In Every Generation - The Pesach Seder of Globalization, the Rich & the Poor

Rabbi David Seidenberg

In Every Generation —
The Pesach Seder of Globalization, the Rich & the Poor

By Rabbi David Seidenberg

Says the Haggadah: In every generation one rises up to destroy us, in every generation we must seek our freedom.

Among those who rise up to destroy us in this generation are those global corporations that turn their workers into sweatshop slaves and bring disastrous plagues upon the earth itself.

This may not be because the individuals who manage and own these corporations are wicked-hearted, but because the structures with which they operate move like the Pharaoh's chariot, now mechanized. It will take great acts of kavanah and courage to create from corporate globalism a planetary community.

What follows are commentaries on the Pesach Hahggadah, commentaries for our own generation. Yet they are not totally new; like most Jewish thought, they are rooted in the teachings of the past and take it up the spiral of change.

The comments are based upon Tsuf Amarim, a Chasidic commentary on the Haggadah, or on midrash.

Each passage begins with a quotation from the Haggadah, continues with a traditional commentary, and closes with questions from our own lives.

Ha Lachma `Anya "This is the bread of poverty...."

1. Enriching themselves — We were exiled because the owning class eliminated charity in order to make themselves richer.

[Note: "Lachma `Anya" is the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew term "Lechem `Oni". Both mean "the bread of poverty."]

It says in Lamentations, "Judah was exiled through poverty/`oni." The rabbis explained that this means exile came because the owning class of Judah refused to fulfill the commandment of "Lechem `Oni," giving bread to the poor. The wealthy eliminated Tsedakah/charity for poor people in order to enrich themselves.

Tonight we say, "This is bread for the poor/ Ha Lachma `Anya... everyone who is hungry can come and eat it," in order to fulfill the commandment of Tsedakah. Only by truly fulfilling this commandment, inviting poor and rich to the same table to share the samemeal, will we be redeemed.

* What does this teach us about a society where the rich corporations receive the charity of the people and the government puts its might behind eliminating the minimum corporate tax? What about a government where the rich can buy laws to help them make more money, even when those laws destroy the common wealth of the planet and the country?

What about when those laws allow them to pour toxins into the environment that kill children and destroy posterity?

The rabbis taught that our people was sent into exile because the owning class enriched themselves by denying the poor a share of the common wealth of society. How much more so a society where the owners of corporations enrich themselves by recklessly endangering the future of generations and shifting responsiblity for their own pollution onto the people?

"All who are hungy come and eat..."

2. The poverty of riches — redemption would never have come if we had to wait for people to satisfy their greed.

It says in Exodus that the Israelites took gold and silver from the Egyptians before the seder. Everyone must have had enough money to buy food.

How then could they have found anyone hungry to invite to the first seder in Egypt?

Rather, there were two types of people in Egypt.

There were the good people who took enough gold for what they needed and went right away to make their seder.

And there were the ones who couldn't get enough to satisfy themselves, who ran around all night trying to collect more and more wealth. They would never have sat down to make the seder, so the others had to say to them, "All of you who are still hungry for wealth," stop running after gold. Sit down and join us at the seder of liberation."

* While those who have enough keep running after riches to satisfy their greed, nobody can be liberated. To the part of us that is mired in greed with them, we say "Now we are here," in exile, because we are still running after wealth. If we can free ourselves from these illusions, then "next year we will be free."

The Four Questions: "What makes this night so different...."

3. The contradiction of the four questions — Are we rich people pretending to be poor, or poor people pretending to be rich?

The four things we do to make this night different don't really fit together. We bring out hors d'oeuvres and dip them twice, and we recline on pillows while sipping wine, like rich people at a feast.

But the hors d' oeuvres are paltry — parsley (or celery or potatoes) and dry matsah, and salt water is not a dip you see at a rich person's table. That's the essence of the question, "What makes this night so different, so unusual?" -— We're really asking "Why do we do these things that contradict each other?" Are we rich people pretending to be poor? Or poor people pretending to be rich?

