After 120 Years We Will Be Asked How Many People We Took From Slavery To Freedom [Parshat Vayikra By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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A man was enjoying a leisurely stroll one day when he came upon a beggar sitting on the street with a sign in front of him, written in both English and Yiddish. The fellow seemed happy and friendly and the two struck up a conversation.

“Tell me something, my friend,” he began. “Have you no family?”
“Of course I have a family,” replied the beggar. “Five children — all grown up and comfortable.”
“And why don’t they support you — their own father?”
“They would if I let them.”
“So why don’t you let them?”
“What,” cried the beggar indignantly, “and lose my independence?”

Pesach is now just over a week away, and by now the preparations are in full swing; the cleaning, scrubbing, shopping and cooking. Along with all that, it is important to remember something else that Jewish communities get involved with at this time, and that is called Maot Chittim — literally “money for wheat.” This is an age-old tradition of giving charity to ensure that even the less fortunate in society have the means to purchase their Pesach supplies, including wheat for matzot and food for Yomtov. The collection and delivery of this money is done in a discreet and often anonymous manner, as charity should be given.

Unlike the bittersweet joke about the “independent” beggar, having to ask others for things we need is a humiliating experience. Although what we have or don’t have is decided by G-d, our natural pride makes the receiving of help from others difficult for us, and anyone working in a charitable organisation will know that only too well. We try to give charity as anonymously as possible, so neither donor nor recipient will know one another, potentially causing embarrassment.

Passover is a time we are meant to relive the Exodus experience, to feel the exhilaration of release from slavery, and to celebrate the Seder meal as free men and women in a free land. One of the ways we re-enact that freedom is by extending an open invitation to the poor and homeless to join us at our seder tables. Indeed, one of the first things we say at the seder table is, “Kol dichfin etei veyechol — let all those who are hungry come and eat.” True freedom is when we can care about others as we care for ourselves.

Thankfully, most of us live a life of comfort and freedom. The closest we may get to reliving the Exodus experience is if we visit Israel this Pesach, where a plague of locust which has been devouring crops in Egypt is threatening to cross the border at any moment. Yet surely the point of reading the Haggadah and retelling the story is to make it relevant to all of us, every day. We don’t need to look far to see how many around us are still in a form of slavery, the slavery of poverty.

Living in poverty means leading a lifestyle where you are never free to do as you wish, or to go where you please. Your every move is dictated by how much money is left in your pocket, a constant battle for survival, a constant process of decision making – which things are urgent and which things can wait. Do you buy shoes for your children, or pay the rent? Do you buy healthy food or do you save on food to pay the electricity?

Poverty is soul destroying. It means you cannot give your family what they deserve – and it means you cannot give yourself what you deserve and need.

In this week’s parsha we read about the various offerings brought in the Temple.  These offerings could be brought from animals, birds, or even from flour and grain. Interestingly, there is only one voluntary offering where the person bringing it is referred to, not as a person, but as a soul (ve’nefesh ki takriv) — the flour offering of the pauper.

The commentaries explain that whereas most offerings are given from the purse or wallet, the poor family give the offering from their soul. When we take from the little we have and give that to others, G-d considers that to be as powerful as if we have offered our soul. When we scrape together a few coins to bring a meagre offering, and endure the humiliation of entering the Beit Hamikdash alongside rich and wealthy families leading expensive and choice animals — G-d considers that as if we have offered our soul, ve’nefesh ki takriv.

In the world we live in, wealth is not distributed evenly: Some have more than they need, some have exactly what they need, and some have less than they need. That should not remain the status quo … in fact that must not remain the status quo! Part of our obligation as humans is to ensure that there is no more poverty on Earth, that there are no longer people who go blind, or deaf, or die simply because they cannot afford to be cured. G-d wants the rich to give and the poor to receive.

After 120 years we will not be asked how many cars, houses or shares we owned, nor will we be asked how much of an inheritance we left our kids. We will be asked how much we helped those around us. How much of what we had we shared with others, and how many people we took from slavery to freedom.

That is what Pesach is all about; not the wine, the matza or even the coconut macaroons … Pesach is about real freedom from real slavery — and what we can do to make it happen. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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Rabbi Zalman Lent is a Community Rabbi in Dublin and director of Chabad of Ireland.


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