Metaphor & Memory

Welcome to my blog! I hope to use this forum to share Torah thoughts, as well as perspectives on Jewish education and the Jewish community. In time for Pesach, my inaugural post is on the Seder. Enjoy!

Ha lachma anya is one of the most enigmatic passages in the Haggadah. The questions come fast and furious. Why is it written in Aramaic ? Isn’t it a bit late to be inviting guests to the Seder? Why do we seemingly extend an invitation for others to participate in the Pesach sacrifice, which ceased to be offered some 2,000 years ago? That invitation, moreover, even if viewed as hearkening back to Temple times, seems more a cruel joke than a kind invitation: halakha clearly stipulates that only one for whom the sheep was slaughtered may participate in the feast. Thus, the guest who joins at the last moment is not permitted to partake of the Korban Pesach! Finally, it is unclear where ha lachma anya fits into the flow of the evening: does it come on the heels of Yachatz - as an explanation of the broken middle matzah - as a prelude to Maggid, or both?

This past week, a colleague lent me Cynthia Ozick’s compilation of essays, Metaphor and Memory. In the eponymous essay that concludes the collection, Ozick tackles the meaning of metaphor, explaining that “metaphor relies on what has been experienced before; it transforms the strange into the familiar.” Metaphors enable us to draw upon previous experience to make sense of the present. When we encounter the needy, therefore, metaphors allow us to build on our previous experiences to identify with the individual in need.

Ozick goes on to credit the Jews, particularly in the wake of the Exodus, for introducing the notion of metaphor as empathy:

The Egyptians were cruel enemies and cruel oppressors; the ex-slaves will not forget - not out of spite for the wrongdoers, but as a means to understand what it is to be an outcast, a foreigner, an alien of any kind. By turning the concrete memory of slavery into a universalizing metaphor of reciprocity, the ex-slaves discover a way to convert imagination into a serious moral instrument.

Of course, this observation is not Ozick’s alone. As Nechama Leibowitz and others have noted, the admonition to love the stranger appears no less than 36 times in Chumash. Along similar lines, Rambam grounds our embrace of the convert in the notion that we are, from our inception, a nation of converts (see Hilchot Avodah Zarah Chapter 1, Letter to Ovadia the Convert).

Ozick’s essay helps to unravel at least some of the strands of ha lachma anya. Before beginning Maggid, we declare that the story we are about to tell is not only one of ancient history but of our destiny as well.

Moreover, ha lachma anya accents that this empathy is a key characteristic we have carried throughout our existence - in exile (thus the Aramaic, indigenous to Babylonia) and during Temple times (thus the symbolic invitation to participate in the Korban Pesach). And although the invitation, at this late hour, is both halakhically (in the case of the Korban Pesach) and practically (in the case of both the Pesach and the Seder meal) impractical, we seek to demonstrate that the key element of empathy is the spontaneous outpouring that emerges in the wake of the realization that “I, too, have suffered the same fate as the needy.”

In the words of the Ktav Sofer:

If each individual imagines as if he himself left Egypt, and remembers the earlier days when the Egyptians embittered our lives, and we only had bread and water… then each one will be satisfied with what he has and give to others as he is commanded. And with this one can understand the continuation of ke-ha lachma anya, that there is a mitzvah immediately after one sits at the yom tov table to call to the poor to join with him.

Ha lacha anya, then, sets forth the lessons we intend to learn from the story we are about to tell. Only once we have declared our underlying empathy, are we able to proceed with Magid. Before wading into history, the Jew begins with metaphor.