“Finish your peas – there are people starving in Africa.” President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has blocked food and water from entering the South Kordofan region of Sudan. Refugees in Chad get about 700 calories per day. Over a billion people in the world are not certain where their next meal will come from. These facts are startling, but what are we going to do about it? If we finish our dinner, will they be less starving? If we hand out our leftovers, can we check “hunger” off our list?
This week’s haftarah, which can be found in II Kings 7:3-20, starts with a famine in the land. This is a recurring theme, isn’t it? King Jehoram of the Northern Kingdom was so upset that he ordered the death of Elisha the prophet for not being able to ask God for food. Some people in Israel turned to cannibalism, one woman ate her own son to stay alive. It does not get much more grim than this.
Elisha prophesied that tomorrow there will be food in the city. Unbelievable. With the severe drought that preceded the current situation, the idea of barley and fine flour seemed foreign. How could it possibly arrive? The king’s aide doubted God’s ability.
At the same time as Elisha’s prediction of food, there were four men with tzaraat standing outside the city gates. We commonly translate tzaraat as leprosy, though biblically this is not equal to the bacterial disease of the nervous and respiratory tracks we fear today. Tzaraat was a physical manifestation of internal wickedness, including pride, selfishness and slander (think of Miriam after she spread l’shon ha’rah about Moses’ wife Tzipporah in Numbers 12:1-10). Skin turned snow-white and flaky to show the evil within. Because of the condition, metzora’im (lepers) must live outside the city so as not to afflict others, but also for spiritual cleansing and to think about the evil they have done. These are society’s lowest of the low.
These four metzora’im did not hear Elisha announcing that tomorrow there would be food. They were starving (even more so than the people inside the walls of the city). To be proactive, they headed to enemy territory – the nearby Arameans. “Im y’chayunu nichi’eh, v’im y’mitunu vamatnu. If they let us live, we will live; and if they put us to death, we will die.” (II Kings 7:4) Better to be killed trying to get food than to give up and die of starvation waiting for food to miraculously arrive.
When they arrived at the camp of the Arameans, they found it deserted. The entire city was still set up, but there were no people (it turns out God scared them away via miracles to save the Israelites). The metzora’im took the Arameans’ silver, gold, and clothing. They fed themselves on the food that had been left in haste. But then their eyes opened. There was far more food than the four of them could consume. They remembered that the city, which had evicted them for their tzaraat, was also starving. They sent a message back to the city and soon everyone ran out of the gates to get food.
The incredible part is that the heroes of this story are the four metzora’im. The men who were ejected from their own city because they were greedy, selfish, and had done such harm that it showed on their outsides. If these four can help solve issues of hunger – if they can reverse their ways and become so selfless as to save the kingdom which would not count them among their own – then we can all do something.
The person who lost the most in this story is the naysayer. One of the king’s men did not believe that food would come. Instead of believing, instead of being supportive, and forward-thinking, the doubter declared it impossible for food to arrive. In the end, he was trampled to death by the masses rushing to get food. We can learn so much from this story. Even the most degenerate members of our society can redeem themselves. The mighty can fall to their own pragmatism. There is always another option. And there is always food, if we don’t stand in its way.
In the Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, we thank God for providing food for every living being. We say that, yet we know full well that people are starving all around the world. Does this mean that God has not provided food for them? Or does it mean that there is enough food; we just need to take charge and make sure that it is distributed properly? I choose the latter. Let us be like the outcasts, the metzora’im, and share the bounty with those who need it most. Let us rally to open up the gates to South Kordofan and the refugee camps in Chad and people all around the world who lack access to the bounty of the earth.
Join JWW in calling for humanitarian aid to South Kordofan at the Walk to End Genocide on May 20 in Los Angeles.