Rabbi Isaak’s Kol Nidre 5784 Sermon – The Moral Sin of Hunger

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.”

For months before my retirement as Neveh Shalom’s senior rabbi, my wife panicked.  I have worked since I was 15, first in a neighborhood men’s clothing shop, then as a salesman in a women’s shoe store.  I taught in Hebrew School and ran a Junior Congregation.  I worked through college and rabbinical school. I was raised by immigrant parents with a strong work ethic.

What would life be like for her, and for me, without professional obligations: deadlines to meet, sermons to prepare, Chronicle articles to write, classes to teach, Shabbat and holiday services to conduct, life cycle events to oversee: Brisses and baby namings, Bnai Mitzvah families to meet with, weddings and rehearsals, hospital visits and all that is involved in funerals and mourning, meetings with staff and various committees, the Board of Rabbis, and speaking on behalf of the Jewish community on topics where I may have some expertise and others where I might be grasping in the dark.  Despite the notion that I have only occasionally heard expressed  “once Yom Kippur is over, the rabbi is pretty much free til next Rosh Hashanah”, the rabbi’s job I assure you, is pretty demanding..

What’s going to happen at 9am on the Monday morning following retirement? Carol pondered with alarm.

Two years prior to retirement I made an appointment with Susanne Morgan, executive director of the Oregon Food Bank. I shared my interest in the issue of hunger. My mother often talked about food rationing in Germany when she was growing up.  They were permitted one egg a week which went to my grandmother who was ill.  When my mother arrived in England having come there by way of the Kindertransport, she lived for a short time in a privileged home where she was scandalized that the kitchen help cut off bread crusts.  When no one was looking she dug them out of the garbage.

I told Susanne I thought there was more the religious community might do. The Food Bank had never had a clergy person on its Board and I accepted the Board’s invitation to become a member.  There was so much I didn’t know.  I learned a lot not only about the specifics of hunger, but conducting an agency dedicated to both ending hunger as well as its many root causes.  I served eight years on that OFB board.  Today hunger remains high on my agenda.  I am currently putting my energies into chairing the Food Justice Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Social Justice Commission.

I have never personally confronted an empty refrigerator.  I have never experienced the trauma of sending my children to bed hungry, because the cupboard was bare..  The home I grew up in was by no means wealthy, but we never went without, especially without plenty of nutritious food to eat. Grocery stores were always readily available and though my parents skimped on other things, there was always plenty of food to eat. It was even difficult to imagine that there were those in our country, let alone in our neighborhood who went without.  Weren’t we all told to empty our plates because of the starving children in China?

Bottom line. Hunger is a fundamental moral issue.  Food is essential for survival.  Hungry children cannot learn.  Severely malnourished children suffer from stunted growth.  Though the division between the haves and the have-nots is inevitable in our capitalist society, basic access to nutritious food must not be where we draw the line.  All agree that the issue in the richest country the world has ever seen is not a shortage of food. Our markets are thankfully full, often to overflowing.  Hunger is an economic problem and a distribution problem.  Though most are blessed with proper access, others are not.   Opportunity, circumstance, racism, infirmity, geography, age are but some of the reasons for the disparity.  However, a society of plenty in which some are deprived of food is an immoral society.

“Open your hand and feed every creature to its heart’s content,” the Psalmist implores us.

At the Food Bank, we dealt with a lot of issues beyond distributing food: language barriers, issues of trust, cultural traditions about food, unique dietary needs, perhaps most serious of all, recognizing hidden hunger which was a new concept for me. Have you noticed that when you fill out general intake forms at the doctor’s office, you are asked if you are experiencing hunger?  Having physicians routinely inquire was an initiative of the Oregon Food Bank.  We hope and trust that people will be honest with their physicians since often hunger is hidden and disguised due to shame or embarrassment.

We live in such a rich country.  Not only do we have grocery stores.  We have specialty and fancy grocery stores.  Then there are even various more exclusive shops for food. I suppose most of us have a favorite shop that we go to for produce and perhaps a different one for meat and fish, maybe another for specialty baked goods.  We do.  Why not?  Eating is one of the great common pleasures in life. It not only determines where we shop but where we choose to go for this or that.   These choices become sources of our everyday conversation: who has the best bagels or ice cream?  But those who are unsure whence their next meal may come, neither have those options or that pleasure. For those whose sources of food are insecure, everything revolves around food every hour of the day.

