“Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are needy, come and celebrate!” we proclaim without really believing that any poor person will take us up on the offer. Economic success and suburban location makes it highly unlikely that the needy will be outside our doors when we celebrate the Passover seder. Yet the proclamation does not ring hollow. It expresses an idea that lives on independent of the number of people who might respond. It expresses how our lives are enriched when we help others.
This idea is enshrined in the many laws in the Torah that advocate concern for our fellows, particularly the poor, the landless, widows, and orphans. It is an idea amplified by the rabbis who see that the person who gives ennobled as much as the person who receives benefits. And it is an idea reflected in both the Biblical narrative and Talmudic discourse.
For instance, the plague of darkness was total and intense. The scriptural narrative relates how “Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heavens, and there was thick darkness over the entire land of Egypt for three days. And no man saw his brother, and no one rose from his place for three days” (Exod. 10:22). The darkness was thick and palpable. Worse still, the darkness was paralyzing. No Egyptian was able to move. But there is a deeper meaning to the text conveyed by the term “no man saw his brother.” The plague of darkness was not merely an inability to see, the notably charitable Rabbi Mordechai Machlis explains, but an inability to see each other. When people become so self-absorbed that they do not see another, they live in darkness.
In discussing the appropriate time to recite the Shema in the morning, Talmudic opinion differs (Berakhot 9b). The Torah requires recital in the morning. But the beginning of morning is debatable. To be sure, with morning comes light. But how much light makes it morning? Rabbi Meir argues that when there is sufficient light to distinguish between animals of a similar species, it is morning and thus time to recite Shema. Rabbi Akiva refines Rabbi Meir’s view and argues that when there is sufficient light to distinguish animals of the same species. But others demur. The standard of sufficient light is determined by the ability to recognize a friend at a short distance. And Rav Huna endorses this latter view. What makes this choice any more compelling than the two previous ones is that it is based on social awareness. When you can see others, it is time to pray.
So while we may not see any actually poor person outside our homes when we begin the seder, the seder remains a call to see the poor wherever they may be.