  I like this interpretation in part because it ties in to the beginning of the seder, when we say ‘ha lachma anya‘ – this is poor person’s bread.  We open the seder reminding ourselves of the needs of others, reminding ourselves that there are still poor people in this world, perhaps even in our community, perhaps even in our family.  And we conclude the Grace After Meals reminding ourselves of the same thing.  Maybe even more important at the end of the seder when we are full from the food we’ve eaten and might be tempted to forget that others don’t have what we do.

With this new understanding, the verse also reminds us that there is still suffering in the world.  Even if we don’t feel it or experience it in our own lives, it is all around us, and we have a responsibility to work to alleviate that suffering.  And in doing that work we are brought into closer contact with struggle and suffering, and that should help us remember what it feels like to be a slave, to experience bitterness and hardship  – and through that sense to be even more grateful for the freedom that this great holiday celebrates.


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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Jewish festivals, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, sermon, Uncategorized

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