Our current medical crisis reveals the weaknesses in our society. Since social contact spreads the Coronavirus we must stay home to slow the pace of infection, enable our medical system to manage a potentially overwhelming influx of patients, and keep as many people as safe as possible until a vaccine or cure can be found. But, this strategy puts many of our most vulnerable citizens at risk of financial ruin. With financial distress comes hunger.
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, contains a detailed accounting of the times of the Jewish holidays: Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In the midst of this description of the ritual calendar there is a verse that seems out of place, “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.” What do the mitzvot of Peah (not harvesting the corners of your field) and Leket (leaving the gleanings of the harvest) so the landless poor can get food and not starve, have to do with our religious holidays?
In his Mishneh Torah (Festivals 6:18), Maimonides wrote, “when an individual eats and drinks at a festive meal, he is obliged to give food to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow . . . but if one locks the door of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his wife and children and does not give food and drink to needy people, this is not a mitzvah celebration but rather, a celebration of the stomach . . . and this kind of celebration is reprehensible.” Maimonides teaches us that only if we help those in need can we fulfill our religious obligations.
Maimonides is describing where we are now: locked in our houses, with our families, protecting ourselves, eating and drinking. Yet around us, many of our neighbors, our fellow citizens, are suffering impoverishment, fear, anxiety and hunger. Even as we sit in our own homes, physically isolated, there are things we can do right now, like give money to our local food banks so they can provide food to those who cannot afford it because their jobs are gone. If you can, please participate in the synagogue fundraising drive to support the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano Counties. And, when we emerge from this crisis, as we surely will, we can continue to build a society that is more caring and just than the one that existed before.