Making Pessah a royal celebration

Making a meal fit for royalty has become a Pessah tradition, but one that many cannot afford.

pessah plate 88 (photo credit: )
pessah plate 88
(photo credit: )
When the Jewish population sits down for the annual Pessah Seder with relatives, friends and guests on Wednesday night we'll retell the story of our ancestors' redemption from slavery in Egypt. One of the precepts of the Seder is that we celebrate this emancipation in the manner of royalty who are not subjected to servility. We lean on pillows while eating and drinking in the manner of monarchs of yore. Putting on a meal of royal proportions has likewise become a tradition, but it is one which, unfortunately, not all Israelis can afford. "It seems that Israel's politicians have preferred until now to ignore the growing poverty and misery and even transfer the responsibility for dealing with it to relief organizations," said Eran Weintraub, chairman of aid organization Latet, on Sunday. According to Latet, the number of people who requested food aid for this Pessah was up 28 percent from last year. Moreover, one-third of all Israeli Jews would find Pessah a financial challenge, the organization said, while 10% of them would not be able to hold a Seder at all for lack of resources. Latet estimated that 403,000 families live below the poverty line. And while it has done its utmost to provide food for them, its worthy goal of distributing 10,000 packages only addresses a fraction of the problem. These are not dry statistics; they represent real people, our relatives, friends and neighbors, people we pass on the street and our fellow passengers on the bus. And they constitute an imperative for action to help remedy the situation, not just at Pessah but throughout the year. As the Israeli economy has evolved from its socialist roots to embrace capitalism, it has also manifested some of capitalism's most acute phenomena - the creation of more wealth and resources, and the widening gap between rich and poor. Plainly more of those resources, whether they are in the hands of the government or private citizens, must be allocated to ensure that as many Israelis as possible can afford basic necessities. Judaism, of course, has a long history of stressing the importance of helping the needy, particularly around holiday time. We are told that the poor and the outcast must be invited to celebratory meals, whenever they are held. A special Pessah tradition was the collection and distribution of kimhe d'Pisha (flour for Pessah) to the needy to make sure they would be able to make matza for the holiday. In our day, many take it upon themselves to uphold the custom with donations of food and cash. A laudable example was set by President Moshe Katsav this week when he designated NIS 1.5 million from his discretionary fund for a Pessah food drive. As a result, 750 more families will have the means to buy food for the holiday. Another modern-day elaboration that some Pessah celebrants have adopted at their Seders is reflecting on what freedom means to them. For Israelis who are Holocaust survivors, such introspection is never far from their daily reality. Forced into slave labor by the Nazis and their allies or brutalized in death camps, they survived the ordeal to enact their own exodus to the Promised Land. But according to the Holocaust Survivors Welfare Fund, between 20% and 30% of the 280,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel struggle to make ends meet. It is a disgraceful irony that large numbers of them now face the harsh reality of not being able to afford to celebrate their ancestors' escape from Egyptian servitude. The Welfare Fund, established by survivors' organizations in the late 1990s, supports about 10,000 people on a regular basis and has distributed a one-time payment to approximately 80,000 more. However, there are roughly 43,000 survivors who require financial assistance for chronic care. While the Treasury recently pledged to increase its donations to the Fund from NIS 7m. to NIS 14m. when a budget shortfall threatened to shut down the Fund altogether, the amount the Fund has requested is NIS 50m. annually. The state must make it a priority to ensure the latter years of survivors are as comfortable and dignified as possible, before they die in poverty and the shame of their situation cannot be corrected. At the beginning of the Seder we say, "Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Pessah meal." This year, as we make this age-old declaration, we should ask ourselves if we are really prepared to feed those who are hungry and to help those in need. Doing so will justify a royal celebration.