Let's make this year different from all other years

By Richard Verber, March 21, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

When I was younger, my favourite part of the Pesach seder was reading about the 10 plagues. My family, not known for any particular theatrical prowess, suddenly found the ability for Oscar-worthy dramatic performances over dinner. Frogs would croak loudly, wild animals would roar through the house and hail would thunder down from the ceiling.

Although this might not form part of the traditional Haggadah text, it's certainly in keeping with the spirit of the evening. Seder-night is meant to be a sort of live re-enactment of the Exodus story. Luckily this is more Match of the Day type coverage; otherwise we'd be stuck around the table for seven weeks until Shavuot.

We're not supposed simply to read that the second plague involved frogs, we're supposed to feel as if we were really there. Since we didn't have the benefit of capturing the Exodus from Egypt on video, we use props to help. Maror represents the bitterness of slavery; charoset symbolises the cement in Pharaoh's storehouses and the shank-bone sits in place of the Paschal lamb.

We use matzah to represent the unleavened bread of a hasty escape. This is how the narrative part of the Seder begins. We raise the matzah and recite "Ha lachma anya - This is the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and celebrate Pesach."

There is enough for everyone but not everyone has enough

This Aramaic passage has been the iconic introduction for 1,000 years. It's a nice sentiment, reminding us to be more hospitable. Yet how many of us really intend to welcome a complete stranger into our home at such a late hour?

Unfortunately, "let all who are hungry come and eat" is impractical. It is announced only to guests already at the table; nobody in need can hear it. And even if it could be more widely heard, it would be impossible to fulfil. We know that the world produces enough food for everyone, but if everyone who was hungry came to eat at my Seder, the food would run out very quickly - even with my mum's cooking.

Perhaps we are not supposed to think about hunger so literally. The Talmud commands that, in every generation, we should see ourselves as personally leaving Egypt. Most of us aren't literally enslaved or going to bed hungry, but we are all slaves to something, and all hungry for different goals.

By announcing that anyone hungry can come and eat, we allow ourselves to craft a personal narrative of redemption from our own evils and oppressions.

Hunger is a modern form of slavery. One in eight people around the world will go to bed tonight hungry. Millions of mothers see their children stunted by malnutrition. Even though there is enough food for everyone in the world, not everyone has enough to eat.

We know the reasons for this scandal rest not only on the need to increase responsible, effective aid, but also on international institutions that force smallholder farmers off their land and allow some companies to dodge paying the taxes they owe to countries who need it the most. Government corruption and the need for greater transparency must be tackled too.

The Shulchan Aruch, the authoritative 16th-century code of Jewish law, says that those who are meticulous take care to say "K'ha lachma" or "Ha k'lachma" - "This is like the bread of affliction" - since the matzah we are eating is not the actual bread our ancestors ate.

We can suspend reality to empathise with our ancestors' suffering but this should remind us how fortunate we are today. Our oppression and redemption at Pesach shouldn't be an excuse to turn inward and forget the world around us. It should be a call for us to work for a day when all who are hungry can eat fully and nutritiously.

The matzah is an important prop in our Exodus re-enactment. It represents both our great suffering and how we overcame it. At the same time, it reminds us that the suffering that affected us in biblical times still exists today, and that we have a responsibility to end it.

This is why World Jewish Relief is part of the IF campaign - and we'd love you to join us. At the Seder, we look ahead to where we will be marking Pesach next year. This year there are those who are hungry. Next year may there be none.

Richard Verber is WJR's campaigns manager. For more information on the Enough Food for Everyone IF campaign, go to www.wjr.org.uk/if

Last updated: 4:40pm, March 21 2013