Every year in the United Kingdom, 18 millions tonnes of food end up in landfills. Approximately, one-third comes from the producers of the supply chain, one-third from retail, and one-third from households. It costs the country 23 billions British Pounds every year. Either we produce too much food, or we do not eat it on time. On the other hand, one-fifth of the population is struggling with “food poverty”, that means that more and more people are eating poorly, unhealthy food, process food, or simply not enough food, or are relying on charities to obtain food. These figures apply to the United Kingdom, but the same pattern is true in all the developed countries all around the world. Today, we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation: we live in a populated world (some say over-populated), where technology makes it possible to feed each and every one of us, and yet, people are still struggling to have enough food, or to have proper nutritious food.
Of course, we all know these figures, and, in a way, we feel powerless. We can, of course, support charities that help people, either with cash or with food and other supplies. That surely makes a difference. The civil society takes over the duty of supporting each other. There is much to say about inequality in our developed countries, the way neo-liberalism presents itself as a fact of nature, but this is a different narrative. What are the ethical implications of this situation?
It is a well-known fact that in the UK the two communities, which give the most to charities, not necessarily to theirs, are the Muslims, and the Jews. Both traditions have a strong emphasis on social justice and on tzedakah. My knowledge about the Muslim tradition is sadly rather limited; we have in our Torah portion an interesting insight into the Jewish tradition of gemilut chasadim, acts of loving-kindness.
We read in Parashat Eikev, “When you have eaten and been satisfied, you will bless the Eternal your God for the good Land that God has given you” (Dt. 8:10)
ChaZaL used this verse as the source for the Birkat ha-Mazon, the “Grace after Meal”. However, this verse implies a spontaneous expression of gratitude; it is not written, “When you eat and are satisfied, you must bless the Eternal” (implying a commandment) but rather, “When you eat and are satisfied, you will (spontaneously) bless the Eternal.” In addition, it is not only about gratitude for the food. Gratitude for the food, declares Moses, will lead to gratitude for the Land, and it is for the Land that the Israelites should be giving thanks, once they have experienced its bounty.
Despite this strong link between gratitude and the Land of Israel, the rabbis insisted that we should give thanks for our food wherever we are in the world. In this context, the word ha-Aretz could stand for the entire earth. Therefore, “Blessed are You, Eternal, for the land and the food,” does not refer, as originally intended, to the Land of Israel only, but to the entire world and its bounty. With the gift of land and food comes the responsibility to treat it with respect, and to be more and more aware of the risks of over-exploiting our world.
We might feel sometime powerless before the many challenges we face as a species, and the risks we are inflicting on future generations. Gratitude for food, gratitude for life, awareness of the miraculous fact that we are on this tiny planet, our unique home, a mere suburban quarter of the Milky Way, enjoying its produces, all this could help us to widen our perspective, to think holistically, to encompass the entire world in which we are blessed to live. If we reach that level of awareness, if we are able to teach it to the world and to the next generations, to open others’ mind to this reality, we could then make a difference, understand that wasting food is not only revolting, but also self-destructive. Our planet deserves better; WE deserve better.
About the Author:
Rabbi Rene Pfertzel, Kingston Liberal Synagogue, London, UK