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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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All who hunger, let them come and eat

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I want to share some fabulous news with you, and just in time for Passover: I’m about to become fabulously wealthy. It happened rather suddenly and through a series of wonderful e-mails cascading into my inbox.

It seem that a distant relative has passed away. Although I’ve never heard of him, I am – so I’m told – his nearest of kin, and poised to inherit a substantial fortune. I will receive the first instalment any day now, just as soon as I transfer a transaction fee into a Nigerian bank account. And by uncanny coincidence, I’ve been asked to help a widow in Somalia by depositing a large cheque into my bank account and wiring her a mere 20 per cent of that amount immediately.

While I don’t have these funds in hand just yet, the prospect leaves me feeling flush enough to wire several thousand dollars to each of several friends in dire straits. Although I haven’t heard from any of them in years, I received e-mails from them only yesterday. They each tell me they’ve been pickpocketed in London. Yes, they lost everything – cash, credit cards, passport, airline tickets. They’re stranded without a sou. Tough place, London.

Those of you with e-mail accounts – and, really, is there anyone out there who doesn’t do e-mail? – are surely nodding your heads. We all receive such scamming invitations in our inboxes. And even when we can’t quite figure out how they work, we know enough (I hope) not to take the bait.

This week I received a particularly shameful variation on the theme. In it, someone claiming to work for a Swiss bank in charge of dormant accounts explains that he has uncovered a secret account that belonged to someone murdered in the Holocaust who has no living heirs. My correspondent is prepared to give me the information I require to identify myself (fraudulently, one presumes) as an heir to the “Holocaust Claims Processing Office” so that he and I collect and share $21 million.

My first thought was that the letter was disgracefully targeting Holocaust survivors and their families, who may indeed have lost all their possessions during the war. The language of the e-mail suggested that it involved a legitimate organization concerned with following through on such property claims. Perhaps I received it because the sender trolled various lists for Jewish names, hoping to reach someone made vulnerable and gullible by difficult personal circumstance.

As I reread it, however, it occurred to me that the target of the scam might fit an entirely different profile. The e-mail played, I think, on antisemitic stereotypes, and fantasies that the doomed Jews of Europe were fabulously wealthy – I mean, $21 million! And the (presumably) fabricated name of the bank employee was a German name, not a Jewish one. The offer tendered in the e-mail was not to repatriate the funds to their proper heir, but, in essence, to help someone pass himself off as an heir, even though he was not. In other words, for someone taken in by the e-mail and convinced of its accuracy, the goal was to defraud the family who had a legitimate claim to the account.

“Who falls for these things?” I hear you ask. The needy and the greedy, who both hunger, empty and vulnerable, but in different ways.

And as Pesach approaches, it occurs to me that our vulnerability to the fantasies inspired by such scams (if not to the scams themselves) comes from a kind of enslavement that the holiday pushes against.

Our seder ritual begins by announcing our responsibility for that hunger and emptiness. Halachma anya, we begin: this poor bread, our matzah, sign of both our enslavement and our redemption. However meagre it may be, we offer to share it. In giving away what we have to those whose neediness is a physical thing, a mark of poverty, we let go of a different kind of neediness – one that sometimes causes folks to hoard things for themselves alone, and to prize objects and acquisition more than people and values.

Let those who hunger come and eat. In feeding them, we nourish ourselves.

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