A Divine Blessing of Food and Security
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, is about blessings and offerings.
Upon the creation of the Tabernacle, God instructs Moses to share God’s blessing with the people of Israel. In one of the most famous passages of Torah, God outlines the Priestly Blessing, which we still recite today:
May God bless you and protect you
May God cause God’s face to shine upon you, and may God be good to you
May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.
In return, the Levite clans offer a very different kind of gift to God: material goods, such as oxen and goats, silver dishes, flour and oil.
The juxtaposition of these two very different gifts – God’s face shining upon you versus a sack of flour – is jarring. Is the lesson of Naso that humans are inherently materialistic, and cannot possibly give a gift as meaningful or powerful as God’s Priestly Blessing? Perhaps.
Or perhaps there is another lesson here, one that forces us to consider how humans can bless one another in divine ways, with the resources we have at our disposal. At its root, the true gift of the Priestly Blessing is not God’s face. Rather, the gift is God’s recognition of the Israelites’ dignity and humanity through the lifting up of God’s face unto them.
While material in nature, gifts of food and financial security affirm the dignity and humanity of the most vulnerable among us. Sadly, according to the USDA, more than 40 million Americans do not have “access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.” In one of the most prosperous nations in human history, 13 million American children – one in five – live in households that struggle to put food on the table.
Hunger and food insecurity is a major problem, but as a country, we already have the tools to address it. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), created in 1964, is one of the United States’ most effective anti-poverty programs, and our single most important anti-hunger program. Currently, the average SNAP participant receives $126 in monthly benefits, around $1.40 per meal. A little over a dollar of support per meal certainly doesn’t sound like a divine gift, until you consider that SNAP lifted more than 3.5 million people out of poverty in 2016.
For the parent who no longer has to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table, SNAP is a divine gift. For the child who no longer has to go to school hungry, SNAP is a holy blessing. Food assistance and financial support may be material gifts, but they affirm and enable the full flourishing of human dignity – the same goal the Priestly Blessing achieves, as we’re taught in this Torah portion.
I do not know how to offer someone a blessing as profound as shining the light of God’s face unto them – nor do I think any human being ever could – but I do know that I can act to secure access to food and other basic needs for millions of vulnerable children and families.
On Friday, SNAP narrowly avoided a serious threat when the House rejected the Farm Bill, which included provisions that would have restricted or eliminated access to SNAP benefits for two million Americans. Reform Jews and other faith groups played a key role in urging Congress to protect SNAP, but much work remains to ensure that our leadership focuses on polices that uplift the poor and marginalized among us. For this reason, the Reform Movement has joined the Poor People’s Campaign for 40 days of moral, nonviolent direct action this summer to awaken our nation’s consciousness to the plight of poverty in America. There are still four weeks left in this campaign: find out how to get involved in your state.
Initially, the Levite clans’ material offerings pale in comparison to the beautiful and powerful Priestly Blessing. Yet, perhaps the Levites were conveying something deeper with their gifts of goats, flour, and oil. By giving gifts of food, security, and other basic needs, we affirm the dignity and humanity of the most vulnerable amongst us. With our gifts, we lift our faces unto them, just as God does in Naso, and say, “We see you in your need, and we are here to help you find peace and prosperity.”
What could be more divine than that?