Hunger and The Heart©

Hunger and The Heart©
By Rabbi David Baum
Yom Kippur Day, 2013/5774

I want to begin by speaking about something that I probably shouldn’t be talking about today:  food. 

Before we go on, have you ever wondered, why do we fast on this day?  I know that in the past, I have told you that it is to raise us to another level so that we can focus on atoneing for our sins, but it’s mid day, and I’m sure that some of you are more focused on the bagels and locks that you’ll be eating tonight than being angels!

After many years, I’ve realized something – maybe we fast today, so we are forced to think about food. 

I’ll tell you how I got to this idea – it was from an experience I had in Washington DC. 

When I was 21, I led a trip with our Ramah group of 15 year olds from Ramah Darom to our nation’s capital, DC, with a program called Panin al Panim – face to face.  On the first night of the, the organizers brought a homeless woman come to tell them her story.  It was a touching story, the woman was abused by her husband, she was forced out of her home, she had no family to take her in, and nowhere to turn to.  Eventually, she found herself on the streets. 

Our campers were shocked, and the whole room was brought to tears.  Now, it’s one thing to listen to a story, it’s another to truly experience it.  Little did they know about the second part of the program.  The next day we had all the kids made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but we didn’t tell them why, and the next night, we took the children to the streets, to where the woman spent her nights, and we met her community, and we fed them, with our own hands.  Suddenly, the homeless had a face, a name, a story. 

So here was the shocking part – they came up to me, some of them from this Boca Raton, and said, “This was one of the most moving experiences of our lives. We want to help them, we want to continue this holy work!  We only wish there were homeless people in our city so we could continue this work at home!”

I stood there puzzled – have they really not seen a homeless person in their hometowns? Maybe so, but I know that if you drive in Boca Raton, you will see homeless people begging in the intersections.  They have almost become a part of the scenery, like the manicured trees, lawns, and the beautiful fountains. 

It reminded me of a story from the Talmud:

There was once a rabbi during the 3rd century, Yehoshua ben Levi, who traveled to the mighty city of Rome, the greatest city of its time.  There were many amazing sites, as anyone who has been to Rome knows, but he was struck most by the marble pillars.  One day, he noticed that the marble pillars were covered by sheets to guard it from heat and cold.  Then he looked down and saw the poor people, naked, without even a sheet.  When he saw this he said, “a civilization whose statues are treated better than its poor will not last.” 

Rabbi Yehoshua was able to see something that the Romans could not because they were so used to it – he had fresh eyes, and an open heart. 

I thought about the world we live in, a world of 24 hours news stations and a constant flow of breaking news, and a world with the internet at our fingertips, a world where we are constantly bombarded with so many images of suffering.  

I think the issue of is getting worse.

The homeless, the hungry, both here and abroad.  We are bombarded with images of the dead who die by violent means.  Who here wasn’t shocked by the scenes of the men, women, and especially children who were gassed in Syria?!?  I worry about these scenes – because we grow insensitive to suffering.

How do we cope with this reality?!?  We have to distance ourselves from it because the suffering is too much – this is called compassion fatigue. 

I realized that perhaps my campers didn’t see the homeless and the hungry in their own cities because they couldn’t see themselves in those people.  Maybe, just maybe, they grew callous towards them, so callous that they couldn’t see them.  Maybe, something in their very bodies changed. 

During the Al Chet, we confess our sins, and one of the first sins we confess,
together, is,

Al Chet SheChatanu Lefanecha b’Immutz HaLev

We have sinned against You through hardening our hearts.

A hard heart is more than a medical ailment; it’s a spiritual ailment.   

We hear about hard hearts when we read about Pharaoh, but his heart was heavy, kaved.  The word used here is Immutz Halev, which comes from the word, Amatz.  It’s the word that was used by Moses to Joshua, and Moses to the people.  “Hazak V’Emetz” Be strong and resolute.  At the end of Psalm 27, which we recite during this season of repentance, we say, “Hazak V’Yametz Libecha, v’kaveh el adonai” “Be strong take courage, and place your hope in Adonai.

