Shammai Engelmayer
Shammai Engelmayer

Food for High Holy Days thought

The month of Elul begins on Sunday evening. That means that this is the time we should re-examine our lives in order to prepare ourselves for the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. Those days are when we need to finalize our efforts to achieve t’shuvah, repentance.

To begin the process, we will focus this week on an obligation highlighted in two Torah verses—one found in last week’s parashah and one in this week’s portion. They go hand in hand, and the obligation they impose has taken on even more importance because of the economic devastation wrought by covid-19.

The first verse says, in part, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, then you shall bless the Lord your God.” (See Deuteronomy 8:10.)

This is regarded as a commandment to recite the Grace After Meals, the Birkat Hamazon. Why, however, does the text say “when you have eaten and are satisfied, then you shall bless”? Why did it not just say “when you have eaten, then you shall bless”? Why add “satisfied,” since why else would we be thankful for our food?

There must be a reason for “satisfied” being there, because the Torah does not waste words.

To find the answer, we have to look at Deuteronomy 14:29, the verse in this week’s reading, Parashat Re’ei, in which we are told: “And the Levite, because he has no part nor inheritance with you, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord your God may bless you….”

The same verbs—eat, satisfy, bless—are used in both verses and in the same order. This is the Torah’s way of linking the two commandments together, telling us that the commandment in last week’s reading requires fulfilling the commandment from this week to be operative; there is no one without the other.

The Torah’s laws are not meant to be taken separately. As an example, we must not do any work on Shabbat, as we are told in Exodus and elsewhere. In Leviticus, however, we are told that we are to live by the law, and as our Sages of Blessed Memory put it, that means that we are not to die by the law, so when life is even suspected of being in danger, life overrides Shabbat. One law connects with another. (See the Babylonian Talmud tractate Yoma 85b.) There is no one without the other.

So it is here. It is in the difference between the two verses that we find the link between the two. In this week’s verse, it is not we who eat and are satisfied, but the poor and the disadvantaged; and rather than we blessing God, it is God who blesses us.

Why does God bless us for doing what we are supposed to do in the first place?

It is because, in this case as in so many other instances in the Torah, caring for the disadvantaged is not our job in the first place. It is God’s job. The Torah makes this clear time and again. This week, God tells us how He will go about doing that job and so many others: God makes us His agents. God blesses us for doing God’s work for Him. (See Deuteronomy 12:28.)

In a sense, God blesses us for being Him. There is a principle of halacha that tells us that a person’s agent is as himself. (See, for example, BT B’rachot 34b.) God keeps His word to the poor and disadvantaged by making us His agents.

Now we can begin to understand what “satisfied” really means in the first verse, Deuteronomy 14:29. It has nothing to do with our having enjoyed our meal. It has everything to do with acknowledging that we have satisfied the requirement inherent in the linked verses. Unless we have met God’s responsibility to feed the poor before we sit down to our own meal, we can eat all we want, but in no way have we satisfied the obligation God imposed on us. And if we are not satisfied in this way, reciting Grace is not only meaningless, we are actually perjuring ourselves—and worse, making God into a liar, because the first blessing of Grace ends with “Praised are You, Lord, who feeds all.”

“Satisfied” in the second verse, on the other hand, means that feeding the poor is not enough. A couple of slices of pizza and some Oreo cookies may satisfy hunger, but Deuteronomy 14:29 does not say “and they shall eat.” It says “and they shall eat and be satisfied,” which in their case means that they have had a sufficiently nutritious meal, not just a filling one. Only if the food we give them is wholesome and nutritiously satisfying in every way can it be said that we have fulfilled God’s agency.

Only then are we privileged to recite the Grace After Meals.

In America, we could argue that we pay taxes and our taxes are being used in part to feed the poor. That may fulfill the letter of the law, but it does not fulfill its spirit. In any case, it is no longer true, if it ever was, despite the government’s best efforts.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, at one point or another in 2019, before the pandemic hit, more than 35 million Americans were unable to obtain enough nutritious food to meet their needs; many were not even sure where their next meal was coming from. That works out to just more than 10 percent of all U.S. households.

The pandemic only made the problem worse. According to researchers at Northwestern University, nearly a quarter of all U.S. households in early 2020 suffered from so-called “food insecurity” because of the pandemic—a 150 percent increase over 2019.

Children suffer the most. Before covid-19 hit, more than 5 million children experienced food insecurity. According to the Northwestern researchers, food insecurity in 2020 in homes with children had tripled in 2020.

The organization Feeding America projects that 42 million people (1 in 8 Americans), including 13 million children (1 in 6 children in America), may experience food insecurity during this year.

Nearly 26 percent of Israelis experience food insecurity, too. Of these, more than 40 percent are said to be living with severe hunger. Among older Israelis, 18.8 percent reportedly struggle to put food on their tables.

Hunger is a universal scourge. According to the United Nations World Food Program, thanks mainly to covid-19, as many as 265 million people suffered from food insecurity in 2020—double what it was in 2019.

When it comes to observing the Torah’s laws, performing its mitzvot, its commandments, we must never assume that kneejerk ritual is in any way a substitute for informed observance. The Birkat Hamazon, the Grace After Meals, is an excellent example. Reciting it after a meal is not optional. It is a requirement—but that also means that providing for the poor is a requirement.

Just to perform a commandment without understanding it is to do something for no reason at all, or for the wrong reason altogether. That accomplishes nothing. All of us must make our homes into centers of Torah and mitzvot—but not just because that is what we are supposed to do. We must do it because we understand why we are supposed to do it, because if we understand why, we are making a conscious choice to do it. “Kavanah,” conscious intent, is crucial to performing mitzvot. (See, for example, BT B’rachot 13a.)

There are many ways to fulfill this particular obligation. We can bring unexpired and unopened food we do not need to a local food bank, such as the Center for Food Action locations in our area (to find the nearest site, go to cfanj.org/donate-food/). Locally, as well, we can donate to Jewish Family Services for its Meals on Wheels program.

Nationally, we can make monthly or substantive annual donations to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger (mazon.org), or to Feeding America (www.feedingamerica.org)—or to both. We can similarly help those living in food insecurity in Israel by donating to American Friends of Meir Panim (meirpanim.org), among other philanthropies.

We can also fulfill this mitzvah, at least in part, each time we are at the supermarket, by buying one of those $3 or $5 food-for-the-needy coupons sold at the checkout counters. That is not a great deal of money, to be sure, but it adds up over a year. Besides, the more people who participate in buying these coupons, the more money is available to help feed the hungry.

If we do such these things, we will do what these two linked verses require of us, and we will have at least one less character flaw to worry about this Yom Kippur.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel of the Palisades. He hosts adult Jewish education classes twice each week on Zoom, and his weekly “Keep the Faith” podcast may be heard on Apple Podcasts, iHeart Radio, and Stitcher, among other sites. Information on his classes and podcast is available at www.shammai.org.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments