sharing the poor bread…

Been thinking a lot about the nature of sacrifice, giving, relationship and redemption (such is the nature of holy week),  and stumbled across this today – inspiring stuff by Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg:

At Yachats we split the middle matsah and recite Ha Lachma Anya – “This is the bread of poverty – let any who are hungry come and eat, let any who need come and make Pesach.”

In my family, we follow the Syrian custom, taking a whole, round hand-made matsah and breaking it very carefully into one big piece like a dalet (imagine an open-mouthed Pacman) and a small piece (the yod) that is maybe 1/4 or at most 1/3 of a circle. Holding up this very broken-looking piece and reciting these words is quite a stark image, and it struck me in a new way last year. According to our words, we aren’t inviting all those hungry people to share in the feast that will follow, or even to share the afikomen that makes up the bigger half. The invitation is very literally to eat a fragment of a broken matsah that wouldn’t even be enough for one person.

What does it really mean to hold up this small piece of matsah and invite anyone who is hungry to come share it? I know we can come up with answers from religious texts, Kabbalah, etc., to explain the spiritual or symbolic meaning or kavanah behind this, but very concretely, what would it be like to really only have a crust, so to speak, and to share that piece with another hungry person? That is the question I held with me all night through the first seder. Here are two answers:

1) Some people are most generous when they feel they have more than enough for themselves. Maybe I’ve set aside ten quarters to give out as I stroll down Broadway in the Upper West Side, knowing that I have ten dollars in my pocket for my own needs. Maybe I gave $200 to a charity knowing that a lot of that would go to taxes if I didn’t disburse it myself. This act of giving creates a hierarchy, where one person is a benefactor and a recipient. But homeless people also give to each other, and even the poorest person is mandated in Jewish law to give tsedakah. Economically, sharing the lechem oni, poor bread, means that we invite other hungry and needy people to truly join us, as equals in our poverty. On a spiritual level, we invite others in despite our broken, limited perspective, without pretending to be able to see or understand the whole picture. In both realms, it makes sense to imagine that this action could make us free people, b’ney chorin.

2) We live in a society in which everyone wants a “whole share” – enough stuff for themselves and their family to feel self-sufficient, and enough to feel equal to everyone else, with a little more to spare. If this is what it means to have “enough”, then all the world can’t provide enough cars and TV’s and 3 bedroom homes on 1/4 acre to take care of 6 billion people’s needs. To do so would mean developing the entire world around us into either resources for consumption or places for people to live. If we only give when we ourselves are whole, that is what we model. If we give when we have less than a whole, if what we offer is enough to enjoy another person’s company, but not more, than what is left for the earth and the other creatures is the bigger share. And in the end, all of it comes back to us in an abundance of what surrounds us, not of what we own, but what we fit into, a greater whole that is richer than any material riches. That is the afikoman, the bread of redemption.


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