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Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
In Parashat B’shalah the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt through the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. In the very same parashah, they are abruptly confronted with the seemingly mundane concerns of their desert society. The first of these earthly matters is food: liberation euphoria wears off quickly when food anxiety kicks in.
Almost immediately after their escape from Egypt the Israelites experience what today we call “food insecurity.” Only three days after crossing the Red Sea they complain to Moses about a lack of water and shortly thereafter about a lack of food (Exodus 15:24 and 16:3).
The Israelites are so distraught that they proclaim they would rather have died in Egypt than experience freedom in this way. An overreaction, perhaps, but let’s consider just how frightening food insecurity might be, and in what ways it is akin to slavery. These oppressions share the quality of a lack of control, existence at the whim of outside forces.
In response to their anxieties about food, God explains to Moses that the Israelites will be provided with manna (the biblical version of food aid), saying: “I will rain down for them food from heaven, and the people will go out and collect a daily portion every day” (Exodus 16:4). That no one is able to take more or less than what they need allows for an egalitarian reading of this text, but the dependency the system of manna engenders is deeply problematic.
A System of Dependency
The students of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai ask him, “why did the manna not come down for the Israelites once a year [instead of every day]?” He answers that being forced to constantly wonder whether or not the manna will fall will cause them to feel dependent on God (Yoma 76b).
This system of dependency is replicated today in global food policy. The goal of most food aid is to help those who are hungry become “food secure,” an objective that would ensure a sufficient amount and quality of food for a given population. While providing food to people suffering from starvation is certainly necessary and important, policies that focus only on food security encourage recipient countries to remain dependent on that aid.
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