Reading the news with Isaiah: Of hotels, the homeless and destroying food

Jews throughout the world completed celebrating the week-long holiday of Passover. The rabbis named the holiday “the time of our freedom,” commemorating God’s miraculous emancipation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Matzah, the unleavened bread, is probably the most ubiquitous symbol of Passover. Consumed for seven days in Israel and eight in the Diaspora, on the first night during the ritual Seder, matzah bears two distinct symbols.

At the beginning of the Seder, we describe the matzah as the bread of poverty and affliction:

This is the bread of destitution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; anyone who is in need should come and partake of the Pesach sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel; this year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.

This designation finds its source in Deuteronomy 16:3, “You shall not eat anything leavened with it; for seven days thereafter you shall eat unleavened bread, the bread of destitution.”

Poverty and affliction make up the symbol of matzah at the beginning of the Seder. As if at this moment, we are reliving slavery and hence relate to the main symbol of the Seder as the bread of affliction.

Indeed, matzah excels in its role as the symbol of oppression. Egypt, which invented bread making, celebrated their culinary achievements. Explaining the importance of the role of the Pharaoh’s chief baker in Genesis, Nahum Sarna explains,

No less than fifty-seven varieties of bread and thirty-eight different types of cake are attested in the texts. The baker is reflecting native epicurean propensity when he dreams of baskets containing ‘all kinds of food that a baker prepares (Gen. 40:17)” (Understanding Genesis p. 218).

In an Orwellian twist, the Egyptians, living in the land of bread and basking in their opulence, gave the Jews “poor bread.”

They successfully reduced the Jews’ self-esteem and raised that of their own. Matzah to this day represents the cheap fast food given to the destitute who do no partake in the wealth of the nation.

Yet the mood and symbol change with the telling, and reliving, of the story. Near the end, the Haggadah text quotes Rabban Gamliel’s explanation of the symbolic value of eating matzah:

This matzah that we are eating, for the sake of what [is it]? To commemorate that our ancestors’ dough was not yet able to rise, before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed [Himself] to them and redeemed them, as it is stated (Exodus 12:39); “And they baked the dough which they brought out of Egypt into matzah cakes since it did not rise; because they were expelled from Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they made for themselves provisions.

Thus, matzah at the Seder represents the moment of Exodus and freedom from bondage. The Israelites couldn’t wait, and this lack of delay finds its symbol in the flatbread they could bake quickly and efficiently carry.

As Jews read the story, matzah moves from the bread of the poor, the afflicted, and the destitute to acquire the symbol of freedom. We even ate the matzah reclining in an odd commemoration of Roman-style high culture to symbolize wealth and dignity.

How disheartening to read the news stories this week in light of the Festival of Freedom. After cleaning up the dishes and putting the house back into a semi-pre-holiday order, I opened my phone to catch up on the horrors of the day.

A New Orleans store owner writes in the Washington Post about the dire situation of customers who are running out of food. He writes about his clients, “I don’t blame any of these people. I like them. Some of these customers, I love. I truly do. They’re getting by however they can. It’s not their fault. It’s not like they’re asking me for handouts on gin or beer. I don’t sell alcohol. I won’t give loans on cigarettes. What they need is milk, cheese, canned goods, bread, toilet paper, bleach, baby wipes. It’s basics — the basic essentials.” Yet, without sources of work and cash flow, how are these people supposed to purchase essentials? If there is no food and no money, what can they do? They might not even be able to buy the modern equivalent of the bread of affliction.

On the other hand, one reads that there might be not only not a lack but an abundance of food.

The New York Times reports, “With restaurants, hotels and schools closed, many of the nation’s largest farms are destroying millions of pounds of fresh goods that they can no longer sell.” Destroying surplus food is nothing new. The coronavirus and international shutdowns did not cause the process. But juxtaposing the poor begging for credit to purchase essentials in New Orleans with farmers in the heartland plowing under fresh green beans, dumping out millions of gallons of milk, and destroying cheese is beyond bearable.

