The Illusion of Control and the Food Stamp Challenge

Jewish liturgy returns to one aspect of G-d’s nature over and over: G-d doesn’t care about human power structures and is usually itching to upend them. The Exodus story smashes the illusion of human control, laying bare the truth that for all his outward might, Pharaoh was never really in charge. Just last week, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah thought their wealth and power meant they could take vulnerable outsiders and do whatever they wanted to them. But in the story, they were destroyed with a single thought.

In Psalm 113, part of the Hallel prayers that are added on major holidays, G-d is envisioned as flipping human hierarchies:

M’qimi mei’afar dal
mei’ashpot yarim ‘evion
l’hoshivi ‘im-n’divim
‘im n’divei amo

G-d stations a pauper
From an ash heap G-d elevates a beggar
To place them with nobles
With the nobles of G-d’s people

When you hold it up to the light in a certain way, our High Holidays liturgy, with all its confessions and chest pounding and pleading for Divine mercy, is really a grand allegory with a simple message. We are not in control. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or even an hour from now. We can never be sure what the consequences of our actions will be. We don’t really have any of the things we think we have — security, comfort, prosperity. It can all be taken away in an instant.

Enter the Food Stamp Challenge

This year, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs launched the Food Stamp Challenge, an experiential event to draw hearts and minds to the millions of people in the United States who live on what used to be called “food stamps.” The benefit is exactly $31.50 per person per week, or about $1.50 per meal. The challenge is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to live on this budget when you don’t have to, to donate the money you don’t spend to hunger relief and awareness building.

Each of us sets up a page for individual donations. Here’s mine — I hope you can spare at least a few dollars!

We got lucky this year. Many of the political candidates who had vowed to gut this lifeline — including our own Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin  — were defeated at the ballot box. But the threat hovers above a landscape of bottomless need, especially among the millions of long-term unemployed.

Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue!

I am taking the Food Stamp Challenge in the hope of plugging in to the radical core of tzedek, tzedek, tirdof (Deut 16:20). We’re not supposed to just work for social justice, we’re supposed to chase after it with everything we’ve got. But the great irony is that most of the time, I’m too anaesthetized by food and drink to engage at that level. Just in preparing for this experience, I’ve learned of friends and family members are now or have recently been reliant on public assistance. If that’s how close food insecurity has gotten to me without my learning first-hand what it feels like, day in and day out, what kind of justice-chaser can I really be?

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2 Responses to The Illusion of Control and the Food Stamp Challenge

  1. rachel bar says:

    I’m curious to know whether you tried to stick to the $1;50 per meal experiment? And by the way, why is it necessary to write God’s name without the O? After all, you are writing in English, the letter O has no religious significance?

    • eng4820 says:

      Rachel! The experiment is in its first day. Will be updating throughout. And yeah, the tradition is that you don’t have to be as careful with the word “God” in a vernacular language as you do with the Hebrew tetragrammaton, but I like to drop the vowel to remind myself to not be casual, to not lose sight of G-d’s mysteriousness.

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