And yet, now, we say that we have sinned against God by being Amatz.  What gives? 

I think that we are missing something in our al chet - hizzuk – strength, without strength, amatz, can become stiffness, and it can be a sin.  We have to make ourselves and our hearts strong first, then and only then can we have true courage. 

So how do we make our hearts strong? 

Deuteronomy 10:16 - 19

“Cut away, therefore, the thickening around your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more. For the Lord your God...shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

To make our hearts strong, we have to do something counterintuitive:  we have to cut away at the thickening of our hearts.  What does it mean to cut away the thickening of our hearts?  I think it means that we have to exercise it, we have to stretch it and strengthen it. 

We can do this by seeing your own story of suffering in others, and at times, sharing in that suffering. 

We need to live with softer hearts, and if we can do this, than they will grow stronger, and we will have courage.  I think that Judaism teaches us how – by living a life of empathy.

Empathy isn’t sympathy.  Sympathy is when we say, I feel bad for that person. 

Empathy is saying, I feel that person’s pain. 

Every Jewish holiday is an experience of empathy.  On Sukkot, we sleep in booths and make them our permanent home to remember what it was like for our ancestors to live in the wilderness on their way to freedom.  On Passover, we don’t eat any bread opting for matzah, lechem oni – the bread of affliction, to remind us of those days when we went from slavery to freedom.

Every ritual we perform gives us a certain way of feeling, and I think that for today, God wants us to experience hunger in order to stretch and strengthen our most important organ. 

Yom Kippur is one of the most widely observed holidays in the Jewish calendar.  Even those Jews who would never fast on any other holiday fast today.  Today, we feel something that we honestly don’t feel that often:  hunger. 

And so this year, I took the words of the prophet Isaiah, from our Haftarah, seriously.

Isaiah begins the Haftarah with hope for the future.  The exile of the Jews from Babylonia is soon coming to an end – the roads are being cleared, and we as a people will have a second chance, but with a second chance, comes a challenge:  to live a different life.  No longer will we only care about only about the ritual alone, but we will also take the ethical in our hands. 

Isaiah says, “3“Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!

5 Is this the fast that I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?

6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

7It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Isaiah gave us a new vision for our fast – it’s not just about us who choose to fast for one day, but about those who are forced to fast on other days.

For Slichot, we watched the powerful film, A Place At The Table.  In this movie were stories of real people who struggle with hunger every day.  We heard the story of Barbie, a single mother of two in Philadelphia who works but makes wages below the poverty level, and can’t make enough to buy food.  She cannot qualify for government food assistance programs if she makes above $28,000, she isn’t eligible, but if she made below that amount, she could not live.  There was one thing that she said that really affected me:  “What defines starving.  If you don’t eat for a day are you starving?  In the governments eyes, no, but in your eyes and the way you feel of course.”  When she is eligible, her food stamps only last three weeks out of the month.  She opened her refrigerator for the camera and said, “How can I tell my kids that we don’t have any food left for the week.”

I heard Isaiah’s haunting words – Is this the fast that I desire? 

We learned about the story of a policeman of a small town, once proud, but because of budget cuts, he hasn’t been paid in months, and yet, he continues to work.  Now, he has to go to the local food bank, and he feels ashamed, but what can he do?  He has to feed his family.

Is this the fast that I desire?

After the movie, I asked for reactions from those who watched. A woman raised her hand and said, “My daughter is on food stamps, and it’s not enough.  She is a single mom, and she tries, she really does, but she just can’t make ends meet.  We help her, but we are getting worried because we cannot help enough as we ourselves are on a fixed income.”

Let me ask you, a show of hands, how many people here have known someone, a family member or friend, or even yourself, who has ever been on Food Stamps? 

These stories occur everyday in our own community.  A teacher asks his young student, “Why are you falling asleep in class?”  The boy answers, because I didn’t eat breakfast.  And Why didn’t you eat breakfast and teacher demands!

The answer:  “Because it wasn’t my turn.”

Is this the fast that I desire? 

We have to open our hearts to the hungry, and not just on the holidays.  Today, we have to experience what they experience. 

