Of all the words we utter at the Pesach seder, the word k'ilu (it's translated as two words, "as if") rings most important. The word is found in Rabban Gamliel's Mishnaic declaration: "In every generation, every person is obligated to see himself or herself as if he or she personally went out of Egypt."
"As if." This phrase signals the rabbis' awareness that, in every generation, our situation is not identical with that of our ancestors. We have to enter an imaginative space in which we suspend disbelief. We have to imagine ourselves in a different reality.
This act of imagining works in multiple directions. In one way, it reveals realities that otherwise remain hidden. By imagining ourselves into the story, we see the suffering in our own lives and in the world that we might otherwise miss: By talking about the suffering and liberation of our ancestors and imagining ourselves among them, we open our eyes to the power of those forces in the world we inhabit. The power of story and symbol can illuminate those things we often prefer to keep in the dark. It leads to empathy.
But imagining can lead us to conceal as well. It allows reality to become symbol. For many, the verse in the Haggadah — "Kol dichfin yeitei v'yechul," "Let all who are hungry come and eat" — has come to be understood as referring to people who are spiritually hungry, just as those who are oppressed within Mitzrayim (Egypt) become people who are confined within the narrow straits (meitzarim) of lack of authenticity.
Though we might open the door, do we really go out and find hungry people? In rare cases, perhaps we do. But for most of us (as my rebbe Avi Weiss used to say to us in yeshiva, "I'm talking to myself and letting you listen"), we allow the imaginative play of the seder to remain a work of theater. We let the words affect our inner lives, but we rarely act on them in real time; we don't search for hungry people to share the meal. Our empathy remains a work of imagination, its ethical impulse confined to the theater of the seder night.
What keeps many from actually inviting in poor, hungry persons is fear for our safety. And that's ironic, given that Pesach is called Leil Shimurim, the Night of Watching, when we are told to go to sleep with our doors unlocked, confident in God's protection.
Perhaps we're concerned for our safety within our own homes. But more likely (at least for me), we fear confronting the gap between the hungry person's reality and our own.
Suppose we take kol dichfin seriously, and invite poor persons inside. What happens at the end of the night? How do we say, "Thanks for coming" to someone who has no bed to go to in order to sleep? And if we do invite them to stay for the night, how do we make sense of the moment when we tell them they've worn out their welcome? Or even if they're not homeless, but simply hungry, how do we justify not inviting them back whenever they need to come? On what moral basis can we do so?
The real fear, then, is the moment I realize that I'm not as good a person as I thought — as I hoped — I was. It's the moment when my identity is tested. Here I thought I was a generous Jew, and it turns out that when confronted with real hunger, real need, I don't have what it takes. I can't bring the hungry person into my own home to feed him.
Playwright/poet Bertolt Brecht wrote of the man on the corner of 26th and Broadway who offers the homeless a bed for the night. It won't solve the problem, he says in his poem, A Bed for the Night:
"But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway."
One mitzvah is a step on the road to geulah (redemption). But at the same time, as Brecht writes earlier in that same poem:
"It won't change the world
It won't improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation."
We live in an age without korbanot, sacrifices — or so we are led to believe. But perhaps the korban Pesach for our time is precisely this struggle: For one night, can we make a real, painful sacrifice? Can we confront our deepest fears? Can we invite the hungry in?
Rabbi Josh Feigelson is educational director of www.askbigquestions.org and a leader of the Evanston Orthodox Minyan in Illinois. This piece is reprinted with permission from Sh'ma (shma.com) March 2012.