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Lament for a Nation — The Plague of Hunger in America – Sh’lahchaynee – “Send Me” – Rosh Hashanah

September 29, 2011

A month ago, on August 28th, the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington D.C. was formally dedicated. It extols the man whose speech, “I Have A Dream,” delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, electrified the country. The first sentence contains a direct reference to President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation {January 1, 1863} as well as his Gettysburg Address {November 19, 1863}. King’s words, certainly among the most eloquent in this nation’s history, referred as well to the Declaration of Independence {July 4, 1776}, the United States Constitution {September 17, 1787} the apostle Paul, the first stanza of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” {1831}, and verses from prophets in our tradition, Amos and Isaiah.

Little wonder, given the impact that the prophets have had throughout the ages. They roamed ancient Israel for almost 300 years [commencing a few decades before the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722BCE and disappearing about a century after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, making their exit from the stage of history around 460BCE]. They appeared in marketplaces, on street corners, wherever people gathered to worship, and, without hesitation, in the palaces of kings. They were routinely ignored as well as vilified. They were spat upon, mocked, and became the punch lines of jokes. They spoke about God, covenant and social justice everywhere they went and to everyone they met. People heard the message, but they did not always get the message. Despite the resistance they faced, and contrary to human nature, the prophets never changed the message. They were relentless.

“Establish justice in the gate[s of the cities],” they demanded {Amos 5:15}. This was their fervent plea: “Let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream” {Amos 5:24}; “Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge [on behalf of] the fatherless, plead for the widow” {Isaiah 1:17}. Their voices thundered in the name of God, “I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly…When you spread forth your hands [in prayer or to offer sacrifices], I will hide My eyes from you…I will not hear” {Isaiah 1:13, 15}.

Who were these impassioned men whose words echo through the ages? Who were these heroes who believed that they had been approached by God in visions or dreams, and told to deliver the message of social justice in the language of covenant? Their names were Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and Zechariah: six among a pantheon of twelve prophets in our literary tradition. They spoke in the name of God and on behalf of ethical monotheism. Their purpose was not to predict the future, though they did that, but to reprove the people in order to save them. If you take care of the stranger, the widow, the poor and the orphan – the paradigm of those whom society often shuns – then God will take care of you, but if you ignore them or abuse them, God will take note of it and punish you. They said that everyone matters, and that we must stand with people who have no one to support them: to listen to them when they are not heard, and to be bearers of hope when they feel abandoned. Every prophet said, “I heard the voice of the Lord, asking: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go [forth in God’s name]?’ I said, ‘Here I am. Sh’lah’chay’nee – Send me’” {Isaiah 6:8}. Each of us here today in this sanctuary of God should say, “Sh’lah’chay’nee – Send me. Send me in the name of justice and compassion at this trying time in our nation when those in greatest need are being neglected and denied.”

The fifth book of the Torah is called Devarim/”words,” and in it Moses – like the prophets who followed him – used forceful words in the Book of Deuteronomy to implore the people: “You are not to toughen your heart; you are not to shut your hand to your brother, the needy-one…You are to give to him, yes, give to him; [and remember] your heart is not to be ill-disposed in giving to him, for on account of this matter God will bless you” {Deut. 15:7, 10}. What is paramount in the text is the message that while giving is important, it is how you give that matters! Do you give with love, from the fullness of your heart, or do you give grudgingly? When you give to someone, do you say a kind word or do you avert your eyes? Do you hear the call of God, in the 19th chapter, verse 18, of the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor who, like you, is also created in the Divine image”?

Sh’lah’chay’nee – “Send me, God, to places where safety nets lie torn on the ground.”

Today is the first day of the month of Tishri. The month that precedes it is Elul, the month of preparation for the High Holy Days: time that is to be spent in introspection and prayer. This is the time of year when we ponder the preciousness of relationships, and so the ancient rabbis taught that the four Hebrew letters in the word Elulaleph/lamed/vov/lamed – are the same letters found, each in turn, in the first letter of each word in the phrase anee l’dodee v’dodee lee” – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” {Song of Songs 6:3}. Elul is also an acronym for the phrase ish l’rey’ay’hu u’matanote la’ev’yonim – Each one [responsible for] his neighbor, and gifts to [be given to] the poor” {Esther 9:22}. The verse describes the celebration when we were spared during the time of Queen Esther: food was sent to friends and neighbors, and gifts to the poor. Sha’loach manote – “Sending gifts” or “sustenance” to those in need is the mitzvah of Purim: not just waving groggors to drown out evil, but doing good to champion justice.

Sh’lah’chay’nee – “Send me, God, to help and to heal.”

