We walked through the sea on dry land.
Elated, we burst into song: “The Eternal is my strength and might; God has become my deliverance.”
Then we looked forward and saw wilderness.
Eyes that saw God’s deliverance, looked ahead and saw nothing but sand.
After “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever!”
comes: “What will we drink” and “Why did you take us to this desert to die of hunger?”
Many commentators criticized the Israelites who left Egypt for their lack of belief. After the miracles they saw, how they could complain? Yeshayahu Leibowitz hit the bull’s-eye when he wrote, “the miraculous reality expressed by song of the Israelites after the sea split cannot create faith.” Human lives of faith are full of ups and downs, and it seems that no outside influence can imprint a soul with faith that is resistant to all of life’s vicissitudes. The Israelites who left Egypt certainly faced severe hardships – I hope I need not list them now. I want to focus on the future they saw before them: thirst and hunger.
An existential crisis by any standard.
Mahatma Gandhi said: “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
Bread was exactly what they lacked, for they had not prepared any provisions for the journey, and now were facing the wilderness.
What has changed?
Ostensibly, we live in a society of abundance but in Israel today about 18% of the population suffers from food insecurity, not necessarily starvation but rather consuming a diet that is neither nutritious nor balanced. A diet that does not promote good health, one that impedes the proper development of children, and can also make it difficult for them break out of the cycle of poverty.
On the other hand, 2.5 million tons of food, approximately 35% of domestic food production, is wasted in Israel every year; not eaten but consigned to the trash.
If a quarter of that amount were to reach the tables of the needy, it would be sufficient to close the gap and ensure adequate nutrition for all. The situation is similar in most of the developed world.
For the research, calculations and explanations of these figures, I refer you to Leket Israel’s report “Food Waste and Rescue 2015” (http://leket.org.il/) I had the opportunity to read it carefully and it was a depressing experience, as I realized how much food is wasted during the growth, production and distribution processes, and how it is financially disadvantageous for growers, manufacturers and distributors to rescue food with reduced commercial worth but full nutritional value and redistribute it to the needy. The structural challenges related to the Israeli and international economy would take too long to discuss and the possible solutions move into the realm of politics...
Therefore, I will focus on religious and personal aspects of the subject.
Less than a week ago we began the Seder with “All who are hungry, come and eat.” A recitation that sounds empty when read behind a closed door. The ceremonial statement should, at very least, make us stop and reflect on our duty towards all those whose table is not full of bounty on this night, too.
After many more ceremonial statements and a hearty meal, comes another reminder, one we should encounter every day, not just on holidays: the first blessing of Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals: “Who feeds the entire world with great kindness... Who prepares food for all the living.” We thank God by acknowledging that the world’s food resources are indeed sufficient for all its inhabitants.
The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote:
Saying grace would be an act of the greatest importance. To be able to eat and drink is a possibility as extraordinary, as miraculous, as the crossing of the Red Sea. We do not recognize the miracle this represents because we live in a Europe which, for the moment, has plenty of everything, and not in a Third World country, and because our memory is short. There they understand that to be able to satisfy one’s hunger is the marvel of marvels. To return to a stage of indigence in Europe, despite all the progress of civilization, is a most natural possibility for us, as the war years and the concentration camps have shown. Food is indeed plentiful. The problem is distribution and the lines that separates us from poverty and the poor are thinner and more fragile than we usually acknowledge.
The shortages are human-made, and therefore fixing them is our responsibility. If we take Birkat Hamazon seriously, it leaves us no choice but share our food with the hungry, and do our best to ensure adequate nutrition for all.
Enough nice words. It’s time for business.
For at least 20 years Hod veHadar has helped distribute food baskets for Melo Hatenne.
For the benefit of those who do not participate in the project, I want to describe a typical basket. The majority is usually white pasta, white rice, standard-issue bread, a few cans of canned vegetables, a bottle of oil and maybe a cake or a kilo of sugar. Last time I distributed baskets, there were a lot of vegetables, thanks to the harvesting efforts of Leket Israel. Sometimes there are eggs, a dozen per family, for a week. I haven’t seen a chicken in those baskets for years. Protein, which is essential to health and for the proper development of children, is conspicuously absent.
This is hardly the first time I’ve stood here and encouraged weekly donations of food via the basket at the entrance. Today I want to hone that call. Tuna. Rich in protein, not too expensive, not too heavy. Bring a can of tuna (or something similar), as often as you can. Needy neighbors are counting on you.