NEW YORK (JTA) — To eat: a cup of black beans, a few ounces of pasta and a bit of tuna. To drink: water.
This was my dinner menu one Friday night last November as my fellow dinner guests dined on standard Shabbat fare: Homemade challah, two types of salad, chicken prepared three ways, three bottles of wine, four side dishes, cake and fruit for dessert. I generally look forward to Shabbat dinner, but I had decided that week to join rabbis and faith leaders across the country to participate in a food stamp challenge.
Some background about the challenge, which this year is being held Nov. 11-17: The average recipient of aid in the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — commonly known as food stamps — receives $31.50 in benefits per week. That works out to $4.50 a day or $1.50 a meal, assuming three meals a day. In participating in the food stamp challenge, I had committed to spending only $31.50 on food and drink for a week, including Shabbat. I did so for two related reasons: To deeply understand the day-to-day reality of the 45.7 million Americans who receive federal aid each week necessary for their survival, and to have this knowledge lead me to act to ensure that this essential strand of the social safety net would not be cut in proposed deficient reduction legislation.
Growing up, my family never required government assistance. The day after that Friday night dinner, while at shul, I realized how lucky I was: A friend had heard about my participation in the food stamp challenge and confided to me that her family had received food stamps throughout her childhood. Without this form of government assistance, there were times when she would have gone hungry. She wanted to remind me that hunger is not just an issue for gentiles; Many in the American Jewish community struggle with food insecurity as well.
This conversation, as well as many others I had during the week I participated in the challenge, left me with a deep awareness of the fragility of my own life circumstances. My middle-class family had the resources to nurture me as I grew, and I realized that the wealth and privilege I enjoyed growing up was a matter of mere chance and therefore not a predicate of fairness. My life would have been much different were I born to parents who were food insecure or did not provide an environment that would nurture me and allow my talents to flourish.
But if the circumstances of life are based on luck, in what sense can I claim, with integrity and as a matter of justice, that my resources belong solely to me?
A variation of this line of reasoning is forcibly argued by John Rawls in “A Theory of Justice,” perhaps the most influential social justice work of the 20th century. But all great philosophical works have a pre-history, and the idea that wealth is not our own is a core teaching of the Torah.
Time and again, the Torah reminds us that the land, the generator of wealth in the agrarian economy of the Bible, is God’s: “For mine is the land, for you are sojourning settlers with me” (Leviticus 25:23).
The Jewish people are graced with our wealth and property by God; we cannot claim it as our own. As the Torah tells us in Deuteronomy 9:4, “Do not say in your heart… through my merit did the Lord bring me to take this land.” Rather it is through God’s goodness that we enjoy the land’s bounty.
This leads to the great concern of the Torah’s teaching about wealth, to a delusional narcissism that prioritizes our efforts and forgets that our capacity to create wealth transcends individual effort: “Lest you eat and be sated,” the Torah warns, “and build goodly houses and dwell in them. And your cattle and sheep multiply for you, and all that you have will multiply for you… And you will say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand made me this wealth.’” (Deut. 8:12-13:17).
The fantasy of the wealthy, who believe that wealth is generated solely through individual effort, could not have been stated better by Ayn Rand. Yet the Torah straight on counters the myth of the self-made person: “And you will remember the Lord, your God,” the Torah informs us, that it is God and God alone “gives you power to make wealth” (Deut. 8:18).
If all this is correct and the core biblical teachings about wealth are that it originates with God who gifted it to us, then what are the conditions of its use? Here, too, the Torah provides the answer: If we receive wealth as a gift from God, it is essential that we in turn gift it to those in need.
Throughout the Torah there are various avenues through which this is accomplished, from tithing to leaving a corner of a field for the poor, and so on. All these commandments stem from the same fundamental motivation: Our wealth is not completely ours, therefore we do not have complete control in its use. The 16th century commentator Rabbi Moshe Alshech could not have said it clearer when he wrote, “Do not think that you are giving to the poor from your own possession, or that I despised the poor person by not giving him as I gave you. For he is my son, as you are, and his share is in your grain; it is to your benefit to give him his share from your property.”
This brings me back to SNAP and my participation in the food stamp challenge. Based on my experience and my understanding of the Jewish tradition, I deeply believe that my station in life is accidental, the nourishment I received as a child was due to circumstances beyond my control, unlike billions around the world and millions in America who lack this basic security.
If so, then I have an obligation to share the wealth that God has given me to ensure that those born without it have the same privileges and opportunities that I enjoy. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a necessary part of this social safety net. To make sure it remains there, I ask that you join me take the food stamp challenge on Nov. 11-17.