Handling hungry Israelites

Famine was a very real threat in the Biblical story, and it was the impetus for many dramatic, life-changing moments.

The ones with the food control the ones without food.

It's really that simple. Lack of food makes you do crazy things. Being hungry makes you forget about everything else. Look what happened to Jean Valjean. And Esau, for that matter. When Esau was famished, weak with hunger "ayef" (Gen: 25:30), he gave up his birthright for some food. Jacob knew he's found his brother in a vulnerable state, and chose that moment to take advantage of it. Say what you will about Jacob and his mother's prophecy of the older serving the younger,  but Jacob acted exactly when he would have the most impact on his brother's decisions-when he was hungry.

Famine was a very real threat in the Biblical story, and it was the impetus for many dramatic, life-changing moments. When there was a famine, people moved. Abraham and Jacob both "went down to Egypt" when there was no food. Throughout the Bible and Rabbinic literature, Egypt was the place where bad things happened. It was Mitzrayim, the constricted place, where people were exposed to disturbing things, things the people kept being warned about, and told not to act like "them." Perhaps it's no coincidence that hunger drove them there. Hunger doesn't usually lead to making good choices.

When people are hungry, they get restless. Consider how many times Moses had to put up with the rumblings of a discontented people when their stomachs were rumbling. No sooner had they crossed the Red Sea than they started complaining about food and water. They weren't sure where the next meal was coming from, and even after God provided that manna in the wilderness, the people still weren't sure it was going to be there the next day, too. Freedom is all very good as an ideal, but what good is it if you starve to death in the process?  In Bamidbar, the continuing story of the journey, Moses has to endure quite a rebellion. The afsafsuf (murmuring, desperate, mixed-multitude….take your pick, the Sages disagree as to who these people really were) felt, "a gluttonous craving, wept, and said, 'If we only had meat to eat!' (Num:11:4)   Some say they were hungry for spiritual fulfillment, some say they were just hungry, but, lacking the scent of dinner cooking, the scent of rebellion took its place.

We don't have to look far to see the connection between social problems and hunger. It's easy to get hunger statistics for this country. The reports may call it "food insecurity" but it's just plain hunger. In 2012, there were 46.5 million people in poverty in this country. That's 15 percent of the population. And for that same year, 49 million people experienced "food insecurity," and almost 16 million of those people were kids who didn't always know where the next meal was coming from.  That kind of hunger can make people do awful things, like choose food over medicine, or theft over purchasing. And that's just here in America; there are estimates of two billion hungry in the world. Two billion people. Would you like to get out a map and correlate unstable governments with where those two billion people live?

Not everyone who is hungry incites rebellion. But the hungry are here. Torah tells us what to do. In Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Ruth and more, we are told time and time again to leave the gleanings, open our doors, save a life, and above all, maintain their dignity. "A small bit of bread may be life to the poor; one who deprives them of it sheds blood."  (Ben Sira)  Enough deprivation, enough shed blood. 

Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.

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