Hachnasat Orchim

Parshat Tzav, April 8th

Pesach is fast approaching, a time when we will sit with our families and recite the famous passage from the Haggadah, “Let All who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are in need come celebrate Pesach!”

This ethos of opening our tables to any and all is reflected in Rambam’s Laws of Yom Tov (Ch. 6 Laws 18) “A person is obligated to be joyful (sameach) on the festivals together with his wife and his household and all his dependents, as it is said ‘Rejoice on your festivals, etc.(Devarim 16:14).’ When a person eats and drinks, they are obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow along with other poor and unfortunate people. However, if one closes the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks together with his children and his wife, and does not provide food or drink for the poor or those whose lives are embittered, this is not “rejoicing in the mitzvah,” rather it is “rejoicing in his belly.”  Of those who celebrate this way it is said, ‘Their sacrifices are like the bread of mourners, all that eat it will become impure, for their bread is only for their hunger (Hoshea 9:4).’”

Rambam is saying that beyond the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (hospitality) on the holidays, providing for people who are less fortunate and including them in one’s festivities is a necessary and intrinsic part of celebrating the holiday. If we fail to do this, if we throw a holiday party just for ourselves and our loved ones without including people who may be poor or isolated on the holiday, we are failing to properly observe the mitzvah of Simchat Yom Tov (rejoicing on the festivals). What should have been a holy celebration becomes something profane and disgraceful. “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” comes as both a reminder of the requirement to open our holiday meals to others and a verbal affirmation to the world that the doors of our courtyards are, metaphorically speaking, open on seder night.

This statement, however, does not appear in a vacuum. It is part of the paragraph Ha Lachma Anya, which we recite as we lift up the matzo at the beginning of the recitation of the Haggadah. “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is hungry should come and eat; anyone who is in need should come and celebrate Pesach. Now: here. Next year: in the land of Israel. This year: slaves. Next year: free people.” It’s easy to understand each component of this paragraph separately. We begin with a reminder that the matzo represents not only our liberation, but also the suffering we endured before achieving that freedom. Then we invite all who are in need physically or spiritually to join us. Finally, we express our confidence that exile and oppression are not permanent states, and fervently hope that they may come to an end soon – this very year.

But what do these statements have to do with one another?

The paragraph could have easily moved from averring that matzo is the bread of affliction to expressing hope for future redemption without the intermediate statement inviting strangers to the seder. Moreover, the invitation “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” seems to contrast strangely with our description of the matzo as the bread of affliction (who in their right mind would accept an invitation to share in the bread of affliction?).”

Perhaps, however, the invitation comes at precisely that moment in order to teach us something important. One might have thought that the mitzvah of sharing our simcha is the exclusive purview of those who are rich, free, and redeemed. That those who are poor or oppressed, or have not yet achieved full freedom and redemption might be forgiven for focusing on their own joy to the exclusion of others. The Haggadah rejects that idea by insisting that we invite strangers to share in our celebration immediately after affirming that we are eating the bread of affliction, and before we state that, “now we are in exile…this year we are slaves.” In doing so, it subtly lets us know that concern for others cannot wait until we ourselves have experienced redemption. In fact, generosity and hospitality are part of the path to redemption. Perhaps the very act of inviting strangers into our homes and including strangers in our celebrations is what moves us from exile to rootedness, from slavery to freedom.

This year we are here in exile, yet we invite the stranger to eat with us so that next year we may reach our homeland. This year we are slaves, but if we invite all who are in need to share in our celebration, then next year, perhaps we may truly be free.

Chag Kasher Vesameach!

Rabbi Garth Silberstein