When my daughter was young she used to regularly dramatize a fundamental dynamic of spiritual life. She was the kind of kid who didn't realize she was hungry until she was suddenly overwhelmed with intense physical discomfort. "I am sooo hungry," she'd roar out of nowhere, signaling that the fuse had been lit and the seconds were ticking. Very soon after, once she ate, we knew what to expect. "I am sooo full," she'd sigh emphatically, fully sated, eyelids growing heavy.
I'd often ask her if she could recall how painfully hungry she had been just a short time ago. She seemed to have trouble remembering.
With a satisfied belly, adults, too, struggle to imagine hunger. We need periodic, embodied reminders. The fast on Yom Kippur helps the ordinarily well-fed empathize with and so more easily act on behalf of the hungry. We learn through the body. "What is the fast I demand of you? Is it to droop your head like a bulrush and lie in sackcloth and ashes?" (Read: to beat your breast in self-mortification/self-absorption) No! It is to understand better through your own discomfort the suffering of others, and so be spurred to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter those in need (Isaiah 58: 5 - 7, interpreted).
In secular society, some of us adopt the food stamp challenge, wherein the well-fed voluntarily live for one week on a food budget of $31.50, the current, average allotment for individuals on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). We experience the stress of trying to figure out how to feed ourselves on no more than $1.50 per meal, and the exhaustion of just one week of nutritional imbalance.
We wake up a little, like the person in the Hasidic story whom the rabbi craftily entices over the threshold of his front door, entering the winter cold in his shirtsleeves before being asked for tzedakah (a financial donation) to buy coats for those in need. Physical comfort presents its own spiritual challenges. Satiety is soporific. The Torah tells us to "eat, be satisfied and bless" (Deuteronomy 8:10), since our natural, animal inclination is simply to eat and be satisfied.
Hunger is equally totalizing. In this week's portion of Miketz, Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams about the seven sturdy cows that were swallowed up by the seven scrawny cows, "but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before" (Genesis 41:21).
Pharaoh also dreams of seven full and healthy ears of grain followed by seven shriveled and scorched ears of grain, the latter also eating up the former.
Joseph understands: "Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt. After them will come seven years of famine, and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten" (Genesis 41:29-30). In the midst of suffering, the memory of abundance, likewise, fails to arise.
When we pay attention, we notice that we are constantly alternating between times of abundance (i.e. ease, flow and expansiveness) and times of constriction (i.e. suffering, want and discomfort). When one condition is present, the other is quite difficult to imagine.
For much of the world, the lean years are already here, and have been for a long, long time. Nearly 1 billion people on the planet do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. Two billion lack food security intermittently. Lest we think that this is a problem only for people far away in distant lands, Feeding America tells us that one in seven families in America experiences low or very low food security. This means that every day many people in this country -- even with all of its wealth and opportunity -- are skipping meals, cutting portions and going without food because they cannot afford to buy it.
Over the past few years, I have slowly (too slowly) begun waking from my own stupor to begin educating myself and changing my behaviors so that I might join others working to create more sustainable and just food systems. I have had to chip away at my own fear and denial about climate change and the downsides of globalization, as well as my supermarket-shopping, convenience-seeking, suburban conditioning, in order to participate in these efforts.
I am fortunate to live in a forward-thinking town that has established such initiatives as the Northampton Food Security Group, Grow Food Northampton, CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and various community supported agricultural farms (CSA). Like Joseph, these wise and discerning folks (see Genesis 41:33) understand that we cannot continue to do business as usual regarding food production because too many people suffer its injustice and we are severely damaging the earth in the process. They know that if left unchecked, our current consumption patterns will bring ruin upon all of us.
Waking up and falling asleep is an ineluctable feature of human consciousness. I have found that one of the most powerful ways to avoid dozing off too deeply or for too long is to surround myself with people who help me stay awake to my choices and responsibilities -- affirming, challenging, and inspiring me as I go about my daily life.
Rabbi Aaron Roth ("Reb Arele," d. 1947), speaking of our spiritual slumber more generally, tells us: "When a person is aware that he is falling asleep and begins to nod and is afraid that a strong, heavy sleep may overcome him, the best advice for him is to request his friend to wake him from time to time or that he should go among people who are awake and where a light shines brightly."
Let us anchor ourselves in community, with family, friends and colleagues who will help restore us, time and again, to wakefulness and action. In this winter holiday season, amid the dark and the cold, let us search out the places where the light shines brightly.
ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.