Maroufa, 4, receives polio vaccination in Kabul, Afghanistan, during a UNICEF campaign, March. 5, 20
Maroufa, 4, receives polio vaccination in Kabul, Afghanistan, during a UNICEF campaign, March. 5, 2006. Photo by AP
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“Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all in need come and partake of our Pesach celebration.” This is one of the first phrases that will be recited at Passover seders around the world in just a few days. It is one of those sentences embedded in our tradition that is easy to say without second thought, simple to gloss over its critical importance and relevance to the modern day Jewish world.

What is this line about hunger, about eating, doing at the opening of one of the most important nights in our ritual calendar? Why start the seder, a chance to recall our nation’s beginning, with a call to feed the hungry? What does this have to do with our liberation, freedom from tyranny and commitment to God’s holy Torah?

One possible response to these questions and the centrality of this opening line from the start of our seder focuses on the idea that while we are free from the tyranny of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, free to worship and live out our Judaism in any way we choose, one aspect of our liberation still remains elusive: we are still in exile, still distant from the ultimate redemption.

In the words of Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, “The world is still so distant from the vision of the Torah, still alienated from the attainment of harmonious and compassionate living. Too many go to bed hungry each night, too many still die of illnesses for which there are cures, and too many suffer the deadening blows of bigotry and prejudice from their fellow human beings.”

Thus, the focus of hunger and need at the start of our seder reminds us from the outset that our work is not done. As free Jews we have an obligation to continue the work of Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World) under God’s holy rule. In this conception we have no choice but to start the seder with a focus on the needs of others, for what other purpose is our own freedom but to reach out to those suffering, those who are not free?

In the recounting of the Israelites redemption in the Torah’s second book, Exodus, Moses, on behalf of God, asks Pharaoh for the people’s freedom over and over again. If we read the words of the Torah closely, we see this is not a simple request to release our people from bondage, but instead a specific call: “Let my people go so they may worship Me.” In calling on the Israelites to be free from bondage in order to serve God, the Torah reminds us that our freedom is directly tied to our responsibility to our mission as the Jewish people.

The world in which we live is full of injustice, suffering, bondage and harm. So by starting our Seder with the words “let all who are hungry come and eat,” we are reminding the entire Jewish people of our task to feed those in need, physically and spiritually; to meet the needs of the downtrodden and those who suffer at the hands of others. We are only free when others are free. The journey through the seder night begins with words to implore us not to leave others to suffer. The entire human family is our responsibility. As we celebrate the liberation from the enslavement in Egypt we must confront the Pharaohs in the modern day world.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all in need come and partake of our Pesach celebration,“ is placed intentionally at the beginning of our seder, for it is the most important message of the Passover story. Its words teach us that freedom in Jewish thought is not a personal status alone but must compel us to become the passionate voice for the downtrodden and the outcast. Our ultimate job is not just to be liberated, not simply to celebrate our people’s freedom, but to become the liberator of slaves and the tireless defender and protector of those who suffer from spiritual and physical hunger.

Elianna Yolkut is a Conservative Rabbi teaching Torah and celebrating Judaism in New York City. You can reach her at www.keepingkavannah.blogspot.com