During a recent visit to Kansas City, I was talking to friends at my former congregation about their recent trip to the New York area. They had been to a wedding reception and marveled at the prodigious sushi bar. I smiled when they admitted to making the classic mistake of those not familiar with New York folkways: filling up on appetizers in the mistaken notion that they are the main meal.
An amusing incident cannot conceal a more sober reality. The laden tables of food are not available to everyone. The Unites States is the richest country in the world and also, among the developed countries, has the highest proportion of hungry people. The Jewish population of this country should have a special responsibility in preventing hunger for two reasons: our relative affluence and our Biblical heritage. The Biblical reference most particular to this case is found in this week’s parashah; the law that farmers must leave the gleanings of their fields, and left–behind sheaves of grain, for the poor. (Leviticus 19:9–10)
The contemporary Protestant theologian John Hartley explains that these laws undercut the strong human temptation to greed in the presence of plenty. The landlord is not burdened by having to pay for the collection of the gleanings, and the gleaners are given the dignity of the opportunity to labor for their own needs. (Word Bible Commentary: Leviticus)
The generosity of givers and the dignity of receivers do not, today, measure up to the Biblical ideal. Part of the reason is that in a more complex society, people with plenty and people with little tend to occupy separate territories. It would be good if, after a wedding or bar mitzvah party, the gleanings could be made available to the needy. In many cases, though, there are problems of access. One Jewish–sponsored organization in particular, Mazon, addresses the issue by asking for donations as a percentage of what one spends on a party. The money collected is then distributed to food banks around the country.
Just imagine what the effect would be if everyone who sponsored a wedding or bar mitzvah party were to allocate a percentage to the hungry. Just imagine what the effect would be if, beyond that, the Jewish population of this country set aside even a small percentage of its annual restaurant spending to feed the hungry.
This Passover, we read the words of the Haggadah: All who are hungry, come and eat. Yet the Jews as a whole have not made this statement real nor fulfilled the mitzvah stated in the Torah. If we did, we would come closer to being a nation of kedoshim — holy people — which is the title and opening words of this week’s parashah.
The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.