Hunger in Texas: What Can One Temple Do?

Sermon given March 26, 2004, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Tonight, we began reading Leviticus. Oy vey! It’s the boring part of the Torah, again. Worse than boring, these chapters are filled with blood and gore and outmoded practices that seem to have very little to do with Judaism or the world as we know it. Over 1900 years have passed since our people last offered animal sacrifices to God. Can’t we stop talking about it?

No, we can’t. We follow an ancient teaching of a Rabbi with the funny-sounding name, Ben Bag Bag. He urges us to return to the text, over and over again, that we may ever find new meaning in it. For us, ancient sacrifices open a variety of interpretive possibilities. Choice animals, grains, loaves, oil, and spices were brought to the Temple. Some, like the sin offerings, were burned, and the remnants were disposed of properly. Most sacrifices, though, were eaten. A token portion would be offered up to God, while the remainder would be shared, sometimes with the person offering the sacrifice, but always with the priests, and often with other persons in need. The sacrifices, then, were one of the ways that God commanded our ancestors to assure that everybody had enough to eat.

Our tradition includes many such ordinances. Birkat hamazon, our blessing after the meal, praises God as Hazan et hakol, the one who feeds all humanity. We offer this prayer, knowing full well that too many men, women and children on this Earth do not have enough to eat, and that millions die of starvation and malnutrition every year. God is Hazan et hakol; God has created this world in a way that provides enough food for everyone. We are the ones who must heed the Torah, to see that everyone receives a fair share of what God has granted.

We are all too aware that the whole human family has failed in this regard. Redemption has not come to this world, for we have abdicated our responsibility to be God’s partners in building a better future for the neediest among us.

Thank God, here in America, fewer of our fellow citizens die of hunger. And yet, right here in the greatest nation in the world, millions still go to bed hungry, including altogether too many of our fellow Texans. In statistics provided by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, we learn that “ten percent of Texas children live in hunger, and almost 13 per cent of Texas households experience some level of food insecurity.” As we know all too well, the situation gets worse, the farther south one travels in our great state. “In the border region, one out of three Texans lives in poverty.”

For much longer than I have been around, Temple Beth-El has striven to do its part to alleviate hunger in our community. We faithfully bring bags of canned goods to the Temple on Yom Kippur morning. We donate generously to the Purim Hunger and Homeless Drive. This Sunday, Mitzvah Day will be another opportunity. For almost two years, a dozen and a half Temple members have volunteered for Meals on Wheels, delivering nourishment on two routes in our neighborhood, assuring that 20 or more families have enough to eat, all week long. Another ten or twelve gather in our Temple kitchen, one Sunday each month, cooking massive quantities for the Food Bank’s “Second Servings” program. We are blessed that our congregation’s Osias and Beulah Wolf “Feed the Hungry” Fund underwrites all the expenses for this service.

Providing this service, our volunteers and donors are like the ancient Israelites, bringing offerings to the Temple, to be shared by those in need. Those who are involved in these endeavors are doing a mitzvah, not just a good deed, but fulfilling a sacred religious obligation to take care of those who would otherwise not have enough to eat.

Are we doing enough? Frankly, I’m delighted by the good work we are doing. I don’t think our congregation is deficient in that regard, as we once were. Sure, we have enough hungry neighbors to fill ten Meals on Wheels routes, maybe twenty, not just two, but two is very good for a congregation of busy people. I am also mindful that numerous Temple members work through other organizations, particularly the San Antonio Food Bank, to assure that the hungry have enough to eat.

And yet, I wonder if we have looked closely enough at one aspect of the way that our Torah would have us understand this mitzvah. Bringing the sacrifices is a commandment. The total disappearance of hunger is an ideal we are expected to achieve. This work is not optional, for each of us individually or for our society. Our Torah, and our faith, require us to give witness that God demands an end to hunger. The shameful reality in our State should embarrass us, bringing disgrace upon every Texan.

Our volunteer efforts are a good start, but they are insufficient all by themselves. We can not satisfy our community’s hunger through our own efforts alone. If we took up advocacy for the hungry without providing service ourselves, we would be hypocrites. And yet, service without advocacy will ultimately be futile. The time for appropriate Temple advocacy has come.

Hunger is not a partisan issue. Synagogues and churches are empowered to speak out on issues of moral concern, even as we are enjoined from supporting any particular candidate or party. The deplorable plight of the hungry in Texas did not spring up anew, with the advent of Republicans leadership. Democrats and Republicans have equal cause to hang their heads in shame. Republicans and Democrats share in the responsibility to change our priorities in Texas.

So what shall we say, when we contact our elected officials? First, let me tell you that there is no need to take notes. You will receive information as you exit the Wulfe Sanctuary, not just with facts, but also with contact information for our representatives.

Our nation’s greatest program to feed the hungry is Food Stamps. Nation-wide, only 58% of the people eligible for Food Stamps receive them. In Texas, though, the situation is worse. Fewer than half of Texans who qualify for Food Stamps receive them. Here in San Antonio, the number is barely over one-third. In Oregon, though, some 98% of those qualified are fed. The standards are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the same for Texas as for Oregon, and for all the other states. What’s the difference? Why do more Texans go hungry? Why do Bexar County men, women and children receive $18 million less than the law allows, every single month?

The reasons are complex. Can it be that the people of Texas care about the hungry less than people in Oregon do? Can it be that our State government wants less federal money to come into our State?

I am told that one way that Texas keeps Food Bank enrollment numbers artificially low is by having an absurdly complicated application process. Applications are lengthy, and written at a twelfth grade reading level. Processes in other states, like Oregon, are much simpler, while the standards remain the same. Here in San Antonio, where education levels are relatively low, this complex procedure guarantees that people go hungry.

We must write to our Governor, to our Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House, to our State Senators and to our Legislators, to demand that the application process be simplified. We must insist that those with poor reading skills not be sentenced to starve. Just as cooking for the hungry or delivering Meals on Wheels is a mitzvah, so too are we commanded to assure that all who qualify receive Food Stamps.

Other similar examples abound. Tens of thousands of local children receive meals at school during the year. What happens during the summer? In San Antonio, only seven of every 100 who qualify are fed through the Summer Food Service Program, although the U.S. Department of Agriculture will pay school districts to participate, just as it does when school is in session.

Another Agriculture Department effort, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, sends selected communities boxes of food to feed 5,000 needy senior citizens every month. Somehow, though the opportunity has been available since the late 1960s, none of this food came to Texas until 2000, when the North Texas Food Bank began to receive and distribute this bounty. Let our congregation call on our United States Senators and Members of Congress, to demand that the Department of Agriculture allocate more of these sorely-needed food boxes to Texas, to serve needy communities in Bexar County, in Houston, and on the border. Our San Antonio Food Bank stands ready to distribute this food, as soon as it arrives. Elderly men and women in need await our action.

Our Torah declares, “there shall be no needy among you.” Then, in the very next verse, there seems to be a contradiction. The continuation of poverty is assumed, as we are instructed to provide interest-free loans to the poor. At the end of the passage, the Torah acknowledges that “the needy will never cease to be among you.” God establishes an ideal, that poverty will vanish, but immediately reminds us that we must be God’s partners to assure that everyone has enough.

Temple Beth-El is already doing its part, on one level, observing the mitzvah of feeding the needy ourselves. Even that important work, though, will not bring about God’s promise. Only our entire society, working together, can bring the problem of hunger to an end.

Let Texas become a more compassionate state. Let us all affirm that God is Hazan et hakol, providing food for all humanity, through our efforts, together with the Lord’s. There is something one Temple can do.