The hidden twist in ‘This is the bread of affliction’


“Ha lachma anya … This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Mitzrayim. All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Pesach. Now we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. Now we are enslaved. Next year we will be free.”

For many, these Aramaic words are a familiar part of the seder. They encapsulate so much of the Passover story, but hidden among them is an unexpected twist easily missed. The traditional narrative of the Haggadah moves us from slavery to freedom to redemption. The stories we retell around our tables prompt us to understand the responsibilities we carry by being the inheritors of our ancestors’ miraculous gains of freedom.

“Ha lachma anya,” though, adds a different dimension to our familiar narrative. The opening preserves the mention of slavery: the bread of affliction. The ending suggests redemption: next year in the land of Israel. We should then expect the middle section to describe freedom.

Instead, these opening words of the Magid section of the seder unexpectedly describe acts of welcoming and caring: All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. The words are so familiar we can miss this pivot.
Instead of mentioning freedom explicitly, the middle section jumps forward in its concern and offers us examples of how free people act. The Haggadah cannot imagine that we would be a free people without exercising those freedoms. Thus, it is the act of free people to welcome the hungry and extend aid to those in need.
The Tanach mentions the obligations to treat the stranger, the vulnerable and the needy dozens of times. Often, it is followed by reminders that we were once slaves in Egypt. Just one example is Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

As these lessons are brought to our current circumstances, though they are not easily implemented. Robust and nuanced debates arise around issues like immigration and refugees, affordable housing, access to health care and mental health resources. These policy discussions should have the benefit of our ethical vision of the world. Just as the rabbis of the Talmud debated, we will also debate how we allow our morals to shape our actions.

The Haggadah is just one Jewish book which highlights our ability to bring moral leadership to our communities. It is not enough to just tell the story of moving from slavery to freedom to redemption. We must also turn these freedoms into action.

Bring this challenge to your seder table. Be prepared to be surprised, inspired and engaged by your guests’ ideas for action.

Rabbi Greg Harris is head rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County in Bethesda.

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