Imagine you are sitting with your child who is engaged in leading a good life, and you think, “Should I tell her about this thing I am about to do? Or should I keep quiet about it, since she is doing what she can to walk in my ways, and this one, not my proudest moment?”
Have you ever had a moment like that?
This week’s torah portion, Vayera, has just such a moment. Right after telling Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child come this time next year, God is on God’s way to destroy the immoral cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
And Abraham, just as I think we would all want our children to respond, stands up and makes a case for justice.
This is the text that teaches us that to be a Jew, starting with the very first Jew, is to argue with God on behalf of those who cannot.
This is the torah portion that tells us that it is in our genetic fiber, in our nurturing, in our indoctrination from birth, that we must argue, must stand up for life, for the vulnerable, for justice.
And in keeping with this predilection of ours to be involved with the concerns of justice, the American Jewish World Service, one of the more impressive Jewish international organizations, called for the second Global Hunger Shabbat.
They have urged congregations throughout the country to spend tonight and tomorrow thinking about and creating action around global hunger.
I have to admit it seems somewhat incongruous to be doing this this weekend, as the nation and world mourns, experiences a little post traumatic stress, and begins to pick up the pieces after Hurricane Sandy, and as we prepare to vote or hear the election results next Tuesday – for those of us who have already voted. But hunger is always with us.
How can we turn our eyes from the images of Sandy, our hearts from the concern for our families and friends back East, and our focus on the people in the world who are starving even though we grow enough food to feed every single person, if only we could distribute it in some fair and affordable way?
Taking care of the hungry is a mandate throughout our sacred texts.
The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 3:17), that first layer of Jewish wisdom and commentary, finished around 200 CE, tells us that there is no torah without sustenance and no sustenance without torah — meaning that we can’t pay attention to moral issues, can’t lead a life of virtue if we are constantly hungry, searching for food (in line with Maslow’s teachings about the hierarchy of need)—but that we also can’t eat and can’t feed the hungry if we are not grounded in morality – they go hand in hand… If we are surrounded by greed, and businesses looking out for their bottom line before they look out for the greater good, then we can’t feed enough people.
Leviticus tells us that to build a holy nation, following in God’s footsteps, we must leave the corners of our field for the poor, and the Talmud creates a detailed description of what that means. How we not only must leave our fields open for gleaning, but we must do so in a way that does not embarrass the gleaners, that offers them dignity.
Rambam (Maimonides, our 11th century scholar) teaches us that the pinnacle of the ladder of tzedakah – think charity that is truly a requirement of justice – the pinnacle of that ladder is that we help someone gain the means to care for themselves and their families. That we teach them to fish, rather than feed them.
Thus, we can see that blending the Jewish consciousness around advocacy for social justice with the Jewish commandments to alleviate hunger makes this topic quite rich.
AJWS is a member of the Jewish Farm Bill Working Group, a diverse cross section of Jewish denominational, educational and advocacy organizations inspired by Jewish values to work for just U.S. food and agricultural policies.
The Jewish Farm Bill Working Group is – not surprisingly – working on making the Farm Bill, which will be taken up again in Congress during the approaching Lame Duck session, more equitable, more able to reverse hunger. The Group put forth six principles:
- Strengthen and expand programs that reduce hunger and improve nutrition in the United States. That our nation faces hunger and obesity is in some ways a national security crisis as well as an economic issue.
- Strengthen and increase investment in policies that promote conservation and good stewardship of the land. After the summer we experienced last summer, the profound drought throughout the Midwest, promoting conservation is essential.
- Reform support systems to enable farmers in both the United States and the developing world to earn sustainable livelihoods. This will ensure that we can be cost effective, and teach people to fish rather than rely on handouts.
- Protect the health, safety and dignity of those responsible for working the land.
- Promote research on clean, renewable energy sources that do not negatively impact food staple prices and availability or the environment.
- Reform the international food aid system in ways that encourage flexibility and promote local food security.
It is about this last principle that I want to speak about briefly tonight.
The Farm Bill is the place where we fund our international food support. In 2010, the U.S. spent more than $2 billion on food aid, reaching roughly 65 million people in the process (or about $30 per person). However, inefficiency and political decisions prevented us from reaching more people, and resulted in negative consequences to the countries we set out to help.
You can tell from these numbers, that even minor improvements in the system can allow us to help literally millions more hungry people. For example, studies show that current regulations and red-tape on U.S. Food Aid programs cost taxpayers almost $500 million per year (or a quarter of what we spend). Indeed, studies show that targeted reform to U.S. food aid programs could have enabled life-saving aid to reach about 17 million additional hungry people at no additional cost to taxpayers or almost the same number of people served for all of 2010.
In the last Farm Bill, four years ago, a pilot program was initiated to make some fundamental changes in the way our system operates. For example, it has been traditionally that the only food we would use for food aid was surplus food grown here, offering subsidies to farmers, and using American shipping lines to move the food to other countries.
Some obvious problems with this:
- The food would take a long time to get there – and the food has been known to spoil en route…
- It undermines the farmers in the areas where hunger persists, rather than helps them to build up their work
- It is much more costly to do it this way, so it prevents more food from being distributed
The debate over food aid, therefore, even when centered on costs, has very large, real-world, human consequences. In the final analysis, reform is about both spending our tax dollars more wisely and helping millions of real people whose lives are at risk.
The Jewish Farm Bill Working Group has worked diligently on behalf of the Jewish community on this issue. And now it is up to us. Do we sit idly by as our tax dollars are not stretched as far as they could be? Do we sit idly by as our neighbors – both here and throughout the world go to bed hungry tonight, and tomorrow night and next month?
We can brainstorm ways – in addition to the holiday food and clothing drive – to help both global and local hunger.
The easiest thing we can do is take some of the materials at http://ajws.org/reversehunger/101.html.
We can sign the petition at https://secure.ajws.org/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=592&__utma=1.1781998130.1335449491.1352066501.1352066662.32&__utmb=184.108.40.2062066662&__utmc=1&__utmx=-&__utmz=1.1352066662.32.5.utmcsr=google|utmccn=(organic)|utmcmd=organic|utmctr=global%20hunger%20shabbat%202012&__utmv=-&__utmk=259585930 to urge the House to listen to our concerns.
Maybe we could start a synagogue garden or offer space to others who would develop a garden to grow local, sustainable food for our neighbors in need?
Maybe we could take the Hunger Challenge — even as a group. In the hunger challenge, we agree to live on a food budget of $31 for the week, the same budget as one person on food stamps… I’ve read some awesome accounts of people who have done this, and it seems to really heighten their sensitivity to those who are insulted and derided as being takers.
If any of these ideas spur you to consider taking action, please let me know. If you have other ideas that you’d like us to consider, please also let me know. Let us not sit idly by.
 The Jewish Farm Bill Working Group includes Hazon, the largest American Jewish environmental group, whose name means vision; Mazon, the Jewish response to hunger; the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ); the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and AJWS.