Rabbi Alexandra Wright
In one of the bleakest verses in the entire Torah, coming at the end of this week’s sedra Vayiggash, the narrator describes the famine that has decimated Egypt and Canaan: V’lechem eyn b’chol ha-aretz ki chaveid ha-ra’av me’od, va-telah eretz Mitzrayim v’eretz K’na’an mi-p’ney ha-ra’av – ‘At this time no food was to be had in the entire land, for the famine bore down very heavily. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished on account of the famine’ (Genesis 47:13). The verb ‘languished’ seems at first glance a curious way of describing the land. What exactly is meant by the Hebrew word va-telah – which does not appear in this form anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible? The Targum connects it to a similar root, meaning to ‘be weary’ or ‘impatient’; Rashi following this lead describes the people as ‘tired’ and ‘exhausted’ by the years of the famine. Ibn Ezra, however, takes a different tack, after commenting in his usual way on the form of the verb, but then drawing a parallel with a verse from Proverbs: K’mit’la-lei-ah ha-yoreh zikkim, chitzim va-mavet – ‘Like a madman scattering deadly firebrands, arrows, is one who cheats his fellow and says, ‘I was only joking’ (Proverbs 26:18). And David Kimchi, in his commentary to the same verse picks up ibn Ezra’s implied remark: ‘Rather, they ‘were crazy.’ Famine drives people mad.’
I think we are all exhausted and maddened by these past three years of the pandemic, war in Europe, the economic and political turbulence and pace of change which has left us anxious, weary and drained of energy.
I know there is a world beyond my own of homelessness and acute food poverty. It is a world of individuals whose beds are outside the shop fronts near where I live, the men and women who set up home in the underpasses or tube stations at night, having queued for a hot meal on the Strand or been given a sandwich by a kindly passer-by.
It is the world of food poverty, which is addressed, not by civil society but by charities such as Sufra, supported by my own community, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue. Sufra’s headquarters are in Brent, a borough which saw the highest mortality rate of all London boroughs from Covid in the first months of the pandemic. Sufra’s website says that it is almost impossible to explain everything that has been happening since the outbreak of the pandemic: loss of jobs, systemic inequalities in an area that is ethnically very diverse, and a welfare system decimated by years of austerity. That UNICEF, the UN charity responsible for humanitarian aid to children worldwide, is now providing food to children in the UK because of the pandemic which has left 2.4 million children in food insecure households and an extra 900,000 registered for free school meals, is a shameful reflection on the sixth richest country in the world.
Last year, Sufra responded to a 332% increase in demand for hot food and food parcels. The director, Rajesh Makwana, writes:
‘Sufra’s response to the pandemic … pushed us beyond the limits of possibility. Never have we experienced anything as devastating or eye-opening as the impact of Covid-19 on the communities we support. And never has the impact of decades of under-investment in public services, the removal of essential safety nets or the widening of inequalities across the UK been so starkly obvious – or deplorable.’
It is understandable that our focus on food insecurity is primarily here in the UK. Yet, beyond our borders, 49 million people in 46 countries are facing a food crisis, as severe as the famine experienced in the days of Joseph. Hundreds of thousands of women, children and men experience acute hunger every day in Ethiopia, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan, because of climate disasters such as droughts and floods, and because of the war in Ukraine which has pushed up prices of food and fertiliser.
This weekend will see millions around the world celebrate the end of the old year and the beginning of 2023. But even as we commence this new year with fireworks and celebrations, our Jewish tradition will mark the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tevet – a fast, in remembrance of the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, a moment that marked the beginning of end of the Second Temple in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians.
The convergence of these two events makes for a complex time – a day of sad reflection and a time of celebration, a day of darkness and a time of light, of bleak midwinter despair and a new year of hope.
‘Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality’, write T.S. Eliot in ‘Burnt Norton’ (The Four Quartets). And perhaps that is why in the midst of a ravaging famine, when they have lost everything, their homes and their freedom, the Egyptians, nevertheless, are able to express their gratitude to Pharaoh’s right-hand man: He-cheyitanu – ‘You have given us life’, they say to Joseph.
We too have been given life. May we express our gratitude and look for the light that is beyond the darkness and hope that lies on the other side of despair. For the world cannot endure except through our affirmation of life and our common humanity. May that hope and the responsibilities which unite us set us all on a path in pursuit of justice, truth and peace, as it is written: Emet u-mishpat shalom shif’tu b’sha’areychem – ‘Execute the judgement of truth and peace in your gates’ (Zechariah 8:16).
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