Moses Maimonedes – rabbi, physician, and philosopher in 12th century Morocco and Egypt – wrote, “The dignity of Israel will not be established or the religion of truth stand except through tzedakah” {Laws of Gifts to the Poor, 10:1}. This is an echo of the words of Isaiah:”Bitz’dakah tih’co’nahnee – You shall be established through righteousness” {Isaiah 54:14}. Tzedakah is not “charity,” which often carries the whiff of noblesse oblige. It is a word whose core meaning is “righteousness,” defined in the tenth chapter of Deuteronomy: “[to] uphold the cause of the orphan and the widow, befriend the stranger, and provide food and clothing [to the poor]” {Deut. 10:18}. In case we miss the point, as did people when the prophets spoke to them, the very next verse reads, “You must befriend the stranger [and care for the orphan, the widow and the poor] because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” {Deut. 10:19}.

Hearkening to that time, the 25th chapter of Deuteronomy instructs us, “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt, how that nation surprised you on your march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear” {Deut. 25: 17-18}. How were the Amalekites able to do that? Surely our tribes, moving from Sinai into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, were capable of protecting our people! Tragically forgotten were those too young, too weak, or too old to maintain the pace. As the larger body of our people moved ahead, they fell behind. Deprived of protection, they became prey, and in the words of the Torah, “All the stragglers were cut down” {Deut. 25:18}.

Who are the stragglers in America today? Who is being left behind? Who struggles to put food on the table? Who no longer has a roof over their head? According to the latest figures from the United States Census Bureau, there are 46 million people in America who are living below the poverty line, the largest number in 52 years. Poverty is defined as an annual income of below $22,000 {$22,314} for a family of four. One in five children in America lives in poverty. There has been an almost 20 percent increase in the last ten years of children’s families living below the poverty line. The youngest who live at home are now joined by those in the ‘sandwich generation’ who return home. The recession has continued to push 25-to-34-year-olds to move in with family and friends to save money. Of that group, nearly half are living below the poverty line, when their parents’ incomes are excluded. The poverty line for a single person under the age of 65 is $11,000 {$11,344}. Half of the 25-to-34 year olds returning to live at home are below that income level. Earning money is not the same as a living wage.

Houses of worship, charities and individuals have been providing emergency help for years through food pantries, food banks, and soup kitchens. We need to do more. Our country could cut domestic hunger in half within two years by spending approximately $7 billion more annually, or 7 cents per American per day {source: The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism}. Does anyone have the faith that our leaders on Capitol Hill, in a fractured, divisive Congress will do that? To balance the budget, the House of Representatives is considering ways to cut $127 billion from the food-stamp program, as well as $733 million from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a program designed to ensure proper nutrition for poor mothers and their children. It means that almost 700,000 mothers and children would lose the food vouchers and nutrition education they now receive. In June, the House passed an Agriculture Appropriations bill that slashes $38 million from the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which would take away food from 150,000 seniors living in poverty across the country. It would cut $63 million from The Emergency Food Assistance Program, which provides food to food banks and other hunger-relief agencies throughout the country.

At a time when people are losing jobs or scrambling to find them, states are shrinking the duration of unemployment benefits to laid-off workers. Last year, about 48 million people ages 18 to 64 did not work even one week out of the year, an increase of 3 million from the previous year. The longer you are out of work, the more difficult it is to find work, and without a job the odds that you will be able to feed your family and keep a roof over your head decreases dramatically. In the past four years, at least 5 million children {5.3 million} have been affected by home foreclosures.

Philadelphia, with an overall poverty rate of 25 percent, is the poorest big city [a city with a population over one million people] in America! In households with children, Philadelphia’s First Congressional District – which includes Kensington, parts of North and South Philadelphia, and Chester – is the second hungriest place for families in the United States! We are a percentage point behind Florida’s 17th Congressional District {49.6% to 50.4%} which includes the southern parts of Broward County and the eastern parts of Miami-Dade County.

Prior to the Torah reading this morning, we read a prayer called the U’netaneh Tokef. We will do so again on Yom Kippur. When one thinks of High Holy Day liturgy, it is not as readily called to mind as are the Aveenu Malkaynu, the Ahl Chet, and Kol Nidrei because in many ways it is the most unsettling of them all. While the other prayers talk about transgression, the U’netaneh Tokef makes us come face-to-face with our mortality: “Who shall live and who shall die?” It contains a series of couplets. The first set lists ‘life and death issues’: “who shall live and who shall die, who shall see ripe age and who shall not” and that set of couplets includes the words “who by hunger and who by thirst.” The other set of couples are ‘quality of life issues’: “who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; who shall be poor…who shall be humbled.”

Those are sobering thoughts, to say the least. From this New Year to the next, “Who shall live, and who shall die? Who by hunger and who by thirst? Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled? Who shall be poor…who shall be humbled?” There are millions of Americans who are troubled and humbled. They worry about losing their jobs. Low income families shop for clothes, cribs and toys at bargain rates. They frequent thrift shops and food banks. Some of them will die from hunger. Who will stand with them, feed them and help them?

Let each of us say, Sh’lah’chay’nee – “Send me.”

