This week in Torah we read the story of Abraham’s advocacy on behalf of the people in the cities of S’dom and Amorah. God has informed Abraham of God’s decision to destroy the two cities because of the sins and immorality of the people. In response, Abraham raises his voice to God in the pursuit of justice, arguing that the cities be saved. The story goes that God comes down to the cities to see what is going on, but Abraham stands in God’s path, blocking the way. Here is what their conversation sounds like:
“Are you serious, God? Are you planning on getting rid of the good people right along with the bad? What if there are fifty decent people left in the city – would you spare the city for the sake of those fifty innocents? I cannot believe that you would kill off the good and the bad alike, as if there was no difference between them. Doesn’t the Judge of all the Earth judge with justice?”
God says, “If I find fifty decent people in the city of Sodom, I will space the whole place, just for them.”
Abraham responded: “Do I, a mere mortal who is made from nothing but dust and ashes, dare open my mouth again to my Master? What if those fifty fall short by five – would You destroy the city for forty-five individuals?”
God said, “I won’t destroy it if there are 45.”
Abraham spoke up again, “What if you only find 40?”
“Neither will I destroy it for 40.”
“And what if only 30 good individuals are found?”
“No, I won’t do it if I find 30.”
Abraham pushed on, “Master, I know I am trying Your patience, but how about for 20?”
“I won’t destroy it for 20.”
Abraham would not quit. “Master, don’t get angry with me – this is the last time. What if You only come up with 10 individuals?”
“For the sake of only 10, I will not destroy the city.”
With that, God left, and Abraham went home.
Now Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, was a model for us for many things. But the essential lesson I learn from Abraham is to stand up for what is just and what is right. The Torah teaches, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you shall pursue.”
If Torah is to be as relevant today as it was over 5,000 years ago, and if these words are as central to our beliefs and our teachings as I think they are, then everything – everything – in Torah is about how to build a just world and care for one another – how to integrate the pursuit of justice and the practice of compassion into all we learn, all we work on and all we build. This is the principle of tikkun olam – repairing the world, speaking out for what is just and what is right.
And so, on this Shabbat, we join with scoress of congregations and communities around the world in the observance of Global Hunger Shabbat, a Shabbat of exploring how we can use our personal, moral and political presence and power to influence food policy, and ensure access to food for all. Global Hunger Shabbat was started by American Jewish World Service, an organization that works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world, inspired by Judaism’s commitment to justice. Global Hunger Shabbat is now a world-wide movement for social change through advocacy.
At this moment, there are nearly one billion people around the world who do not have enough food to eat, most of them living in developing countries. That’s one out of every 7 people on this planet. We are in this situation because of a variety of factors, including natural disasters, climate change, drought, poverty, greed, and war.
But I don’t want to take this time to spout out statistics about hunger and poverty – you can easily find those yourselves by searching on the internet or at the library.
Tonight my message is pretty short and simple – like Abraham, who stood up to God when he saw injustice, I believe we as Jews and as a human beings have the responsibility to act by advocating for changes to unfair policies that affect people’s ability to access food. But the mitzvah is really not only about making sure that the Jews among us have enough to eat—it is about making sure all human beings around us have something to eat. And not just anything – we are required to ensure that all people can access food that is safe, healthy, and culturally acceptable. It means that people can access this food with dignity. It means that people can earn a living wage by growing, catching, harvesting, preparing or serving food. It means that the quality of seeds, earth, air and water is guarded for the benefit of future generations. And it means that food is recognized and celebrated as central to community and cultural integrity.
So what can we do? For one, the quick and easy answer is to bring food over to the NDG Food Depot if you did not yet contribute food or tzedakah tonight. You can also bring me grocery gift cards that I will keep on hand and distribute to those who are in need.
You can give financially to Mazon Canada, to Food Secure Canada, to MADA, to Moisson Montreal. You can give of your time by volunteering at Le Cafe or one of the school breakfast programs. Better yet, go volunteer in a community kitchen or community garden program where people actually learn the skills to help move them out of poverty and dependency.
Ending food insecurity requires not only that we feed people, but also that we encourage our government not to weaken the safety net on which so many people have to rely. I want to encourage you as individuals and us as a community to continue to become educated about the issues, local and national and world-wide, and get informed about the political process, and stand ready to take action to support those around the world who face hunger whenever we are asked.
We live in a global world where the policies made by our elected officials have a deep impact on people living here in our community, here in Canada, and beyond our national borders. Contact those officials and encourage them to introduce, to maintain and to strengthen any human-centered, forward-thinking legislation that is meant to move people out of poverty and help them live with dignity.
And, of course, you can contact me or our Steering Committee (please show hands) and let us know that you are interested in combatting hunger as part of your service to the world. And if anyone here this evening is hungry, or someone you know or love is hungry, please do not be afraid to come find me. We can help. The riches we bring to this work are not only financial but also our creativity, our compassion, and our wisdom. These intangibles are what moves a community, these prayerful, intentional acts of tikkun olam and tzedekah. We are working together to build a community that is just, and one of which we can feely justly proud.
I want to encourage you, especially at this time of year, especially with the global events taking place both near to us and far away – events like Hurricane Sandy that severely impact people’s ability to access safe and nutritious food – I want to encourage you to add two things to your to-do list: first, give tzedakah, as you are able, and second, choose a do-able social justice strategy that will help to eliminate hunger.
And also pray with me that we all begin to recognize, and see without judgment, those around us who are urgently and deeply in need, especially those who are too proud or ashamed or frightened to admit it. You have heard the teaching that if you can save one life it is as if you have saved an entire world. May we be the paradigm-shifters who believe in the deepest places in our hearts that we have a social system and a food system that has the potential for ending hunger, and that the change we want to see in the world begins with us. Because THIS world is the world that you would be saving and guarding for our children’s children.
And this brings me back to Abraham. A small detail in the story of Abraham’s courageous appeal on behalf of the people of S’dom and Amorah highlights that this was not simply an audacious act on the part of an exceptional individual, but rather a model for us—his descendants—to emulate. When considering whether to tell Abraham of the plan to destroy the cities, God says about Abraham “that he may instruct his children and his descendants to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right” (Genesis 18:19). The Talmud tells us that “the descendants of Abraham are characterized by three traits: a capacity for kindness, a sense of humility, and a commitment to doing what is right.” (BT Yev. 79a) It is therefore through our own advocacy—when we raise our voices and use our own personal and moral and political power to demand righteousness and justice—that we demonstrate that we are indeed the children of Abraham, keeping the ways of God.
Chant: Let Justice Roll Down Like Water…Singing HalleluYah…
Rabbi Avi S. Olitsky