Similarly, we could ask, are we slaves pretending to be free, or free people pretending to be slaves? That's why before the four questions we say, "Now we are here, now we are slaves/ hashta hakhah, hashta `avdey", but after the four questions we begin telling our story with the words, "`Avadim hayinu/ We used to be slaves in Egypt.

* Our society produces enough for everyone — we are rich and free because everything we need is here. But we are enslaved by the belief that some people deserve to be richer and some poorer; that responsibility means serving "the bottom line" instead of serving the highest ideals.

Someday, we will realize the truth of the four questions: that we are only pretending to be rich or poor, because there is already enough for everyone. We were freed once from Egypt, but as long as there is poverty that crushes the poor and wealth that insulates the wealthy, we will still be oppressed.

"And if the Holy One hadn't brought our ancestors forth, we would still be slaves."

4. The miracles of the Holy One were necessary to bring us out because we had assimilated to the lowest rungs.

According to the rabbis, the political and religious system of Egypt was so powerful that we were almost beyond saving. We had descended to the "49th rung of uncleanness" — of selfishness and acceptance of evil.

Had we descended any lower, all the miracles in the world couldn't have rescued us.

If we had stayed even long enough for "the dough in our kneading troughs to rise", even that much longer, then "we and our children and our children's children" would have been slaves to Pharoah for ever until the end of the generations.

* Our tradition teaches that the purpose of each human being is to serve God by doing right actions. Even wealth is only attained in order to serve these purposes.

What does it mean to serve a system that contradicts Jewish values, that tells us that the "right way" for companies to live is to be selfish, that treats profit as though it were a religious obligation? When we give rights to corporations by taking rights away from real human beings, what happens to the value of human life? What rung do we descend to?

"If God had only split the sea for us, dayenu, it would have been enough."

5. What happens to a generation that would build our own wealth by killing future generations?

The midrash teaches that when the Egyptians raced into the sea after Israel, Egypt's angel ascended to God's throne to defend them from being drowned. When archangel Michael saw this, he made a sign to Gabriel, who swooped down into Egypt and brought up a building block in which a Jewish baby was entombed. Immediately the judgment was sealed: the Egyptians were drowned in the sea.

The Egyptians devoted the lives of their workers to building grand edifices that would increase the power of Pharoah. They sacrificed the lives of the poor, and the generations of the future, in order to magnify their power and wealth.

Even in the heavenly court, where mercy is the rule, there could be no argument on Egypt's behalf. Pharoah's army merited instant judgment — what we call "midah k'neged midah" or measure for measure: since they had tried drowning the future of their slaves, entombing the children of the Israelites in mud bricks, they themselves were drowned on the muddy bottom of the sea.

* In Chasidic thought, being mired in mud is a symbol of materialism. When the people drown themselves in materialism, when everything serves the idols of wealth, we destroy our posterity and subject our own generation to judgment and destruction.

"This bitter herb — we eat it because the Egyptians made our ancestors' lives bitter."

6. The beginning of enslavement was sweet.

According to the rabbis, the beginning of our stay in Egypt was sweet; that 's why some Sefardim eat romaine lettuce: because it starts off sweet but the longer it stays in the ground the more bitter it gets.

We started off in Egypt as a privileged group, owning land and enjoying special status. Then as the world fell further into poverty, the rulers of Egypt enslaved all the local population and controlled the economies of every place in the ancient world. Instead of sharing the wealth, Pharoah used it to create debt and take over every person's property.

It was Joseph who administered this system of economic takeover. When a new Pharaoh arose, the Israelites came under the same system of control and domination. So the power which was sweet when it protected our people's wealth became bitter when it was used to destroy our freedom.

* The system of global economics is used to destroy the power of individuals and local governments to resist takeover by corporations. What will be left of our own freedom if this continues? How sweet will be the materialism so many enjoy when more and more freedoms are lost?

* Rabbi David Seidenberg now lives in Northampton MA, though he considers Berkeley his spiritual home. He holds a doctorate in Jewish thought focused on ecology and Kabbalah from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a member of Ohalah and the Rabbinical Assembly. David teaches throughout North America on theology, political action, spirituality, ecology, and Chasidic nigun. To contact him write to or visit his website,


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