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Parshat Toldot: The Jewish Food Stamp Challenge

November 15, 2012 | Worship and High Holidays | Repairing the World

Sign up to join our clergy in the 2012 Food Stamp Challenge!

Sermon by Cantor Angela W. Buchdahl

Poor Esau.  The twin brother of our patriarch Jacob is portrayed as such a buffoon.  He’s the red-haired Neanderthal hunter—a foil to Jacob, the mild, bookish mama’s boy.  And proof-positive of Esau’s stupidity is the story, found in this week’s portion, of how he is duped into selling his birthright to Jacob over a bowl of lentil stew.

Let’s take a closer look at that story, which Rabbi Friedman will read in a few minutes:  Esau is out, presumably hunting in the fields as he often did, and Jacob is home making a stew.  Esau says,  “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down for I am famished.”  Jacob responds,  “First sell me your birthright.”  What a brother!  Esau says,  “I am at the point of death, so of what use is my birthright to me?”  Jacob says,  “swear to it,” then gives him the stew and thus did Esau give up his birthright.  

At this point, most rabbinic commentators harshly criticize Esau for spurning his birthright over a bowl of stew.  They note that his gulping down is a sign of how uncouth and barbaric he is.  

But what if it were a sign of how truly hungry he was. What if Esau really was starving to death?  What if he had been hunting for several days, and come back completely empty handed?  It would be understandable that the only thought he might have in that moment is getting some food. And feeling famished can lead to some rash, shortsighted decisions—like giving up a birthright.  

Fortunately, most of us in this room do not really know the desperation you feel when famished beyond your mind.  But millions in our country feel this hunger and food insecurity every day.  

Some of the very hungriest in our country, over 45 million people, are helped by the SNAP program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as Food Stamps.   The number of people on food stamps rose by 70 percent between 2007 and 2011, driven primarily by a weak economy and massive unemployment. 75% of households on food stamps have children, seniors or disabled citizens. And 85% of households have income that is below the poverty line.   

Approximately 20 percent of children in America are in perpetual poverty and live on food stamps for many years, but many more turn to food stamps during a short-term crisis.   How many more?  I was astonished to read a recent study by the American Medical Association that 49% children in the United States will eat meals at some point during their childhood paid for by food stamps.  Half of America’s children at some point live on this edge of hunger and poverty—this should be a wake up call!  A recent UNICEF report found the U.S. had the second highest rate of childhood poverty among the 35 richest nations surveyed, behind only Latvia.

And yet, even given the tremendous need, the SNAP program has been targeted for financial cuts that threaten this last safety net for the 16 million children, who through no fault of their own, are still hungry.  But these cuts are not good policy.  Every dollar spent in food supplements saves our country $1.81 on subsequent health care issues, decreased productivity, illness and other issues related to poor nutrition.   And just think of the bad decision Esau made when he was hungry!  We can only expect that people can start coming out of their desperate situations if they can make decisions with a little food in their bellies.

In Biblical times, not everyone is born with an equal birthright. Esau was entitled to a double portion, just because of birth order.  And unfortunately, it seems that even today not everyone  is born with an equal birthright. Some people are born into lives of security and abundance, will all the opportunities of growth and education of mind and body.  And some are born into communities of poverty in which their under-performing schools and their empty bellies makes it very hard to grow or thrive. But shouldn’t every child be given the same spiritual birthright—with equal opportunities to grow, be nourished, loved, supported, with the possibility of fulfilling our full potential in the world?   

In our Torah text Jacob turns the birthright order on its head, even though we don’t like the way he did it.  It’s a radical statement that we should not accept this inequality of birthright.

Next week, we are going to sit down for our Thanksgiving meals of abundance and bounty. I know I am going to feel grateful for it.  But the week after Thanksgiving, I am going to take the Jewish Food Stamp Challenge, with many of our Central clergy and I invite you as congregants to do so as well.  For the week after Thanksgiving, beginning November 26th, I am going to live on $31.50 for food, for the week.  It’s $1.50 per meal.  I will be eating a lot of rice and beans and oatmeal. I won’t be shopping at the new Whole Foods on 57th street, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables. I anticipate it will be hard and I will feel hungry.
But even after that week, I won’t pretend that I truly know what it’s like to live with food insecurity.  After a week, I have the fortune to go back to my regular diet.  But our tradition says that walking in another’s shoes, even for a short period, can shift our sensitivity, our mindset, our understanding.  It is why at Passover we don’t just say,  “Our ancestors were slaves,” but “WE are slaves.”  And we eat the bitterness and taste the tears.  We experience a piece of that hardship ourselves.  So I’m taking on this challenge.  And I’m donating what I would have spent on food that week to Mazon, the Jewish Response to Hunger. And I’m writing to Congress to support the SNAP program.   

And I’m going to encourage this community to take the same challenge. If you would like to join in the Jewish Food Stamp Challenge, even for a few days, you can sign up here. This is a massive effort that thousands of Jews have done in the last year.  We will be writing about our experiences and encourage anyone who is joining us to share their experiences as well.

As we go into a holiday of gratitude and plentiful food, may we be reminded that this abundance is not yet shared by all.  And let us work to create an equal birthright for every child of God, with the opportunities to bring blessing into the world.

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