From Insecurity to Sovereignty

Like the manna in the desert, food aid policies often do not foster real freedom.

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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.
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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.

In addition to fostering a system of dependency, the manna also failed to account for the food tastes and preferences of the Israelites. Not only did they lack control over their food systems, when it first fell they did not even know what it was!

The rabbis are clearly concerned with the idea that the Israelites ate the same thing every day during their forty years in the desert. They develop a midrash that the manna could taste however the consumer wanted it to (Yoma 75a).

This seems hard to believe, however, since the Israelites complain explicitly about lack of variety. They protest, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic" (Numbers 11:5). Lacking taste and variety, the manna provided only physical sustenance.

Like the manna, food aid policies that focus only on food security are less concerned with what is being consumed, as long as calorie requirements are being met. These policies often ignore cultural preferences and traditional diets.

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Alana Alpert

After receiving rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in June 2014, Alana will serve as the Rabbi/Organizer of Project Micah in Detroit, an exciting collaboration between Congregation T'chiyah and the Harriet Tubman Center. A trained community organizer, educator, and service-learning facilitator, she has worked in a number of Jewish and interfaith social justice organizations. She is passionate about the intersections of spiritual practice and social change.