THE seder is the most widely observed ceremony in Jewish life. At all of them there will be matzah, and an invitation to share it: “This is the bread of affliction … Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Does it not seem odd that this traditional expression of hospitality is voiced not when the elaborate seder meal is on the table, but much earlier, when there is nothing but dry matzah on offer? The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote once that he puzzled over this seeming incongruity. What kind of hospitality is it, he wondered, to ask others to partake of your “bread of affliction”? He discovered the answer in Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, one of the very first published accounts by a survivor of the most notorious Nazi death camp.
Levi recalled the frightful days of January 1945, when the Germans had fled the camp and the Red Army was advancing. Most of the prisoners still able to walk had been evacuated, dispatched on the brutal death marches westward. Only those too ill to move remained behind. For 10 days they struggled to survive on whatever scraps of food they could scrounge.
Levi, having found some wood and coal, worked to light an oven and bring some warmth to his desperate fellow prisoners. He writes: “When the broken window was repaired and the stove began to spread its heat, something seemed to relax in everyone, and at that moment Towarowski (a Franco-Pole of 23, with typhus) proposed to the others that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. And so it was agreed.”
Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the [concentration camp] said: “Eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbour.”
The offer to share bread “was the first human gesture that occurred among us”, Levi observed. “I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died changed from Häftlinge [prisoners] to men again.”
Levi’s words, wrote Sacks, provided the explanation he had been looking for: Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings.
One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us.
The bread of affliction and the bread of liberation are indistinguishable. It isn’t the matzah that changes. It’s us.
Extracted from: Matzah: Bread of Affliction, Bread of Liberation by Jeff Jacoby, AISH.com
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