Once Suffering Strangers in Egypt, the Duty of Jews Today to Hungry Strangers- D'var Torah by Howard Tarkow
Shabbat Mishpatim, January 29, 2022
Click here to learn more about MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
They are known as “food insecure.”
They are the households that, at times, do not know if they will have enough nutritious food to eat, or have the money to buy it.
In 2019, before the pandemic, more than one in ten American households were food insecure.
The number was higher in households with children.
The number was higher in households with one parent.
The number of Americans living in food insecure households before the pandemic is incomprehensible: 38.3 million.
As the pandemic dragged on, it pushed tens of millions more Americans into food insecurity.
38.3 million food insecure Americans before the pandemic? Double it now, says the respected nonpartisan Brookings Institution.
The number of food insecure households with children before the pandemic? Triple it now, says Brookings.
Second Harvest Heartland reports that one in ten Minnesotans expects to face hunger in the coming months. Direct assistance from food shelves, shelters, meal programs, and after-school programs feeds over 500,000 people in Minnesota every year. Many will seek food help for the first time in their lives.
Who are the tens of millions of Americans who are food insecure?
We know they are out there, so for decades, members of our congregation have snapped up grocery bags on the way out of Rosh Hashanah services, brought them back full on Yom Kippur, and filled that big semi-trailer in the parking lot for STEP, the Saint Louis Park Emergency Program.
So, yes, we know of them, but, if you are like me, we don’t know them.
They are strangers in our midst.
Last week, we read of the thunderous giving of the Ten Commandments. The Parsha this week is Mishpatim, a far less dramatic recitation of rules for the Israelites to follow for living in the Land of Israel and creating a just society there.
Among the rules of Mishpatim are humanitarian laws of social responsibility, justice, and compassion.
In Parshat Mishpatim, we also read the first two of thirty-six times in the Torah the injunction to not oppress the stranger.
The verse Rabbi Kravitz mentioned in the poem by Ruth Brin-Exodus v-22, l-20: You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Note, the use of two verbs-wrong and oppress-to emphasize the strictness of the prohibition.
Exodus v-23, l-9: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.
Rabbi Fred Schwartz of blessed memory, formerly at Mount Zion Temple in Saint Paul, wrote in his great work “Teacher of Torah,” that the “high point” of Mishpatim is that legislation concerning the stranger. Rabbi Schwartz asks, Is it necessary to include the last phrase that reminds us that we were once strangers in Egypt? His answer to his own question is yes, so that today, we deepen our sense of compassion, and remind ourselves of times in the past when we Jews did not fare very well.
The poor today might be strangers, but Mishpatim commands us to remember the past, when that was our lot, and to comfort them.
Throughout the Torah, and our other sources, the Jewish view is that there is nothing in the world worse than poverty. It is the most terrible of all sufferings. On this Shabbat Mishpatim, the Torah implores that we see the millions of our fellow citizens who cannot afford enough food, or enough of the kinds of food, to meet their household’s nutrition needs. The Parsha seeks to instill in us a sense of humility, to more fully experience empathy and compassion for others: The strangers-the invisible poor-the food insecure whom we do not know. When we advocate for them and try to raise awareness of hunger, we are doing what Mishpatim commands, to ask all who will listen to be empathetic-to have some rachmones-for the hungry strangers. We may not know the hungry strangers, but we see them in our midst. I don’t mean the solitary individuals holding cardboard signs on street corners and at intersections.
Shockingly, and indefensibly, food insecurity is persistent among currently serving military families. Food pantries operate on or near just about every military base in the country. Demands on them from junior personnel are at an all-time high. More on that in a few minutes.
Like these and other people, Jews have frequently experienced hunger.
Because of famines, Abraham was forced to go to Egypt. Isaac went to the land of Abimelech, king of the Philistines. The children of Jacob went to Egypt to buy grain in order to avoid death. Pogroms, ghettos, the Holocaust, Jews have been hungry. Jews know the sorrow of hunger.
From our own experience with food insecurity, the verses of Mishpatim support Jewish involvement in efforts to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. There are important strategies to fight food insecurity. One is ensuring that all people have access to nutritious food, now, when they need it. Our Adath has a rich legacy of helping to meet that need. For decades, led by our Hesed Committee, we have collected food and household items. In 2018, our holiday effort brought in over 5,000 pounds for the shelves at STEP.
In 2021, we raised almost $4,000 in cash donations to STEP.
But donating to direct service providers like food pantries that provide vital emergency services cannot possibly address the full scope of hunger, and philanthropy was never designed to do so. The charitable sector collects less than ten percent of what it takes to fight hunger.
