“All the troubles of the world are assembled on one side and poverty is on the other.”
Midrash Rabbah Exodus 31:12
All the talk today is about turkey: how to baste one, how not to baste one. Sutffing or no stuffing? Ethnic recipes for American favorites. It’s getting pretty tiring, especially because when we reflect on world hunger, poverty and vulnerability right now, the talk seems even more trivial. It makes us even more conscious of Elie Wiesel’s words, “Hunger is isolating; it may not and cannot be experienced vicariously. He who never felt hunger can never know its real effects, both tangible and intangible. Hunger defies imagination; it even defies memory. Hunger is felt only in the present.” When you are hungry, you can never imagine being full. When you are full, it is too easy to forget just how hungry you once were.
Perhaps because of the difficult of empathy in this instance, rabbinic literature had to express itself on the matter emphatically, like the quote above. No matter what your problem, put it on one side of the scale and add on to it, and you will still not match the weight and burden of poverty. Poverty is never seen as a religiously redeeming state, as it is in some other faiths. In some faiths, those most spiritual beg for their food from others to teach humility. In our tradition, each person is mandated to give a fraction of his or her own food to the priests, levites, poor, widowed and orphans before eating, making a critical distinction between humility and indignity.
Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild, started his life as a poor man and observed that, “The very poor can always be depended upon. They never turn away the hungry.” When you know hunger that personally, it is impossible to turn away. A recent New Yorker profile on Jack London contends that this view of the universe was, for him, a basis of love: “…love is more likely to flourish amid need.”
The difficulty of feeling another’s poverty when you are not poor yourself, gave rise in rabbbinic literature to praise for those who do. “God says to Israel, ‘My Children, whenever you give sustenance to the poor, I regard it to you as though you gave sustenance to Me.’ Does God then eat and drink? No, but whenever you give food to the poor, God counts it as if you gave food to God” [Midrash Tannaim, Deuteronomy 15:10]
It is remarkable that in the rabbinic imagination humans are asked to transfer caring about the poor to caring about the divine since we associate one with great need and the Other to be without any need. But if you cannot muster the compassion to give because your heart aches in the presence of the hungry, then at least give because God shines on you at that moment.
This coming week, many people will overspend their normal budget to purchase beautiful food for a holiday table, much of which will become leftovers and then – as it molds in the fridge – get thrown out. What will you do this week to reduce the waste and share the abundance you have been given, to make this a week to give thanks for being the hand that can give rather than the hand that receives?
We will close with another stunning midrash, this one on Pslams 118:17: “When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.’”