A seasonal imperative to chew on
Purim is behind us and Passover, Pesach, is barely three weeks away. The two have little in common. Purim is a lighthearted “minor” festival whereas Pesach is arguably the most important of our three major pilgrimage festivals. Yet they do share something very important: the mitzvah of feeding the hungry.
To be sure, feeding the hungry is a mitzvah all year ’round, but it is a specific requirement on both Purim and Pesach. The Purim version is called ‘“matanot l’evyonim,” “gifts to the poor.” (See Esther 9:22.) The Pesach version is known as “maot chitim,” which literally means “wheat money.” We are required to see to it that the poor have the basic necessities on Pesach, including all the special requirements for the seder (see Mishnah Pesachim 10:1).
Our failure to do so, in fact, has serious consequences as the seder begins. The critical Magid section opens with this declaration: “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and observe Passover.” If we have done nothing to feed those who are hungry or in need, we begin the Magid section by declaring a falsehood. Donating —adequately if not liberally — to a synagogue or Jewish social service agency’s Maot Chitim fund, however, fulfills this requirement in a practical way.
Hunger, of course, is a serious concern every day of every year here, in Israel and around the world. It is estimated that more than 34 million people are food insecure here, including 9 million children. More than one in four Israelis are said to be food insecure, including one out of every three children there. Worldwide, more than 345 million people are considered to be food insecure.
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“Food insecure” is not bureaucratic double-speak. We all experience hunger at one time or another, often because we missed a meal. Food insecure is hunger on steroids. It is chronic, long-lasting hunger experienced by those who lack the resources to buy healthy, nutritious food for any meal.
New Jersey and New York have little to be proud of when it comes to food insecurity. Given their wealth, they should rank among the top 10 states with the lowest food insecurity rates. New Jersey, in fact, ranks as the second wealthiest state in the United States, and New York State is the 13th (although Manhattan and parts of Long Island are among the richest areas in the country). Approximately 750,000 people out of New Jersey’s more than 9 million population are food-insecure, including 238,000 children. Nearly 2 million people out of New York’s more than 20 million population are food-insecure, including 667,000 children.
Food insecurity affects people regardless of age, ethnicity, education level, or any other social indicator. Poverty is perhaps its leading cause, followed by unemployment. The higher the cost of living in an area, the more prohibitively expensive nutritious foods become for low-income households. Also, many low-income communities in the United States lack either the kinds of stores that sell fresh, healthy food on a daily basis, or adequate transportation systems that would allow low-income people to access those stores.
Hunger in America was bad enough before the covid-19 pandemic struck. The pandemic added exponentially to its extent. The organization Feeding America noted that the pandemic added 45 million more people to the food insecure roll, including 15 million more children.
There are all kinds of consequences — physical and mental — for anyone who lives with food insecurity, but children suffer the most. They are prone to long-term physical and mental problems, including stunted growth, anemia, obesity, and cognitive and behavioral issues (i.e., depression and anxiety, difficulties in concentrating, difficulties in learning). As they move into adulthood, these children stand little chance of success in virtually any area.
Let us be clear about this: Seeing to the everyday needs of a community’s poor, and especially the hungry among them, is one of the oft-repeated mitzvot in the Torah. Thus, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest….You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.” (See Leviticus 19:9-10. This law is repeated in Leviticus 23:22 and elsewhere.)
Deuteronomy 15:11 has God warning us that “there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.’” Shortly before that, we are told to set aside food for the poor “so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the enterprises you undertake.” (See Deuteronomy 14:29.)
The prophet Ezekiel said that one reason a person is called righteous is because he or she “has given bread to the hungry.” (See Ezekiel 18:7.) Not to do so, said Isaiah, is pure wickedness. Said he (see verse 32:6), “For the villain speaks villainy and plots treachery; to act impiously, and to preach disloyalty against the Lord; to leave the hungry unsatisfied and deprive the thirsty of drink.”
Our Sages of Blessed Memory often went even further: Dire consequences can result from ignoring the hungry. The Talmud, for example, in BT Taanit 21a, offers an insightful (albeit graphic) discussion between Rabbi Nachum of Gimzo, who was famed for his righteousness, and his students. He was bedridden, having become blind and lame, and his body was covered in boils. His students could not fathom why so righteous a person would be forced to suffer so.
“I brought it upon myself,” he said to them. He explained that he was once traveling to his father-in-law’s house with three donkeys in tow — one carrying food, one carrying drink, and one carrying various choice food items. While on the road, a poor person approached him for some food. He told the man to wait while he unloaded one of the donkeys. In the few minutes it took him to do so, the man died. Said Rabbi Nachum:
“I went and fell upon his face and said [as if to the man]: ‘May my eyes, which looked on your eyes without compassion, be blinded; may my hands, which had no compassion for your hands [by responding too slowly], be cut off; may my legs, which had no compassion for your legs [by also responding too slowly], be cut off….May my whole body be covered in boils.”
The Sages also had little use for the excuses people give for not feeding the hungry, even if they who are hungry are deemed able-bodied. Thus, we read in a midrash of a man who scolds someone who asked for help. “Why don’t you go to work and get food to eat? [You surely are able to do so.] Look at those hips! Look at that fat body. Look at those lumps of flesh.” God, says the midrash, was so incensed with the man that he, too, became destitute as a result. (See Vayikra Rabbah 34:7.)
What God demands of us may be summed up in a speech by Isaiah (see chapter 58) that includes these words: “to share your bread with the hungry.” If you do so, Isaiah said in God’s name, “Then shall your…righteousness go before you…; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon day; and the Lord shall guide you continually….”
Purim is behind us, and Pesach is before us. Even if we disregard the general requirement to feed the hungry during the rest of the year (a serious enough sin), we dare not do so now. We dare not sit down to our seder tables and begin the recounting of the Exodus from Egypt with a lie — by falsely stating that we have seen to the needs of “all who are hungry…, all who are in need.”
Leviticus 19:16 demands that we not stand idly by when others are suffering. As that chapter continues, it explains why we have such a commandment (see verses 36 and 37): “For I am the Lord your God who freed you from Egypt. You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My rules: I am the Lord.”
In the time left before we celebrate being freed from Egypt, we need to donate to a synagogue Maot Chitim fund, or to our local Jewish Family Services agency, or to Project Ezra, among other social service agencies. Consider donations, as well, to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which serves people of every race and ethnicity here and in Israel. Then there are such organizations such as American Friends of Meir Panim, Feed Israel, or Latet, each of which focuses on Israel’s food-insecure.
During the rest of the year, we need to consider donating to more general funds, such as Feeding America, No Kid Hungry, or a local food bank.
If we do that, not only will we begin our s’darim with a truthful declaration, but, as Isaiah put it, “Then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the
Shammai Engelmayer is a rabbi-emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is www.shammai.org.