Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Ha Lachma Anya - Shabbat HaGadol

 “Ha Lachma Anya! This is the bread of our affliction! This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. All those who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate the Passover. Now we are here. Next year in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves. Next year we will be free!”

It’s a real invitation because in just a few haggadah sections we’ll literally break matzah and eat the festive meal, in theory, inviting others to join us in doing so.

The Association for Experiential Education understands experiential education as "a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities." The seder is certainly a Master Class in experiential education. 

Dr. Wendy Zierler, a professor at HUC also illuminates the impressive experiential pedagogy of the seder. The seder, according to Zierler, is an example of “liberatory education,” as opposed to “oppressive education.” It elicits questions and experiences by which one is opened up to learning. This is differentiated from a dogmatic lecture which deposits knowledge into a submissive learner. (  

This is an important pedagogic choice by the sages on a holiday that celebrates freedom. It is notably democratic and inclusive. Zierler points out that in addition to this model, various Jewish texts also discourage distinction between the rich and poor at the seder table. It is their way of expressing that this story is not reserved for the elites. This is in contrast to the Greek symposia, a contemporary of the seder when it was being developed. The seder itself is the manifestation of the freedom we are celebrating.

But seder-as-experiential-education-tool is hardly a modern take. We do a lot of imagining during the Passover seder: imagine being a slave, imagine the cries of the mothers who lost their children, imagine poverty. All of this instills an empathetic heart that should move us to action in our own time.

When it comes to the instruction of “all who are hungry, come and eat,” Rashbam (writing in 12th century France) says: “The way of the poor is to split bread, the poor need to share it. This act puts us in touch with the experience of those who hunger, that we might work in our day to share the resources we have and feed all humanity.”

12th Century sage Maimonides sees the sharing similarly. In his opinion, this is the moment to acknowledge our privilege. We should use this moment to check our own arrogance and greedy tendency to hoard resources. This is more than inspiration, “ha lachma anya” is our first experience of acting altruistically.

The matzah is perhaps the most potent symbol of the seder, an element that has been relatively unchanged by time. It’s the matzah they ate coming out of Egypt, it’s the matzah they ate in the 12th century and it's the same matzah today. 

And yet from the beginning of the seder to the end, the symbolism behind the matzah transforms. It goes from the bread that represents affliction to the bread that represents freedom. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks expands on this: “Matza represents two things: it is the food of slaves, and also the bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in liberty.” How can a slice of flat bread make the leap from slavery to freedom? 

Rabbi Sacks continues: “What transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others....Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer [their] bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown [themselves] to be 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. Bread shared is no longer the bread of oppression. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.” (

Tonight we will prepare for this act of empathy, this act of freedom, by working as a community to share our bread. Immediately after services, we invite you to take a cookie or two and then get to work making sandwiches for Open Arms Shelter in White Plains.

It is Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover, the Sabbath of Miracles. We start with a small act of redemption tonight, a springboard, we pray, to larger miracles, and bigger redemptions ahead.

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