Hunger must be one of the most frightening words in our vocabulary.
When you’re hungry, you can’t think straight, you may not be able to walk or talk straight or become ‘hangry’ because of the gnawing in your tummy. It’s the most basic of human needs. Rabbi Elazar understood this only too well when he said: If there is no flour, there is no Torah (Ethics of the Fathers 6:22). In other words hunger stifles the striving for spirituality . The American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously described it as the most fundamental of human requirements in his pyramid or hierarchy of human needs.
For most of us, especially in affluent countries like Australia, hunger is more often self-imposed than forced upon us. We experience it when we are rushed, or on an intermittent diet or a religious fast day.
Real, uninvited hunger, is fearsome – it can destroy dreams, faith and family, fun and fulfilment, it undermines communities and erodes nations.
Mahatma Gandhi captured the horror of hunger when he said: There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.
Climate change and warfare, politics and the pernicious abuse of power, mean that famine and starvation are threatening so many lives. Think Ukraine and the wheat crisis. Think Ethiopia and North Korea, India and Afghanistan where hunger is widespread.
Rabbi Elazar who said if there is no flour, there is no Torah, completed his statement by saying – if there is no Torah, there is no flour. He obviously didn’t mean that studying the Torah guarantees you bread in the cupboard but rather that we need both food and a soul to create a life of meaning. I would like to extend his idea by suggesting that when we provide food for the hungry it is one of the most virtuous and elevated of deeds we can perform.
What makes the situation so tragic is that, thanks our technological prowess, our planet actually produces enough food to feed every hungry mouth, but we fail to get it to them.
According to Jewish tradition, sufficient food is one of the gifts that God has given us. In one of the most celebrated of Jewish prayers (called Ashrei ) said three times a day, King David proclaims that “God you open your hand and satisfy every single living being” (Psalm 145). I have always understood this to mean that God has given us the capacity and means to ensure that nobody should go hungry.
Then there is the issue of food waste. According to the UN World Food Program nearly one third of all food produced each year is squandered or spoiled before it can be consumed.
For many Australians this food waste happens in the kitchen — when we prepare food that is left uneaten or spoils in our fridges.
For millions of people in low income countries, this food waste happens at harvest time. Poor storage leads to pest infestations or mould that ruins crops before they can be eaten.
For Jewish tradition this isn’t just about bad management or bad habits but also about a spiritual failure. When we misuse our food resources, we dissipate our spiritual strength as well. Jewish law has an imperative: you shall not waste! Neither your material nor your spirit resources.
To feed another is not merely attending to their physiological needs, but also fulfilling all those other needs that Maslow notes. It’s about creating a spirit of love and belonging and the possibility of self esteem and self actualisation for both the recipient and giver.
Responding to hunger is, in Jewish tradition, a mitzvah or meritorious act – if a person asks for food you should give instantaneously, spontaneously and unquestioningly. If they ask for money or the like you should check their request carefully (especially if you are distributing public funds). Rav Yehuda says: “We check regarding clothes but we do not check regarding food” (Bava Batra 9a). One of my favourite Talmudic sayings is that before we eat we have two stomachs – we appreciate what it is to be hungry – afterwards we have only one. We surely also have two hearts, compassion bandwidth, when we recognise what it is to be ravenous, suffering from hunger.
Some of the most inspiring stories today come from people feeding people. They come from Melbourne to the Ukraine, from India to America.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting a Sikh temple or Gurudawara in Canberra. Attached to the temple and place of prayer is a langar, a communal kitchen where food is prepared and served for free to anyone regardless of their background, status or belief. While this is a remarkable and charitable value on its own, what is even more remarkable is the way the Sikh community across the world make it a mission to feed people in places of disaster. They take their mobile kitchens to where they are needed most. They were among the first responders setting up kitchens for the millions of refugees fleeing Ukraine, they were there in Australia during the COVID crisis, the bushfires and recent floods.
There are similar inspiring examples of how the Chabad Jewish community across the Ukraine and Eastern Europe has opened their hearts and centres to feed anyone in need. The work of the Joint or JDC and other similar global Jewish organisations is impressive.
Then there’s José Andrés, a Spanish American chef, restaurateur and philanthropist who has set up mobile kitchens to provide hot meals for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.
In February he tweeted:
“People of the World… Like you, I am distraught watching Ukraine under attack,” Andrés, 52, captioned a video on Twitter. “We must come together as a force for good!”
Finally, closer to home there’s the amazing work of C Care and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), our own emergency response at Jewish Care, the Salvos and Melbourne Food Relief. C Care is the leading frontline Jewish community organisation supporting those who are experiencing food insecurity and social isolation. They work hand in glove with Jewish Care and other organisations who refer their clients who are experiencing food insecurity and social isolation.
I recently found out about another voluntary organisation, Second Bite, which operates across Australia including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth and partners with organisations in Tasmania and the Northern Territory. They collect goods from farmers, manufacturers and retailers who donate their surplus and unsold food. They use the donations to run a food collection and distribution service in areas where it is efficient to do so. In other areas they run a Community Connect™ model that connects community organisations to local food donors, enabling them to collect food directly.
As human beings, we hunger for meaning as we hunger for food. As Moses reminded his people in his farewell message: human beings don’t live on bread alone, they need dreams as well.
When we help feed another we attend to their and our dreams. Perhaps that is why the word for a dream in Hebrew – chalom – has exactly the same letters as the word for bread or lechem.
So let’s keep on feeding and dreaming…distributing bread and roses.