The food bank negotiates with growers, with bakeries, with grocery stores to find ways to make use of and not waste excess nutritious food, to find ways to distribute it to those who would put it to best use.  We raise community consciousness because it is easy for those of us who have resources, who can hop in the car to Fred Meyer or Safeway, Trader Joes or Zupans (have I mentioned your favorite) to be unconscious of the enormous need in our own community, out of sight, out of mind!, let alone in rural areas where in food deserts fresh fruits and vegetables might be scarce, meat and fish not be readily available, let alone affordable.

The need is simply unfathomable. 10% of all Americans face food insecurity, i.e. they lack a consistent access to enough food for every person in their household to live an active, healthy life.  12.9 million of our children are at risk of hunger. 40% of single mothers struggle with hunger.  4.9 million older adults are food insecure.  Many of our own military families and veterans to whom we owe our very security struggle to feed themselves and their families.

Years ago for an evening’s entertainment at our convention, the Rabbinical Assembly hired at the time a brand new comedian named Yakov Smirnoff.  Some of you may remember the name.  He was an immigrant from the Former Soviet Union, Soviet Union, that’s how long ago it was, and he spoke English with a heavy Russian accent.  He didn’t yet even have a whole comedic routine, but I remember his taking us with him virtually for his first experience in an American supermarket.  He was hilarious as he told us about wandering through the aisles with the myriad of options, down the bakery aisle, the different brands of frozen fruits and vegetables.  In Russia, we only have one kind of soda, if that option is even available.  And so he went with us on his journey. Up this aisle and down the next.  But what amazed him the most, stopped him cold, was an entire aisle devoted to pet food, special food for pets, different kinds and varieties. An entire aisle just for pets, he marveled with his classic line: what a country!  He couldn’t get over it.  If Smirnoff were to update his grocery tour, I suspect he might make note, that amidst the hunger in America, we have gone even fancier on dog food.  We’ve all seen the commercials.  Forget the kibble, provide for them a much better diet. As some of our neighbors go to bed hungry, there is something severely wrong with this picture.

Oregon Governor Kulangoski years ago issued a challenge that Carol and I agreed to take.  Live a full week on a SNAP budget, the daily government allocation for those who qualify for what used to be called Food Stamps.   At that time that amounted to less than $3/person/day.  To be as parsimonious as possible we headed out to Winco, where we thought we would have the best chance of meeting the challenge.  Only later did we consider how someone without a car would get to Winco and even if they had a car, we would have to consider the price they would expend on gas.  The week passed with little in the way of fresh produce or protein other than eggs and tuna fish.  After all, we were just doing this for a week.  That Friday morning without thinking, I announced that I would buy the Challah. I was greeted with, “With what? How do you think we can afford a $6  challah?” Was Carol’s retort.  On that budget, we might eat challah, but have nothing to go with it.

Every five years Congress must approve its gargantuan Farm Bill.  That deadline looms at the end of this month.  Contained therein are the billions allocated for SNAP and other federal food subsidies.  How much is riding on that allocation?  The wonderful work of Feeding America, food banks nationwide, pantries, volunteer efforts, programs like Neighborhood House where our Yom Kippur donations are headed, all combined amount to less than 10% of the vital federal outlay.

Often social problems healthcare, housing, are so immense that it feels like all our efforts are simply placing a meaningless bandaid on an insoluble problem.  But it’s important to note that we have solved it before.  Tracing the history of hunger in America, we learn that Roosevelt’s New Deal included the first significant federal investment in relieving hunger during the depression.  President Johnson’s War on Poverty then broadened the Food Stamp program.  And in 1968 a TV expose titled Hunger in America so scandalized the American public that it encouraged a bipartisan resolve so significant that hunger statistics in America were reduced to a mere 3%.  Partisan politics unfortunately since then made us lose our control of the problem, But with proper resolve, the moral issue of hunger can be beaten.  We can end hunger in America. It is not insoluble.  We did it before.  We can do it again.

“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 Adonai, enter it, you who have fed the hungry.”