Justice, Religion

Pesach, Poverty, and The Vilna Gaon

Over the last two nights, millions of Jews across the world recited the maggid, the story of the Jewish people. They began with this declaration:

Ha lachma anya – This is the bread of oppression, that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
All that are hungry, come and eat.
All that need, let them celebrate Passover.
Today we are here, next year in Israel.
Today we are slaves, next year we shall be free.

In his commentary to the haggadah, the Vilna Gaon takes this section, ha lachma anya, to deliver a discourse on the different types of poverty that exist in the world. Jumping off the word anya, the Gaon writes that there are 4 types of oni, oppressed person, and each is represented in ha lachma anya. In the spirit of understanding and fighting poverty and oppression this Pesach, let’s explore the Gaon’s 4 levels of oni.
1. The oni who does not have food to eat, who cannot sustain his life.  Today, we might call this absolute poverty. He is represented by the words kol difchin (all who are hungry), and our response is to feed him – yetei v’yichol (come and eat).
2. The oni who has food and isn’t in danger of immediate death, but is impoverished and cannot meet her other basic, societal needs. Today, we might call this relative poverty. She is represented by kol dizrich (all who need). Our response is to provide her with what she needs to perform the Passover seder – yitei v’yifsach (come and celebrate Passover).
3. The oni who is oppressed on a journey. Today, we might call this a refugee.  He is represented by hashta hacha (today we are here), and we are to answer by pointing him towards Jerusalem, or wherever his home might be.
4. The oni  who is afflicted by oppressive working conditions. Today, we might call this a migrant worker, a sexually harassed employee, or any worker who is denied her rights to compensation and workplace protections. She is represented by hashata avdei (today we are slaves), and we work towards the next year, when we are all free (bnei chorin).
The depth of the Gra’s thinking about different types of poverty, coupled with his identification of these timeless issues within the classic haggadic text is, to me, inspiring. His work serves as a call to deepen my intellectual engagement with social justice this Passover, and to deepen my commitment to pursuing it this year.

4 thoughts on “Pesach, Poverty, and The Vilna Gaon

  1. very interesting post!
    it would be great that in addition to providing a wiki link to a page on the vilna gaon (though most wiki articles on jewish stuff tend to be pretty poorly researched / not critical), you provided the source for the text you discussed.
    a zisn pesach.

  2. Hey Invisible,
    Good call. The source is the Vilna Gaon’s Haggadah, first commentary in the Maggid section (ha lachma anya). I only have it in hardcover and unfortunately I don’t think I can find it online.

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