There are no coincidences in Torah.
No matter how curious a verse may seem, how unrelated it may appear to what precedes or follows it, there are profound truths to be mined in each line. In fact, encountering the unexpected in a passage is often a clue that something exciting is happening beneath the surface, that hidden secrets wait to be revealed. Textual oddities are windows into the mystery of the Torah.
We will all be familiar with the story of Jacob, Esau and the stew. It appears this month in the portion Tol’dot, read in our synagogue on November 21. After a long day at the hunt, Esau, manly man that he is, comes back to the camp empty handed. Ravenous, he asks his domesticated brother for a bowl of lentils. “I’m famished; let me gulp down some of that red stuff!” (Genesis 25:30). Jacob seizes the opportunity, and trades his elder-brother a bowl of soup for the birthright.
Medieval commentator Rashi sees wickedness in Esau’s easy dismissal of his inheritance and status. Others fault him for imagining himself so close to death. But I find myself disappointed in Jacob who took advantage of his brother’s weaknesses, bargaining hard instead of feeding the hungry.
What if each one of us looked out only for our own interests and ignored our brothers’ and sisters’ needs? I believe the Torah answers this question with the verse that follows the episode of the stew: “There was a famine in the land” (Genesis 26:1).
While most readers see this stark, ominous statement as an introduction to the subsequent story—the famine causes Isaac to emigrate in search of food— I prefer to read it as a bridge between the two episodes: famine is not only the cause, but also the logical result when one man’s selfish actions are repeated many times over. It cannot be coincidence that the Torah follows a story about stinginess with food with the verse “there was a famine in the land.” Famine occurs when we refuse to share our bounty with those in need.
What a gap there is in our world between those with access to food and those lacking basic nutrition! “The number of hungry people in the world rose to 1.02 billion this year, or nearly one in seven people, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, despite a 12-year concentrated effort to cut the number. The global financial recession added at least 100 million people by depriving them of the means to buy enough food, but the numbers were inching up even before the crisis, the United Nations noted in a report last week” (New York Times, October 21, 2009). Despite this, it’s clear that while some on our planet have little or no reliable access to food and others experience “food insecurity,” where their access to quality nutrition is unstable and/or insufficient, the world’s wealthy enjoy unprecedented access to a wide range of food. How often have you and I stood in the aisle of a grocery store deciding which cheese to buy?
Access to nutritious food is a fundamental right, and we have a moral obligation to assist those without it. There are lasting solutions to the problem. Globally, microcredit facilities work: (relatively) tiny loans enable poor families to support themselves over the long term. Visit www.kiva.org, a website through which individuals can make loans to aspiring entrepreneurs with small businesses in the developing world. It’s an exciting development!
In the United States, Canada and Australia, there is a “Jewish Response to Hunger”: Mazon. Jews (and Jewish organizations) of all kinds donate 3% of the cost of simchas (celebrations), and the money is pooled and used to support life-changing projects in local communities and in Israel. It’s a wonderful way to enact Jewish values, and develop a collective sense of Jewish Peoplehood. More information is found on Mazon’s website, www.Mazon.org. Why not set an empty chair when you throw or attend a dinner party or Shabbat meal—that is, donate the cost of one meal to a local organization combating hunger and food insecurity?
Learn more about Global Hunger through the American Jewish World Service website: ajws.org/hunger/learn_more.html, and take their Hunger Quiz.
The ideas, resources and expertise exist to feed our planet—if each one of us would only share what’s in our bowl.