This week’s parsha, Vayera, is filled with ethical challenges: Sodom and Gomorrah, the binding of Issac, and the departure of Hagar and Ishmael. But, at the beginning of the parsha, Sarah and Abraham welcome three unexpected strangers to their tent. They wash their guests feet, bake bread and slaughter a calf for them for dinner.
Shortly after Abraham and Sarah’s generosity to the strangers, we are brought to the horrors of Sodom and Gomorrah. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah lived in a land of material abundance but followed the ethic, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” (Pirkei Avot). No one took care of sick, vulnerable people. As Aviva Goldbert of the Pardes Institute writes, “the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are utterly destroyed because, according to many commentators, they wouldn’t help the “other”: the poor, the hungry, the weak, the needy.”
We Americans live in a land today of great wealth. But, how do we share it? As I’ve written previously, there are 46.5 million hungry people in the US, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors. I live in Los Angeles–a city with hundreds of farms within hours of our city limit, countless urban gardens and some of the nation’s best restaurants–but there are 1.7 million hungry residents. These are the “others” in our cities and country: food insecure Americans who go to bed hungry, not necessarily knowing when they will next eat.
The faces of hunger in this nation aren’t always so obvious. They’re young and old; grandparents and children. They’re found in rural and urban areas, in every state and of every religion, color and ethnicity. What unites all of them is their hunger. Like the complicated relationship between Sarah and Hagar and their sons, Issac and Ishmael, we are all connected. And, thus, someone’s hunger does affect each of us.
How do we acknowledge the hungry strangers in our midst? Hunger in the US is everyone’s problem. It’s caused by a broken food system that we CAN fix. And, we can take inspiration from Sarah and Abraham’s actions at the beginning of Vayera.
There is the opportunity to connect us to the “other” in our lives. As Rabbi Brad Artson writes in, The Bedside Torah, “Hakh’nasat or’him, hospitality, is a central value of Judaism, one of distinctive mitzvot. . . . [it] reveals the human faces in our midst and restores the caring heart to its rightful place in our lives.”
In Los Angeles, for example, volunteers can partake in preparing and eating fresh, hot meals with clients of SOVA. Or one can deliver a meal to ailing people who are home-bound through Project Chicken Soup. Challah for Hunger is a great student-led group that sells homemade challah with the funds donated to groups like MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Food Forward donates 100% of gleaned produce from people’s trees and gardens to local pantries. And, if you are looking for more inspiration, check out Netiya’s Food Relief: Beyond the Can campaign about ways to rethink food donations and drives.
There are excellent examples of emergency food relief programs and they are doing critical work. But ultimately, they will not solve the hunger problem in the US. Nor is the majority of hunger relief done by charities; rather it is provided through government assistance programs, such as school lunch programs and SNAP (previously known as food stamps).
Rather, solving hunger in the US is really about tzedek, justice.
As Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar comments, “if Sodom is characterized by tze’akah (outcry), Abraham and his descendants must evince tzedakah (righteousness). This subtle word play serves to teach us that the Jewish people are in the world at least in part to embody a radical alternative to the brutal cruelty of Sodom. We are charged never to go along to get along; in the face of injustice, we are challenged by God to speak up.”
This revolution IS happening across the country. Thousands of groups are fixing our broken food system by strengthening local food economies, supporting small, local farmers, increasing people’s access to nutritious foods, pushing for policies that help to expand these programs and advocating for government resources to be redirected from industrial agriculture to small farmers. The Food Trust’s campaign aptly sums up the goal: Everyone Deserves Access to Healthy, Affordable Food.
One small example, here in Los Angeles, is at the La Cienega farmers market, where I frequently shop. Recipients of government food subsidies can double the value of this money if they spend it on fresh produce at the market. This type of program is happening at countless markets across the country and is a win-win. As the Fair Food Network has shown, with these programs, farmers earn more income, money is infused into local economies and recipients eat more healthy foods.
You can learn more about the many groups–both secular and Jewish–listed on the resources page of my blog that are doing amazing work, connecting rural and urban communities, empowering people to change their food landscapes, building strong local food systems and providing critical emergency food relief.
The recipe I created today is about our connection to the “other” in our lives. The dish is comprised of two dips that one can eat with breads, as a reminder of the breads that Sarah and Abraham offered the three strangers. In this parsha, Hagar is sent away with Ishmael. He is Isaac’s half brother and they share Abraham as their father. This dish is made with the same ingredients in different colors to represent the connection of the”brothers” and is sprinkled with sesame seeds, symbolizing their shared father. It is surrounded by greens that stand for the bush that Ishmael was left under by Hagar, and the thicket where the ram was caught and used on the altar instead of Isaac. The greens are like a family or community that stands in a circle to support and empower the most vulnerable, rather than leaving them behind like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Roasted Peppers Dips
2 organic red bell peppers (read here why they should be organic)
2 organic yellow bell peppers
4 cloves garlic
6-8 smaller carrots (I happened to find yellow, red, orange and purple ones at the market but orange will work)
small bunch of frisee or other greens
2 tbsp olive oil
1 handful toasted walnut (about 15 whole walnuts)
2 tbsp tahini
1/2 lemon juice
1/2 tsp pomegranate molasses or 1/2 medjool date
1/4 tsp schug or other chili paste
1/4 tsp black sesame seeds
salt to taste
1. Pre-heat oven to 500 degrees. Wash vegetables.
2. Place peppers, carrots and garlic (with skins) on parchment paper lined trays and drizzle with olive oil.
3. Cook until brown, turning over half way through cooking, approximately 40 minutes.
4. Remove from oven and let cool. Once cool, peel pepper skins and take out seeds. Remove garlic skins and carrot tops.
5. Place yellow peppers, 2 cloves garlic and 3-4 carrots (yellow, if you have) in blender with tahini and a pinch of salt. Blend until smooth.
6. In another blender container, place red peppers, 2 cloves garlic and 3-4 carrots (red and orange ones) in blender. Add schug, pomegranate molasses, walnuts, salt and lemon juice. Blend until smooth.
7. On a platter, arrange dips side by side and sprinkle black sesame seeds on top. Then, arrange greens along the edge of the plate.