Last year, I took the Food Stamp Challenge.  I had to spend a total of $31.50 on food and beverages during the Challenge week - this translates to $4.50 per day, or $1.50 per meal.  All food purchased and eaten during the Challenge week, including fast food and dining out had to be included in the total spending.  I couldn’t eat food I already owned, and I had to abstain from free food from family, friends, and at work. 

I ate, but wasn’t satisfied, I was tired, I was irritable.  I didn’t make my family take the challenge, and I sat, with envy, watching them eat their dinners.  It was a tough week, but it was only a week for me. 

A friend said to me, why take the challenge – to teach you that it stinks to be poor. 

I replied, why fast on Yom Kippur?  Why eat matzah on Passover?  Why spend time in an outdoor hut for Sukkot?

Because, I told him, there is a part of me that needs exercise – my heart.  If I am going to have a courageous heart, I have to make it strong first, and to make it strong, I have to understand what the poor and the hungry go through. 

I have to cut away at the thickening of my heart. 

Unfortunately, the problems of hunger are only getting worse.  Congress has cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding so that now, a person can only spend $1.41 a meal and a reduction of $29 a month.  There is much that can be done for advocacy.  Please visit Mazon (a Jewish response to hunger) to learn more about how you can help advocate for our most vulnerable, and you can also visit Mazon’s page to write a letter to our Congressmen urging them not to cut SNAP -

That all being said, we, as a community, have to pick up where our law makers have left off.

This past year, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, under the leadership of our social action chair – Judy Richman, has taken hunger on as one of our causes.  We have gone gleaning in the fields, picking up crops that farmers leave because it doesn’t make economic sense for them to pick it up.  We have fed the hungry at Boca Helping Hands on holidays, we have volunteered every month to bag food for the Ruth Rales Jewish Family Services Jacobson Food Pantry which feeds over 500 hungry families in South Palm Beach County, many of them Jews.  We must and will continue this work, but I want each one of you to do some things to help Isaiah’s vision, to share our bread with the hungry.  

Feed the hungry with your hands.

1.     When you walk into our sanctuary on Hampton Drive, you will see an Aron Kodesh, a place for our Torah scrolls, but on our way to our sanctuary, you will a box in front of the entrance to our sanctuary.   When you come to shul to pray, bring a can of food with you and put it in the receptacle.  This is what makes our space holy.  This year, give a morning of your life to bag food during one of our food bagging drives.  Come to Boca Helping Hands and serve the hungry.  Come gleaning with us to feed the food insecure children of South Palm Beach County. 

2.     When you make a PB and J sandwich in the morning for your child’s lunch, make one for you, and one for someone else.  As you are driving along your way, and stopped at a red light.  Give that hungry person with a sign the sandwich.  If it’s a long light, ask them what their name is. 

It’s important to know their names, because then they aren’t, that homeless guy, or that welfare queen – they are our brothers and sisters. 
The least you can do is make him a PB and J sandwich.  You won’t only feed his body with your act of kindness, but his soul, and yours also. 

Live out Simcha this year! 

3.     Who in here is going to have a Simcha this year?  If you are going to have an auf ruf, a bar mitzvah, a baby naming or Brit milah, or a wedding, I want you to consider taking part in Kayla’s Bountiful Arrangements.  Kayla Aronson, one of our teen congregants, started a program where you could donate $118 to her, and she gives almost the entirety of that money to the Jacobson Kosher Food Pantry.  To show this, she makes a food arrangement, which we have here in lieu of flowers.  When our ancestors brought sacrifices to the Temple, they would share a portion of it with the poor – this is the true definition Simcha, happiness.  Be like our ancestors – bring the poor and hungry with you into your simcha.

My prayer for you in the coming year is that you have a courageous heart by making it strong, hazak.  To make it strong, you have to open it up, you have to stretch it out, to cut the thickening around it, you have to live with empathy.

My prayer for you is that you realize that the task of feeding the hungry will never be complete, and despite this realization, you will continue on with a courageous heart.

In the Haftarah, Isaiah says: 

10And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature—
Then shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
If we do these things – we will bring light into the world. 

This is the fast that God desires.


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