To avoid having lethargy set in after reading the litany of disasters in the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, we are challenged to act by doing t’shuvah, t’filah and tzedakah – “repentance, prayer and tzedakah.” It is not that we think of this as a ‘fail safe’ formula to ‘buy’ God’s forgiveness, but rather as a way to reach toward our ‘better selves.’ It is our desire to be messengers of healing and hope. It is to actualize tzedakah, in the words in Deuteronomy: “[to] uphold the cause of the orphan and the widow, befriend the stranger, and provide food and clothing [to the poor]” {Duet. 10:18}.

We are going to commit ourselves to do so with even greater passion and compassion this year at Kol Ami: ‘The Voice of My People’ responding to the call of God. Some of you have joined me over the past two years on a water fast or a ‘virtual fast’ two days a month, and you have sent money that you would have spent on food to benefit the Philadelphia Unemployment Office to help unemployed workers pay their mortgages, address health care needs, and pay electric bills. Fasting or ‘virtual fasting’ 24 days during the year and donating the money you would have spent on food is not a big thing, but it is something. We can do more.

Throughout the year, and at this time of year in particular, we bring cans of food to our synagogue and place them in bins, and from there they are taken to food pantries. We need to bring more, more often.

Two or three times a year, we gather to ‘Cook For a Friend,’ preparing healthy pre-packed food for homebound senior citizens. We will do more.

We have donated time to the Jewish Relief Agency on delivery dates when volunteers arrive at its warehouse to pack food in boxes and bring them to the homes of elderly people who do not have enough to eat, or enough money to buy the food they desperately need because by the third week of the month they are living on morsels. They barely have enough strength to go down their steps to the bus stop, to take the bus to the store to buy a few items of food, to then take a bus that will drop them off a few blocks from where they live, to walk ever so slowly back to their apartment, up the steps, and fall exhausted on their bed before they can put the food away. So boxes of food are brought to them. We must do more.

Sh’lah’chay’nee – “Send me.”

The JRA has launched the JRAid initiative to pair up volunteers with struggling families and individuals to prepare a Shabbat meal, provide a ride to a doctor’s office, take someone shopping for food, or call someone who just needs to hear a friendly voice. Who will be that voice? Who will be that person?

Sh’lah’chay’nee – “Send me.”

We have donated time to the SHARE Food Program – the Self Help and Resource Exchange. It purchases and distributes food to most of the Philadelphia area food cupboards. It provides education and promotes advocacy. It enables people to purchase food in ways that enable them to get twice the value. It encourages people to volunteer time to SHARE Food, or the community, or their neighborhood by helping a neighbor, bringing meals to the elderly, babysitting, and turning those mitzvah hours into ‘fair trade’ to buy healthy food at reduced rates. In helping each other, we break down barriers that divide people on the basis of race, religion, age, and socio-economic status, and we enhance our sense of community.

We are in touch with Carey Morgan, Executive Director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, to find out what we can do on behalf of SNAP – the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp program – to buy food and help low-income households in Pennsylvania obtain more nutritious diets by increasing their food purchasing power at grocery stores and supermarkets. The Coalition Against Hunger and SHARE Food stress the importance of engaging in political advocacy as the only way to protect programs that deliver services to those in critical need.

In Congress, a “Super Committee” made up of six Democrats and six Republicans has been tasked with a plan to reduce the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years, and it must submit its plan to Congress by Thanksgiving. Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey {R} is one of the twelve Super Committee members. He needs to hear from us! Our congressional representatives need to hear from us! Silence carries a powerful message. It suggests that we support what is being done – even if it severs lifelines and destroys hope – or that we are indifferent to what is happening. We need to be calling, writing, questioning and kvetching!

When you leave the synagogue today to enter the New Year, you will find a page that lists the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Delaware Valley legislators awaiting you. It lists our United States Senators and Congressional Representatives. Take it to your homes and offices. Put it by your phones. They need to hear from us! The challenge is two-fold: how are we going to save programs that have offered lifelines to those who are now on deadlines – “Who shall live and who shall die? Who by hunger and who by thirst?” – and where can other cuts instead be made lest we turn into Amalekites who prey on the stragglers and sufferers in our midst?

Our Social Action Committee, chaired by Ronit Sugar, will determine what more we can do to help people in need, and will recommend synagogue-based programs to meet their needs. Karen Gurmankin, a member of our synagogue, is Representative Allyson Schwartz’s ‘Community Outreach Person’ and Karen will join us at our Social Action Committee meeting on Monday, November 7th at 7:15pm to brief us about the progress of the “Super Committee” in Congress and to let us know what more we might do to save lives.

On Yom Kippur morning, Ronit will read these words from the Torah: “I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life” {Deuteronomy 30:19}. I ask you to join me in saying Sh’lah’chay’nee – “Send me to help people live.”

In the words of Isaiah, the most quoted prophet in our tradition: “Whom shall I send, and who will go [forth in God’s name]? I said, ‘Here I am. Sh’lah’chay’nee – Send me.’” {Isaiah 6:8}

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin