by Rabbi Rachel Cowan
Director, Institute for Jewish Spirituality
Cry Aloud, kra b’garon – from the throat. Hold nothing back, Shout as loud as the Shofar. Shma Israel Wake up.
God puts these words in Isaiah’s mouth. He cried out to his people – the Israelites who were doing what we do today – hurting each other, living small lives. Caught up in greed, deceit, pettiness. Indifferent to suffering. Settling for meaningless religious rituals.
Isaiah shouts out to us today: as Marcelo said last night – hevre, this is serious!! Leave your life’s story – the world according to me – for a minute. Look out – a world of suffering is at your doorstep!! A world in need of healing. Act now. Do something!!
Our tradition is wise – it tells us that to really hear Isaiah we have to fast too. We take his teaching into our bodies – to shock us out of normal routines, to experience suffering. . Each year we fast, and when we get hungry, light-headed, tired – we try to imagine how horrible life is for the hundreds of millions of people who are hungry all the time. Our eyes blink open, but, in my experience at least, the thought is fleeting, and then we have our break-fast. And they don’t.
So how can we – mostly middle or upper middle class folks – come closer to identifying with that hunger? Between Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur, I was privileged to take part in the Food Stamp Challenge, a national anti-poverty initiative. Participants live for a week on the average food stamp budget: $1.00 per meal per person, $3.00 a day. $21 a week. The goal of the Challenge is to raise consciousness about the reality of poverty and hunger in this country, and to focus attention on the Farm bill, currently being debated, which authorizes expenditures on food stamps. 21 million Americans depend on food stamps to feed their families. And today there are 500,000 people in New York City who are currently eligible, but do not have, or do not know how to find, access to food stamps.
The Jewish Council on Public Affairs chose to call for Jewish participation in this initiative during the Yamim Noraim. Rabbis and other leaders from more than 20 communities took part. Our entire food budget last week was $21. It sounds trivial, but he latte I buy every morning to ease me into the work day costs more than the budget for a whole day.
I said privilege – a bizarre word when I am talking about a national shame. But participating gave me an experience I would never have created for myself or by myself. What I experienced changed my consciousness way more than all the articles I have read. This was not a diet – though I did lose weight – but a commitment to learn about the lives of others through our bodies. I still can not fully imagine how it would be to live on this budget day to day, week by week, month by month. But I have a clue. And it is terrible!
At first it seemed interesting. How ingenious can I be? But when the spaghettis sauce that was the vegetable and flavor for my third meal was accidentally burned and I had to eat it anyway because there was nothing else, it stopped being an adventure.
Then it became hard. I was hungry most of the time. With that budget you eat mostly beans, lentils, rice, pasta, cereal, peanut butter, bananas, eggs. A little lettuce, peas. A half an apple. Breakfast: a bowl of cereal with half a banana, lunch – a tuna fish sandwich with i/3 a can of tune and a few cucumber slices, and a carrot; dinner – black bean soup, eggs and potatoes, or pasta with tomato sauce and a carrot. Hungry in between. It is not enough money! How would I cope if I had little kids, like my grandchildren, who always wanted me to buy them something they saw on TV?
It was boring and exhausting. I soon lost energy for creativity. And I was still charged up from Rosh Hashanah meals, and counting to the days til the end of the challenge. A fiend of mine settled for $1 McDonalds hamburgers.
It was frightening. No organic foods, so few fruits and vegetables. no vitamins. And being mostly a vegetarian, I did not miss meat – a source of important protein for children. What if suddenly something terrible happened and I had to live this way?
It was astonishing to see how much I completely take for granted about buying and eating food. My share of the costs of yesterdays prefast-meal was four days worth of food stamps. I don’t tear out coupons, buy second day foods, do comparative shopping. To get by on food stamps you have to do that. But how do you do that when you work long hours and have kids? I really got it that food pantries and lunch programs – like the one that BJ has run for years – make a huge difference. By supplementing food stamps they make it possible for people to make it through the month.
It was deeply depressing to have a glimmer of the experience that 20 million people have every day, and to know in my body something of what they feel every day.
It was activating – provoked a response from the gut, not just the head. How can we – the wealthiest country in the world allow these conditions? How can we let this happen?
On the level of tzedakah – I decided to make monthly pledge to Mazon – at least the months equivalent of the food stamps. Mazon funds food pantries, soup kitchens and great advocacy organizations and is becoming a leader in the fight against hunger in this country and in the world. I wrote a bigger check to the West Side Food Pantry. I have deeper appreciation of BJ’s lunch program – offering both food and dignity – and that influenced my Kol Nidre pledge.
But it is the level of advocacy that will make the big difference. A larger budget for food stamps – which will be a huge fight in itself, is one step. But the only true remedy is a living wage. So I will look for ways to get involved in those fights.
My son said to me at the beginning – “oh Mom, why are you doing this, you already know and care?” But I know differently now, I care differently. I invite you to try this experience for yourselves, and see what you learn.
And finally, it was a spiritual experience – an experience forging deep empathy. Heschel asks, ‘what does the desecration of human bodies and human souls do to the soul of the universe, to God’s soul?’ He calls for radical empathy with others, with God. With such empathy, seeing that our individual actions are linked to the actions of every other being, that our soul is linked to the soul of the universe, we are moved to be and to act in ways that can truly, deeply heal the wounds of people and the wounds of earth.
Isaiah makes the same connection. Our spiritual well being depends on empathy, on action. Look at this magnificent paragraph on page 501:
If you remove from your midst the yoke of oppression, the finger of scorn and the tongue of malice, if you put yourself out for the hungry and relieve the wretched, then shall your light shine in the darkness, and your gloom shall be as noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually. God will refresh you in dry places, renewing your strength. And you shall be like a watered garden, like a never—failing spring.”
When our fast is the fast that God desires – the acts of justice – then we can call for help for ourselves and God will say “Hineni”.