The Food Stamp Challenge: The Challenge Has Been Met -- The Work Begins

Looking at my dwindling stash of food the last few days caused me strange sensations of fear, fragility, and questions about the world. I admit I was a little dizzy at times and euphoric at other times. I was bored with what I was eating, concentrating on husbanding my last drops of yoghurt, milk, and corn flakes. Eating my first non-food stamp meal yesterday at a New York Indian restaurant with my good friend, John Ruskay, where the meal itself cost close to $25.00, showed me in high relief what the challenge could not allow.

As a Jew I remember that in Egypt my people were enslaved thousands of years ago. Hunger is a form of slavery and my mind kept focusing on the time in Egypt. On Passover we say that we were slaves in Egypt intending to show that we are part of an ongoing recollection of that period in the history of my people. The end of the food stamp challenge filled me with a deeper capacity to empathize. I felt that not only were we slaves but as I stared at the attrition of my food supply, I felt like I understood the Israelite condition more than I had ever understood it before. We were slaves as the liturgy taught but I felt like I was a slave and that I will now be even more a slave to the ongoing need to stop hunger among my people all through the world.

I also began to think each day about an English poem I had read as a child which had always haunted me but I now understood it better. Thomas Gray wrote 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' about a pauper's graveyard in eighteenth century England filled with people whose lives had been so diminished by the tragedy and the burden of poverty that they did not become even a part of what they could be. The lines came poignantly into my psyche, truer today than I had ever contemplated. Gray wrote while walking the graveyard about those suffering under the yoke of poverty:
"Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre:

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,
Rich with the spoils of time, did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul. "

How many in our society never feel the nobility of their souls, the privilege, perhaps the human right, to feel their 'noble rage,' or to awaken great music that would fill their hearts and our hearts just because they live in the dullness of hunger, in the tragedy of a form of slavery that prevents them from becoming John Miltons or Robert Frosts or Presidents of our nation or even less felicitous leaders like Thomas Cromwell. So many in America and the world are relegated to lives of looking at empty refrigerators if their refrigerators even work or if they even own refrigerators.

I have always believed in educating and organizing to help impel ourselves to combat poverty in our world. I feel that urge, even more than I felt it just a week ago. There is a time to 'rise up' and to say, particularly to those dwelling in the richest country in the world, 'It is enough!' Our battles to help America prioritize its values and its willingness to spend money on those who are hungry must be waged with a new vigor. In every state, in every city and hamlet, there is no excuse to tolerate 48 million of us living under the threat of hunger. Whatever the economic state of the country, we must not forget the moral state of our souls. The Talmud, one of the greatest teachings of the Jewish people states:
'Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world.'

It is a time for us to earn merit and to go into the mode of rescue.

Rabbi Steve Gutow is the President of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. For more information and updates, visit and follow @theJCPA on Twitter.