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). Our Jewish faith also calls on us to feed the hungry; in Isaiah 58:7, we are commanded to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.” 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 2013 data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), over 49 million Americans lived in a household that faced difficulty affording enough food in 2013.
- 50% of U.S children will receive SNAP benefits at some point before they reach the age of 20.
- In a 2014 US Conference of Mayors Report, 82 percent of the cities surveyed reported that food pantries and emergency kitchens had to cut the amount of food distributed during every visit, and 77 percent said that food assistance providers reduced the number of monthly visits allowed. The majority of cities expect that the number of requests for emergency food assistance will increase in the year ahead.
- In July 2013, nearly three million children ate subsidized summer lunch on an average day, and the program only reached one in seven of the low-income children who rely on subsidized school lunch during the school year.
- 31 million children received free or reduced school lunch during the school year 2013.
- Food insecurity is nationwide and has major impacts on children – previous USDA studies have shown that children who live in food-insecure households have increased risks of developmental and health problems. Studies also link growing up in poverty to obesity later on in life, further demonstrating how important it is for us to ensure that children do not go hungry.
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.