Let All Who Are Hungry Come and Eat
Here is a normal interaction between a parent and most kids under the age of 18 that happens quite often: "When is dinner ready?" "Just as soon as I cook it, would you like to help?" "No thanks, but I am starving!" "Really, starving?" "Yes, starving! It is like I haven't eaten in days." "Well, you just ate an hour ago, so that is probably a bit of an exaggeration." "Whatever, I am starving--so tell me when dinner is ready." My kids are still pretty young so they snack a great deal and need a lot of food to keep their growing bodies healthy. However, I have been teaching them for some time that in our house, we don't say, "I'm starving." That phrase is something that I have outlawed from our vocabulary because, first, it simply isn't true, and second, it completely degrades the billion or so people in our world who actually are starving, facing the deplorable reality of living with chronic hunger. Language is important and phrases are important; how we speak affects how we live and act. So, in my house, you can say, "I am really hungry!" but we don't say, "I'm starving." And while this might seem like a trivial way of acknowledging the problem, I actually think it is quite valuable. When we articulate truths through words, we can be moved to see the world in a richer and clearer way. When we don't just throw words around, even if we don't actually mean them, we become more sensitized to the realities facing us. Not saying, "I'm starving," can be a small way to recognize the fact that so many in our world are.
As Jews get ready for our Passover seder, remembering and telling the story of our own plight from slavery to freedom, from oppression to self-determination, we are commanded to see ourselves as those slaves coming into freedom. And, as we begin our seder, we recite the ancient words, in the original Aramaic, "Let all who are hungry come and eat." What does this mean for us today? Who will be at our seder that is truly hungry? Who will be invited to a seder for which that meal is their only meal of the day? Of the week? I would imagine that for the majority of us, the answer is nobody. And that is not because we don't care, but simply because the hungry amongst us are segregated from us, kept apart so that we can live our lives in peace and harmony. But invisibility is a stain on our society. Invisible doesn't mean they don't exist. Perhaps they are the poor of our city, folks cared for by the likes of Union Station Foundation in Pasadena and other amazing shelters. Perhaps they are the poor of our country, folks who can't make ends meet, some for circumstances they brought on themselves, but many who are working 2-3 jobs and still put their kids to bed hungry more nights than not. And perhaps, sadly, they are the poor of the world, the over one billion human souls who live with chronic hunger, subsisting on less than $2 a day. These are people who seem light years away, far from our consciousness. Yet the Haggadah, the book Jews use for the seder, calls us to say, "Let all who are hungry come and eat." How will we fulfill this call?
I want to share a few stories of communities around the globe that are facing chronic hunger and what they are doing about it. I am grateful to my friend Ruth Messinger, and her organization American Jewish World Service, for leading the way on this issue and spearheading this national initiative, Global Hunger Shabbat, that my synagogue is participating in along with over 100 other synagogues across the country. The stories I am sharing come from their resources. In Kenya, there is a farmer responsible for feeding her large extended family from the earnings of a small farm. For decades, the crops she grew were enough to pay for food, clothing, medicine and other basic needs. But in recent years, it has grown harder and harder. And, in the past year, it was made worse by drought. However, small farms like hers are failing in Kenya because of an intangible threat: free trade agreements between Kenya and countries like our own. Free trade brought an influx of cheap imports into developing countries, and with our government subsidies for staples like wheat and corn, we can sell them at rock bottom prices to places like Kenya. While this might seem like a good idea on the surface, cheap goods for poor countries, it actually has the opposite affect. This woman's farm and her crops cannot compete with the cheap imports and so she is forced out of business. Yet, when imports are no longer cheap, like in 2008, it is disastrous because there are no farms left to support the locals and so chronic hunger ensues. Luckily, this farmer became a part of an AJWS-funded program called Kilili Self-Help Project, a local community effort to reduce dependence on foreign imports. These farmers have been working to maintain their farms, plant with ecological and sustainable methods that improve the soil and help them grow more food. The woman in our story is now able to once again feed her family, earning $100 a month from her farm. This is one way that we are helping to overcome chronic hunger in our world.
