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My husband Sam and I have been debating for about a year now whether we will take up the Food Stamp Challenge, in which we try to live for one week on the average food stamp allotment of $1.40 per person per meal. Sam refuses, knowing that he just couldn’t manage it. He does the grocery shopping; he knows how much we spend. I keep wondering—what would it be like to live for just seven days the way millions of Americans live every day? I make my donation to Mazon, a Jewish Response to Hunger, to the food bank, do other things to help. But to experience it, even for just a few days? We’re not there. I feel helpless as we prepare for the four million Americans who will lose the benefit that keeps them from starving as a result of decisions made in Washington, DC.
As those budget decisions are made, so are decisions that will lead to the termination of unemployment insurance for 1.3 million Americans who have been hammered by the Great Recession and its aftermath. We know that the economy still has not recovered sufficiently and that some jobs have disappeared forever. Rather than blame the victims, we have other options: we can witness, open our hearts, open our wallets, fight for justice. We don’t have to feel helpless.
This week we start to read the book of Exodus (Shemot), where we read about the oppression of the Hebrews by the tyrant Pharaoh. His fear of these Others led him to enslave them, and he “made their life bitter” with forced labor (Ex. 1:14). The people bowed under the hard work, the lack of freedom, but for a long time, they remained silent. Shifra and Puah, the midwives who would not acquiesce to the Pharaoh’s genocidal orders, were the first to refuse to be a part of the oppression. Moses, a young man growing up in the Pharaoh’s household, saw the evil and tried to help, only making things worse, through his killing of the slave master.
But it wasn’t until God heard the cries of the people, until they made their own voices heard, that their redemption began.
Ex. 2:23 The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. 24 God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
It was not until the people reacted to their pain that they could start the long journey to freedom. They had to name their pain. Sometimes we still sit in bondage—to our fears, our addictions, our anger, our bosses—and the pain is so great, so pervasive that we can’t recognize that it can change. It is as though the pain is the air we breathe. Even a modern Shifra or Puah can’t light the flame of rebellion until we understand that this oppression is not our fault, or entirely our fault, that conditions much stronger than an individual may be at play. Today we have tyrants who don’t recognize that a large proportion of people who receive food stamps are children, or that poverty is mostly not a result of laziness, but of conditions outside most working people’s control, or that mental illness is a disease, not a moral failing.
Whether our oppression is internal or external—physical hunger or emotional hunger, poverty of material means or of relationships—we so often need a strong hand, an outstretched arm to find our way out. Sometimes the most we can do is cry to heaven, and pray that someone is listening.
Let us listen together and offer our hands. Let us help the people in need, whether they are our sister, our neighbor, or a child living across the country who will go to bed hungry tonight, or a 55 year old who lost her job in the Great Recession and hasn’t been able to find another one, or a 23 year old who graduated college at the wrong time with enormous debt and no prospects, or someone struggling with mental illness and can’t hold down a job, or… you know. Let us listen and offer our hands. Let us take notice of them.