Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shabbat HaHodesh 5771: Let the hungry come and eat, and not be displaced or dispossessed לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָפֻצוּ עַמִּי, אִישׁ מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ.

This week's parashah of Tazria, which discusses the laws of leprosy, is often a time to speak of the dangers of לשון הרע, (lit. evil speech), gossip and slander, and speaking inappropriately about others in front of them and behind their backs. The connection is made by the rabbis through a word play which transforms the word metzora, a leper, to motzi shem ra, one who defames his or her fellow. This is surely an important area in which I and many others have much work to do.
However, I was moved by ענינא דיומא, unfortunate current events in the news, to write about the message of feeding those who are hungry. While it may not be explicit,I see this idea as present between the lines of the special maftir and Haftarah of this Shabbat Hahodesh, the last of four special Shabbatot that lead up to זמן חרותינו the time of our liberation. In the Torah reading for Shabbat Hahodesh, taken from Exodus 12:1-20, God commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the Israelites in the details of the Korban Pesah, the offering which is is to be eaten on the eve of the exodus from Egypt, along with the laws of the first Passover Celebration. Among the details of these instructions are that families should join together if they are too few in number to eat the meat of an entire lamb (v. 4), and that no meat shall be left over until morning (v. 10). In its plain or original meaning, this commandment was probably meant to demonstrate the sacred character of this meat, that it could not be used as leftovers like food from any other meal.

Yet in a more creative reading of the text, these details can also teach the values of being conscious about the food we consume. Eating can be a sacred act, especially if we share it with others, and if we think about what happens to our food. While we no longer offer sacrifices, this does not mean that we should be considerate about what we consume, and ensure that we do not waste, especially when there are so many, even within our own cities who go hungry every day. At the very least, we should think about how lucky we are when we eat delicious meals, whether home-cooked or at a restaurant or cafeteria.

I believe that this message of social responsibility is also hidden within the lines of the special haftarah for Shabbat Hahodesh. Taken from Ezekiel 45:16-46:18, this prophecy is mostly concerned with laying out the guidelines for how sacrifices, including daily offerings, those designate for Shabbat and Festivals, and the Paschal lamb, would be prepared and offered in a future age of redemption. After laying out how the Temple would function, the vision turns to the Nasi, or prince who will lead the people of Israel in this future time. The Nasi is given significant powers, including being able to bequeath possessions to his descendants. However, in the verse which concludes the Haftarah, 46:18, the Nasi is warned against cheating the people out of their possessions:
וְלֹא-יִקַּח הַנָּשִׂיא מִנַּחֲלַת הָעָם, לְהוֹנֹתָם מֵאֲחֻזָּתָם--מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ, יַנְחִל אֶת-בָּנָיו: לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָפֻצוּ עַמִּי, אִישׁ מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ.
The Nasi may not take from the holdings of the people to cheat them out of what is rightfully theirs in order to give it to his children -- so that My people shall not be scattered from their inheritance.

While I must note that our situation is not exactly the same as in this prophetic vision, there is still a lesson to be learned for leaders and citizens alike from this warning. Without necessarily advocating socialism, we must consider what we are blessed to have and the many surrounding us who lack basic necessities. Perhaps this verse is trying to remind us of the basic right of humans to have food clothing and shelter, which both individuals and legislators can attempt to ensure in a democratic society.

I was inspired to write this message as I perused the New York Times this morning while eating a delicious Meatball Sub and onion rings at JTS meat day. An editorial written by food columnist Mark Bittman with the title "Why We're Fasting" caught my eye. As an observant Jew who fasts six times a year to mark different religious occasions, I was intrigued why someone would be fasting now. Bittman explains that he and many others have been voluntarily abstaining from food since Monday to call attention to Congressional legislation that would cut back food benefits from millions both within the United States and around the world (who are supported through foreign aid). I was taken aback as I enjoyed a delicious fleichig lunch and my neighbors could conceivably be in jeopardy of starving if this legislation were to pass. Additionally, I spent last Thursday Night participating in a 'Midnight Run' along with fellow JTS students, as we loaded up vans with food, hot drinks, blankets, toiletries and clothing and drove around the chilly city streets distributing them to dozens of people who could have starved or frozen without these essential supplies. It was quite eye-opening to internalize first hand that just blocks away from my warm dorm room with its well-stocked kitchen, people did not know from where their next meal or shower would come.

As we mark Shabbat Hahodesh and the approach of Pesah when we mark our freedom and liberation, I hope you will join me in giving thanks for the delicious food we enjoy daily (and especially on Pesah), ensure that as little food as possible goes to waste, and work within our means to make hunger disappear for those in our cities, our country and around the world.

If you are so moved, consider donating to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which supports respected food relief organizations in communities across the United States and Canada.

Shabbat Shalom and בתאוון B'teavon (bon appetit)!

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