Feeding the Hungry
Feeding the Hungry
Many years ago, I recall a student’s once asking me about the wording of the first blessing of the Grace after Meals:
Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who feedest the whole world with thy goodness, with grace, with lovingkindness and tender mercy; thou givest food to all flesh, for thy lovingkindness endureth forever. Through thy great goodness food hath never failed us: O may it not fail us for ever and ever for thy great Name's sake, since thou nourishest and sustainest all beings and doest good unto all, and providest food for all thy creatures whom thou hast created. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who givest food unto all.
The student was troubled by the prayer’s assertion that God was providing an adequate amount of food for all human beings. Aren’t there many people right up to the present day who have regularly experienced the pangs of hunger and even starvation? “Are we blinding ourselves to reality by attributing to God this type of kindness?” my student wondered aloud. “Furthermore, does wishing make it so?”
I believe I responded to his question that while there may be sufficient food available for every person alive at any given time, humanity’s artificially imposed economic standards, whereby some farmers are paid not to grow certain crops, the perceived necessity of pricing resulting in certain poverty-stricken individuals not being able to afford nutritious foods that they and their families need to remain healthy, and agri-businesses being answerable to their boards of directors who are concerned about profits rather than the needs of the general public who might have contrary priorities, all contribute to the sort of inequities that result in food privation for certain populations.
While I continue to believe the truth of the economy-based answer that I gave the student so long ago, I now think that there is also a theological dimension as well as a social justice perspective that ought to be added. On the one hand, while there are numerous metaphors that insist that when compared to God, man is a puny and inadequate creature (see e.g., the blog post “Praying to Avoid Embarrassment,”) there is an opposite Rabbinical conceit that views man, if not as a total peer, than at least as an important component in God’s plan for the positive evolution and constructive moral development of the world that He created. E.g.,
R. Chiya b. Rav of Difti recited to them: (Exodus 18:13) “And the people stood about Moses from the morning into the evening.” Now, can you really think that Moses sat and judged all day? When was his learning (of Torah) done?
But it is to teach you: Every judge who judges with complete fairness even for a single hour, the Writ gives him credit as though he had become a partner to the Holy One, blessed be He, in the Creation. (For) here it is written: “And the people stood about Moses from the morning into the evening” whilst elsewhere it is written: (Genesis 1:5) “And there was morning, and there was evening, one day.”
R. Hamnuna said: He who prays on the eve of the Sabbath and recites: (Genesis 2:1) “And the heaven and the earth were finished…”, the Writ treats of him as though he had become a partner with the Holy One, blessed be He, in the Creation, for it is said: “Vayechulu” (and they were finished); read not “Vayechulu” but “VaYechalu” (and “they”, i.e., God and the one who is reciting the verse as part of Ma’ariv and/or Kiddush on Friday evening, finished together with one another.)
Whereas the source of Shabbat 10a that speaks of “judges,” could be understood as asserting that certain human roles are more central to the virtue and maintenance of society than others, the source of Shabbat 119b ubiquitously applies to everyone, from people like judges who assume the most complex and sophisticated professions, to even laborers and field hands—everyone has the obligation to recite the prayers and Kiddush, which include attesting to the origin of the world and its contents.
However, one could continue to wonder why the metaphysical fact of verbally declaring how God completed creation is tantamount to serving as His “partner”?
A possible response might be that even if the scientific answer to the intriguing philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does the tree make a sound?” is: yes it does, empirical proof to that effect will be lacking, (unless, of course, sensors have been previously installed designed to detect the presence of sound waves, something that has only become possible relatively recently.) So too, regarding the creation, even if man has not actively participated in the fabrication of the various natural components of his environment, if he were to acknowledge the identity of Who the actual maker of these things is, he actively contributes to the dissemination of belief in God’s creatorship and the need to fulfill His commandments.
But I would take the Talmud’s concept of serving as God’s “partner” in the manner of a “judge” one step further: Just as a human judge pro-actively attempts to set aright things in the world that have gone wrong, often due to human malfeasance and selfishness, we should not stop at giving mere lip service to God’s great achievements by means of prayers and blessings, but pro-actively engage in “Tikun Olan” (repairing the world,) each in his/her own way, within the context which we directly affect, and as far as our personal resources permit.
An exemplar of this approach to life with respect to feeding the hungry, was Chatam Sofer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Sofer), who, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 8:10, explained Psalms 37:25: “I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread” (a verse that appears in Birkat HaMazon’s final paragraph, and could be considered a complement to its first blessing, cited above) as follows:
"...I never saw a righteous person forsaken, because as soon as I would become aware of him, he was no longer forsaken, since I opened my hand to him and I supported him from my own goodness and possessions..."
Partnering with God with respect to sharing food with the needy, as well as activism vis-à-vis a great many other things that constitute the necessities and means of improving human civilization, is certainly a powerful Jewish value conveyed implicitly in our liturgy.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993 until his retirement in 2015. He blogs daily at https://firstname.lastname@example.org and his website can be accessed at https://rayanotyaakov.wordpress.com.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the each of the first three Quarters of 5779. You can see the most recent entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
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