One farmer lamented on a Facebook feed that his friends have been asked by the government to destroy food because they lack a method of distribution. Is this the world we want to remake? We have the food to feed the starving but not the trucks to get it to them? The National Guard can be called upon to move ventilators from one hospital to another but not to truck eggs from Indiana to Louisiana? The Haggadah begins, “all who are hungry, come and eat.” Did we forget that you can only receive the bread of freedom “if you have your own method of distribution?”

An even starker contrast appears in other stories. Who can ignore the pictures of Las Vegas homeless lying on the ground outdoors with the glamorous hotels gleaming in the background? As the New York Times reported, “The casinos are deserted and thousands of hotel rooms are empty. But when the city needed space for a temporary homeless shelter, officials chose an outdoor parking lot.” In defense of the decision, an opinion piece in the Las Vegas Review-Journal proclaims, “the companies that have invested billions of dollars to make Las Vegas the most entertaining and compelling resort destination on Earth must protect that investment.”

As if we didn’t already have a name associated with Las Vegas, a rabbinic aphorism comes to mind,

 There are four types of people: One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” is an ignoramus. One who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is an average person; others say that this is the character of a Sodom. One who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” is a righteous person. And one who says “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” is wicked. (Avot 5:10)

Las Vegas has been called Sodom for a host of reasons, whether it deserved the name or not. But given the attitude of some, how can we not apply such a vile biblical description to the city at this time.

The opinion piece continues by quoting a professor of hotel operations, “using hotel rooms for homeless people or even hospital patients would provide operational issues for resorts as well as a brand image problem. ‘Helping out is good PR,’ he said. ‘At the same time, you have to understand they’re not running a charity. They are obligated to the stockholders and other constituents.’

I doubt anyone is accusing the hotels of running a charity. As people sleep in the street, the hotels are afraid of a “brand image problem.”

That seems to be precisely the rabbinic definition of Sodom. Like the great prophet, Isaiah lamented,

Ah, those who add house to house and join field to field, till there is room for none but you to dwell in the land! In my hearing [said] the LORD of Hosts: Surely, great houses shall lie forlorn, spacious and splendid ones without occupants.” (Isaiah 5:8-9)

How can one’s heart not break? People cannot afford even basic food, and farmers are forced to dump and destroy fresh produce. Luxurious rooms in hotels are bereft of customers while people sleep one next to the other on asphalt streets. Is this humanity can do? There has to be a better way.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik formulated a recipe for human dignity.

 Men of old who could not fight disease and succumbed in multitudes to yellow fever or any other plague with degrading helplessness could not lay claim to dignity. Only the man who builds hospitals, discovers therapeutic techniques, and saves lives is blessed with dignity.” (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith p. 17)

God calls us to live lives of dignity. As the medical industry strives to heal the sick and find cures for the disease, we must all do more. In Sodom, they closed their doors, declaring the wretched, not their problem. “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” On Passover, we moved from affliction to dignity. But the movement shouldn’t stop.

There is a rabbinic tradition about the period after Passover. From the second night of Passover through Shavuot, Jews count the Omer. The count commemorates the barley offering brought to the Temple for 49 days. Each day a new measure of barley is brought, and a new number is counted. This process continues until the holiday of Shavuot. On Shavuot two loaves of wheat bread take the place of the barley offering. According to tradition, barley was primarily animal fodder while wheat the food of dignified man. What makes the change from animal life to human? According to tradition, God gave the Torah on Shavuot. Obeying the law of God and not animal instinct bestows dignity upon humanity.

It is the Torah that commands us to remember the Exodus from Egypt, “remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there.” It is the Torah that demands that the memory of the Exodus motivate us, “therefore, do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” And it is the Torah which continues to command that the pro-active result of that memory is to help the poor, “when you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow–in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” (Deut. 24:18-19)

As we leave Passover behind and move toward Shavuot, praying to end the scourge of COVID-19, let us remember the past and move forward. To quote the great prophet, “ [to] learn to do good, devote ourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)   In other words, let the world merit receiving the Torah.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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