On Purim we are commanded to give matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor. In order for us to enjoy in food, drink, joy and frivolity, we have to ensure that the people with the least in our community are taken care of. Not only do we have to allow the needy to enjoy their own meal, but the very act of giving charity is a quintessential part of our own celebration. Just as our festivities on Purim turn societal hierarchy on its head, so must we seek to do a little to ease the disparity between the haves and the have nots in our country.
Beyond Purim, seeking to uplift the poor and feed the hungry is a Jewish value that resonates with us year-round.
In the Mishnei Torah, Maimonides tells us that if a person is hungry, we have to feed them immediately, without questioning their trustworthiness (Laws of Contributions to the Poor, 6:6). The rabbis also conceived of Jewish society as having significant social welfare systems to provide food and sustenance to those in need to ensure that every human being can live a life of dignity.
Hunger and poverty are issues that we are faced with on a massive scale both domestically and internationally:
- According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA), of the 49.1 million Americans (over 15% of America) living in food insecure households in 2008 (up from 36.2 million in 2007), 32.4 million are adults (14.4% of all adults) and 16.7 million are children (22.5% of all children).
- Over 20 million children receive free or reduced-price lunch each school day. Less than half of them get breakfast and only 10 percent have access to summer feeding sites.
- 40 percent of food is thrown out in the US every year, or about $165 billion worth. All of this uneaten food could feed 25 million Americans.
- Half of all children growing up in the United States will at one point in their childhood be on food assistance (SNAP)
- At least 80% of people in the world live on less than $10 per day and 80% of people live in countries with widening income disparities (2007 Human Development Report)
- Nearly a billion people worldwide entered the 21st century without the ability to read a book or sign their name (The State of the World’s Children, 1999, UNICEF)
- As we celebrate Purim, we must consider what it would mean to truly diminish the social hierarchy that produces these staggering statistics. Our Jewish values teach us to open up our hearts and deal generously with those in need as we seek to be God’s partners in making the world a more whole place.