On Yom Kippur we will read the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah:
No, this is the fast I desire:
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
Then, when you call, the Lord will answer;
When you cry He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature.
Hunger is a growing problem in America, in Bergen County, and in our nearby communities. Most of us experience Bergen County as a very prosperous place, and it is by most measures. But there is a hidden Bergen County that we seldom see. That is the Bergen County of the over 16,000 of our neighbors who were provided in 2009 with 50,000 emergency food packages. Each package contained a week’s supply of food for a family, and came from the Center For Food Action, Northern New Jersey’s major anti-hunger organization. That number includes 170 people from Leonia, 2,488 from Teaneck, 1,046 from Bergenfield, 906 from Cliffside Park, 4,605 from Englewood, and 6,387 from Hackensack. But those numbers understate the problem. For the number of people who have sought food assistance from the Center has increased this year by more than 20% compared to 2009, and there are also people who were helped by others, or who get no help. Nationwide, 14% of U.S. households, 40 million people, struggle to put enough food on the table, and that includes 17 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Our Jewish tradition has much to teach about hunger. Hunger is not a new subject in Jewish history. At the start of our history as a people, God fed us manna in the desert, without which we would have starved. We are enjoined, throughout the Torah, to feed the hungry. The requirement in Leviticus 23:22 that, "when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleaning of your harvest, you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger…" is one example. In Deuteronomy 14:28-29, we are told to provide at the end of each third year 1/10th of our produce so the "Levite…, and the stranger, the fatherless and the widow can come and eat and be filled." The Midrash says, "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'" (Midrash Psalms 118:17). Our Rabbis taught "Give sustenance to the poor of the non-Jews along with the poor of Israel" (Gitlin 61a).
Chasidism teaches that our role in life is "tikkun olam", the repair of our broken world. The large number of people who are hungry, whose food supply is insecure and who do not get enough to eat in America is a national disgrace, a shanda. It is sad evidence of just how broken our world is. What better way to help repair our world than to bring food for the hungry to our temple on Yom Kippur, to support organizations like The Center for Food Action and Mazon, A Jewish Respose to Hunger, with contributions of our time, money and food throughout the year; and to teach our children and our grandchildren through our actions and words to aid people who need help, so they too will, in Isaiah’s words,
…offer [their] compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature.
And let us pray that the words at the beginning of the Birkat Ha Mazon, the prayer recited at the end of meals, shall be fulfilled for all in our own time:
Blessed are You Lord
Our God, Ruler of the universe,
Who consistently feeds all out of goodness
With grace, with loving kindness, and with mercy.
God gives bread to all living things
God is eternally merciful.
And because of God’s great goodness
Never are we lacking or will we lack
Food forever or longer