The book Sleeping with Bread, by Dennis Linn and Sheila Fabricant Linn, begins as follows:
During the bombing raids of WWII, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them: “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”
The section of the Haggadah called Magid tells the story of the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Therefore, the question naturally arises: How does Ha Lachma Anya fit? This part is an invitation for others to join, to come and eat. It is usually thought of as a “golus” piece, introduced to the seder when Jews were in exile, giving hope that today we are slaves and next year we will be free. I suggest simply that the question is not a question. Ha Lachma Anya is the beginning of the story of the Exodus of Magid because it was the beginning of the story of the Exodus in Egypt. What I mean is, the invitation to come and eat was part of the original seder, an act of largesse by slaves despite their lowly status.
The Vilna Gaon makes an interpretation that provides a basis for this idea. When the Jews took items from the Egyptians, the passuk says “Vayish’alu ish el rei’eihu”. Rav Eliyahu notes that rei’a in Hebrew refers to another Jew. Therefore, this passuk says that Jews gave to one another! This interpretation is surprising because we cannot fathom that a slave had the wherewithal to give anything to anyone, either materially- they had nothing! – or morally- they could not see beyond their own survival instincts to give to anyone else! Perhaps the Gaon is saying that yes it took gumption for the Jewish slaves to ask anything of their masters (and to slaughter a sheep in front of them), but it took even more to ask something of themselves; it is one thing to receive but quite another to give. Thus, the Exodus began with an act of giving. The original seder began with an invitation to others to share their scarce resources, their lechem oni, their broken pieces of unleavened bread.
Linn and Linn go on to describe the meaning of the bread given to children of the Shoah. “The orphaned children slept with bread to reassure themselves that they would eat tomorrow as they ate today.” They survived the camps only because other prisoners had given their own broken piece of bread to them.
Viktor Frankl, the famed Austiran psychiatrist who was also a survivor of the Holocaust, wrote how this bread brought not just survival but also hope and freedom: “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They were few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of his freedoms- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Therefore, I believe that the first seder began with an invitation by slaves to others to join them in their meager rations. The poor slaves in Egypt who gave others their bread of affliction exercised their freedom choosing how to respond to their horrific circumstances- impoverished, deprived, and degraded and FREE to give even their last piece of broken bread. We begin our seder with Ha Lachma Anya to commemorate this original act of freedom.
The Exodus began with an act of freedom before the Jewish people even left Egypt.
Postscript: After I delivered this sermon, a congregant approached me and stated that his great uncle, a survivor of Aushcwitz, went to bed every night holding a piece of bread, and he made sure that there was always a piece of bread on his table.