A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… before I was a rabbi… I almost got arrested one day for taking down a sign in the New York City subway that was part of the city’s campaign to get people to donate to charities rather than giving money directly to “panhandlers” in the subways and on the streets. Now, one could easily debate both sides of the wisdom of this advice, but here was my problem. One version of this campaign took the form of a poster strategically placed directly above and behindthe seat by the door. The poster was composed of one of those cartoon “thought bubbles” so that if you sat in that seat, it would seem as if you were thinking those thoughts. Here’s what it said: “Oh, no, not another panhandler… I hope he doesn’t stop in front of me… Please don’t let him stop in front of me… All I want is to go home in peace.”
Now, granted, we all sometimes suffer from “compassion fatigue”. But this poster trampled upon not just the dignity of the person who is hungry, but also on the dignity of whoever sat in that seat – every-day people who just want to do the right thing. I was incensed at the arrogant and callous presumption that this is what New York subway riders were all thinking when people came through subway cars asking for money or food. It was certainly not what I thought – and I always made it a point to look each person directly in the eye – whether or not I gave them money. It was the least I could do, and I refused to allow them to become invisible in my eyes. So, one day, I pulled the sign out of its holder and ripped it up. Little did I know there were two undercover cops sitting in my subway car that day! Well, I didn’t get arrested, but I did get a ticket – which, admittedly, I deserved!
In the Talmud, there is a passage in which two third-century Rabbis, Rav Hunah and Rav Yehudah, debate the difference between the person who is in need of clothing and the person who is in need of food. Naturally, they take opposite positions, Rav Huna claiming that the need is greater for the one who lacks clothing; while Rav Yehudah says the greater need is for the one who does not have enough to eat. As they make their arguments, it becomes clear that for Rav Huna, the shame of having no clothes must be attended to first. In other words, dignity takes precedence over physical need. Rav Yehudah, on the other hand, places primacy on the raw physical pain of hunger; in other words, on the immediacy of survival.
Eventually, the anonymous narrator of the Talmud informs us that the law sides with Rav Yehudah, that is, the side of physical need. But, what also becomes clear in the generations of rabbis and scholars that follow is that this Talmudic discussion is as much an academic exercise as it is a legal one. Later Jewish commentators, from Medieval to Modern rightly ask the question: why are these two necessities of life, food and clothing, juxtaposed against each other in this passage? After all, where there is poverty, the need for food and clothing usually go hand in hand. One Hasidic Rebbe comments that this passage means that we must not be satisfied to live in a world in which some must exchange food for clothes or clothes for food in order to survive. And Rabbi Mimi Feigelson of American Jewish University asks this powerful question of our Talmudic passage: Whose shame and whose pain are we talking about? Are we talking about the shame and pain of those who are in need? Or, are we talking about the shame and pain of all of us when we allow a system to be perpetuated that pits the necessities of life against each other?
It seems to me that both the questions and the rabbinic argument itself are rhetorical. They are there to make us think and struggle with a world that is out of joint, with a system where there are haves and have-nots, and suffering can sometimes be random, or beyond our control.
But there are things we can do. There are things we must do. On Rosh Hashanah, I told you that I will be joining many of my rabbinic and other colleagues in taking the Food Stamp Challenge in which I will attempt to live for one week, the week before Thanksgiving, on the average weekly Food Stamp Budget of $31.50 per week. Why am I doing this and what good will this action do? At present, approximately 46 million Americans are struggling with hunger, and 22% of all children under the age of 18 are among those struggling. Over 15% of our population lives below the poverty line. This means that without the Food Stamp program, one in seven Americans will go hungry each day. And, at present, the funding for this essential program is under the threat of deep cuts. Not only that, but its funding has been kicked down the road by Congress until after the election, until after it expires, in fact – along with many other programs that either need renewing or reform that fall under the larger rubric of the Farm Bill.
We need to call attention to this gross injustice. And we need to put a face – our own – on poverty and hunger. Let me share what some of my colleagues who have already taken the Challenge have said about their experience:
First, from Rabbi Steve Gutow, President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs: Looking at my dwindling stash of food the last few days caused me strange sensations of fear, fragility, and questions about the world…. Eating my first non-food stamp meal yesterday at a New York… restaurant… where the meal itself cost close to $25.00, showed me in high relief what the challenge could not allow…. As a Jew I remember that in Egypt my people were enslaved thousands of years ago. Hunger is a form of slavery and my mind kept focusing on the time in Egypt…as I stared at the attrition of my food supply.
From Cantor Jack Chomsky: We move about our communities like ships on non-intersecting courses across a vast ocean, not realizing how many among us are really struggling to feed themselves and their families on a daily basis. The maze of public assistance in food and other resources is unknown to many of us — but is becoming known to more and more of us, even as powerful forces in our society seek to decrease the resources available to the growing number in greater need. I hope that our involvement with this project will enable people to see and feel more clearly — and to remove the stigma attached to those who receive help.
From Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service: As my week ends, I reflect further on what it means to be hungry in a world where there is more than enough food. My minor experience of feeling some hunger in the middle of most days begins to suggest what that might be like for those who are hungry all the time. And I am acutely aware of how much of our lives revolve around food, how much of our social and business events presume available food that we then tend to eat mindlessly. On a personal level, I hope to be able to stay more mindful about food, about hunger, about doing more to create justice in a world where too many have too little.
And from Rabbi David Young of Miami, Florida: For me, eating right and eating well are parts of my daily routine. I love fresh fruits and vegetables, and I love tasting new things…. I know that I cannot truly heed Isaiah’s message to share my bread with the hungry if I do not understand the hungry. To be honest I do not know if I truly understand. I have walked a mile in their shoes, but I was able to put mine back on at the end of the week.
As I said, my Food Stamp Challenge will begin the week before Thanksgiving – and we will see what thoughts it will provoke and what experiences it will bring me. At this moment, I take this challenge in honor of all those homeless and hungry individuals on the New York City subways who were made to feel invisible and unworthy by a callous ad campaign twenty years ago. And, I take it for the millions more since then in our country who live below the poverty line, some of whom work two jobs and still cannot make ends meet; others who are unemployed and uninsured; men, women, and children who go to bed hungry every night in a land of plenty. My hope is that the Challenge will lift the veil of invisibility from this massive injustice in our land.
I ask you on this Yom Kippur to go to the website on the back of your Supplements. Read about the Challenge. Help me meet my goal. Or, set up your own webpage and take the challenge yourself. (And while you’re doing that, please don’t forget to give something to CKS too…. This is a great community of warm and caring people and it needs all of our support – as well as our time and our ideas!)
Yom Kippur is about seeking forgiveness and making things right. Before this day arrives, we are expected to make amends for our own individual wrongdoings. But on this day, we confess our transgressions as a community. When we collectively recite the long list of sins in the Ashamnu and Al Chet confessionals, even though we personally have not committed each one, we are reminded that – like it or not – we, our government, and our corporations all participate in the global economy. We are reminded that we are all responsible for one another.
So, as we finish our day together of prayer and of personal teshuvah, let us also pledge to pursue a national and global teshuvah to build a new world of freedom, equality, compassion, and justice.
Keyn yehi ratzon. May it be so. Gemar Chatimah tova. May you all be inscribed for lives of goodness. Happy New Year!