So, another strategy addresses the reality that much more is needed to confront and address the systems and policies that allow hunger to persist, and develop and advance long-term solutions to ending food insecurity. That takes marshaling political will and leadership to bolster and protect federal and state nutrition programs and policies that are the country’s frontline defense against hunger, and have the capability to reach the tens of millions of households struggling with food insecurity in a way that philanthropy’s resources alone simply cannot succeed.
At MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, our mission is to apply our Jewish values to the central belief that regardless of a person’s circumstances, no one deserves to be hungry. MAZON is not a food shelf. MAZON was the first organization to rally the American Jewish community around ending hunger, and MAZON remains the only national Jewish organization dedicated exclusively to advocating for an end to hunger among people of all faiths and backgrounds in the United States and Israel, and to educate policymakers, the public, and the media to build partnerships and coalitions to raise awareness about hunger.
The bedrock of MAZON’s work is tzedek, the pursuit of justice, and the value of Bit-SELL-em Elohim, respecting the inherent dignity of every person, addressing the root causes of hunger, and changing the circumstances to strive to end food insecurity. MAZON is guided by the wisdom and compassion that Mishpatim requires of us.
MAZON is fortunate to have built an extended family of nearly 700 synagogues, Adath Jeshurun among them, and tens of thousands of donors, including many in our congregation, who share the commitment to end hunger in the United States and Israel.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, the celebrated moral thinker and globally renowned intellect of Judaism, gained fame in secular society and in the Jewish community as a sought-after voice on many topics, including issues of war and peace and ethics. In his title, The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Sacks wrote that poverty humiliates, and a good society will not allow humiliation.
SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. It is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program. Thinking of the words of Rabbi Sacks, one of the most important things that MAZON has done in its thirty-six years of existence has been to work to debunk humiliating stereotypes of the poor who are beneficiaries of SNAP and other nutrition programs and resources…that they are lazy…that they are freeloaders…that they abuse the system...that they cheat. Those old canards are unconscionable.
The federal government’s own studies prove these characterizations to be false, and to be cruel. In 2019, almost 9 out of 10 SNAP beneficiaries were those who struggle the most. They are households with children, elderly, or persons with disabilities. Most had income at or below the federal poverty level. Most do not receive cash welfare benefits. Here in Minnesota, the StarTribune has reported that one in 14 residents, over 400,000, received SNAP benefits. The majority are families with children, and working families, and many were families with elderly or persons with disabilities.
MAZON has worked with policymakers and community leaders to protect and strengthen SNAP and other nutrition programs, and has advocated for public policies that address the root causes of hunger and dismantle barriers to assistance for millions of Americans.
Remember I spoke of the shonda of food insecurity in military households? It was MAZON that has shined the spotlight on this complex problem for ten years. There are flaws in the system of military pay. Compared to more senior members, and those of the past, pay for those entering military service today does not go nearly as far as it did for their predecessors, because they are more likely to support families than previous units of armed forces. They also face unique financial challenges including high spousal unemployment, lack of access to affordable childcare, and frequent relocation.
MAZON has long forcefully advocated to federal lawmakers and officials to understand and fix the problem of food insecurity in today’s military families. Last year, MAZON released a report that offers reasonable recommendations for how the nation’s leaders must address military hunger, so that military families are not stigmatized, they are not cut off from essential nutrition assistance programs, and their pay meets their needs.
MAZON’s work in this area has earned bipartisan praise, and inroads have been made this year to cut into food insecurity in the military, but much more needs to be done. It shows though what effective advocacy can do to make progress in solving the root causes of hunger.
MAZON does much more to promote the end of barriers to participation in food assistance programs, and champion responsible government policies to end hunger and address its root causes. If you are interested in learning more, please visit mazon.org.
The rules of Mishpatim are a measure of the moral health of our society, informed by compassion, in which the spirit of justice breathes freely. Rules are not enough. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that law itself cannot guarantee a just society until it is reinforced by the moral commitment of all of its citizens, motivated by a conviction that God cares and demands that we act ethically.
Today, many in the American Jewish community have attained wealth and privilege. The opportunities that have come with prosperity and the lessons of our history continue to motivate and inspire the work of MAZON. Our founder intended for MAZON to be the bridge between the relative abundance of the American Jewish community and the desperate need felt by millions of hungry people.
So, on this Shabbat, we are to know the heart of the stranger, and continue to know of and see the poor. For we Jews were strangers in the land of Egypt, and we Jews are no strangers to hunger.
To learn more about MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, click here.
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