"Let all who are hungry come and eat." As we say these words at our seder, let us discuss this story and how it makes us feel. The seder is a time for deep conversation, meaningful engagement and hopefully inspired action. Adding modern stories of slavery, hunger, oppression and other aspects of our world that are in need of attention make the seder come alive and keep the meaning of the ritual relevant for today. "This is the bread of affliction," is how the section of the Haggadah that we are taking about begins. The matzah is taken up and then, interestingly, the first thing we do with it is break it! What is the symbolism of this broken matzah in relationship to global hunger? Rabbi Kerry Olitzsky has a pertinent teaching on this when he writes, "We ritualize this process of becoming whole concretely through the mending of the imperfect and broken that takes place...Only when we embrace the broken part of ourselves and claim it as our own--rather than pushing it away--can we be fully free ourselves once again. Only when all are free, only when all are fed and taken care of, only when we can fully be ourselves, can Redemption and a completeness of Creation occur--what is often referred to as tikkun olam, repairing the world." (Preparing Your Heart for Passover, pg. 25) "Let all who are hungry come and eat" reminds us that the brokenness in our own lives, and the acknowledgement of that, is the only way to move forward towards dealing with the brokenness in the world, including global hunger.
One more story. The Embera-Katio people have lived along the Sinu River in Northern Columbia for generations. It provided them with a way to travel, a source of irrigation and drinking water, and plentiful food. But the construction of a huge megaproject, the Urra Dam, shattered this fragile ecosystem. Built in 2000 by a consortium of foreign companies and supported by wealthy local landowners, the dam flooded over 7400 hectares of indigenous-occupied land, engulfing crops, homes and scared sites, and displaced over 2800 people. The impact was devastating. The local fish population, unable to swim upriver to spawn, died out, eliminating the primary protein source. Severe flooding and drought caused by the river's new course impeded traditional farming methods. As a result, tens of thousands of people were at risk of extreme hunger and starvation. Jamison Pitalua was among the people displaced by the dam. He is now a member of the Association for Community Development of the Cienaga Grande, a local community-based organization working alongside farmers and fisherfolk to rebuild their livelihoods. To defend what they call an "alternative rural development," this organization uses proven local traditional practices to conserve the remaining natural resources. They work with locals to install drainage and irrigation systems to reintroduce plants and fish that have disappeared. They have built over 100 new farming systems just this year. AJWS is a proud supported of this project.
What is meant to happen at our seder table? What is the transformation that can take place from the opening lines to the closing songs? The main aspect of the seder, and its longest part, is the Maggid section, which is where we tell the story. We must tell the story of our ancestors, and our own, flight from slavery to freedom. We must recount the ancient tales of our people, teaching our children how we came to be Jews and live the lives we do today. These are crucial and amazing parts of the seder. And, in the midst of these stories, in the midst of recounting our own journey, let us this year talk about some of the stories I shared and how our world remains broken and in need of deep healing. Donate the cost of your seder meal to Mazon, an amazing organization that fights hunger right here in our local communities. Most of all, talk about this issue, see where the brokenness in our own lives can lead us to caring about and acting on the brokenness of hunger in our world. "Let all who are hungry come and eat." This year, may this phrase inspire us to remember the teaching from the Jewish tradition that says, "To save a single life is to save the whole world." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) Working to end global hunger will save many lives around the world; this is a goal that is reachable and worthy of attaining. One day, I pray that the phrase "Let all who are hungry come and eat" will be only a symbol, a reminder of a time when we didn't share the resources of the world with each other, a reminder of a time when children went to bed hungry, millions of them, a reminder of a time when so few of us had so much and so many of us had so little, a reminder of a time that we can be proud to say, like our enslavement in Egypt, no longer exists.
For more information about the American Jewish World Service, visit www.ajws.org.