There is great irony in the fact that during a week when American Jews across the country were feasting on Turkey, latkes, and sufganiyot, we were also reading of famine. Last week, we were reminded by our weekly Torah reading of this famine, a famine that struck our ancestors who at least for the moment had made it to Canaan, the land of promise. This week, Shabbat Vayigash reminds us of the choices that Jacob must make to ensure the survival of his family and the continuation of God’s promised covenant.
We forget that Jacob and his sons (well, all but Joe) are in Canaan when famine strikes, that piece of geography that God has promised Abraham and Isaac before him. In order to save his family from starvation, he must leave. He must take his family down into Egypt, a place of servitude, in order for them to survive. Jacob must have known that the protection Joseph could offer would be fleeting, this was Egypt. But what choice did he have?
How many in our community must face similar difficult choices? I read recently that 30% of senior citizens in our county must choose between paying for food or health care. Thirty-five percent are faced with the dilemma of choosing between buying groceries and paying for utilities. In 2012, 46.5 million people, 15% of our country, lived in poverty. Forty-nine million people live in conditions labeled as “food insecure.”
In a country that prides itself on being a global leader, too many American citizens suffer from hunger due to substandard wages, high prices, and in some cases, a sheer lack of accessibility to nutritious food. The difference between today and Jacob’s time? We are not living in a time of famine here in America. We have no shortage of food. We just haven’t figured out how to distribute the abundance of resources in an equitable fashion so that no one goes hungry. It is our human fallibility, and arguably greed, not lack of resources, that has left us with a troubling reality of haves and have nots.
We can learn a great deal from Joseph. On the one hand, his treatment of his own family reveals a system of favoritism. There is an implication in the procedure his brothers must go through in order to get food that others in need must have been turned away. Joe’s graciousness and generosity appear to be driven by familial bonds. At the same time, in making rations available to his brothers, this band of men who were strangers in this land and were more than estranged from him, Joseph models the value of helping others, even those who appear foreign to our own environment. He could have turned a blind eye, but he chose not to. He chose to help.
How do we respond to those in need in our communities? We too often argue that resources are so limited that we couldn’t possibly demand employers to offer a livable wage to workers. And then we are shocked when black Friday deep-discount shopping causes a mania that leads to bodily harm. We blame our President and his Affordable Health Care Act for the lack of accessibility to quality health care when we should be pointing our fingers directly at the Health Insurance industry who refuses to put access to affordable healthcare ahead of large capital gain. Should our health care really be determined by the CEOs of for-profit corporations? We have allowed standing on argumentative opinion to shut down our government leaving the most vulnerable of our society gravely underserved. We don’t want to elevate the lowest wages of our society, but then we cut the programs that help those left treading on the lowest economic rungs to make ends meet.
As Jews, we have experienced famine. Jacob’s decision to leave Canaan and enter Egypt reminds us that there were times in our history when our survival depended on tough choices AND the graciousness and generosity of others. With such a history, how dare we turn away from those in need? We cannot relish in our own surplus without considering those who live in conditions that mimick famine. Everyone matters. The Mishnah reminds us that “whoever sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world.” Joseph sustained his family during famine and in doing so saved the Israelite nation. Who will each of us save?
In the words of the life-long activist and former, and first democratically elected, president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela,
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Ken y’hi ratzon – Indeed, may Mandela's vision come to be!