Give Best, Sweetest to Hungry

For millions of American Jews, the official end of the summer season brings with it an important new beginning. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year,

ushers in the holiest period of the Jewish calendar.

Called the Days of Repentance, the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur allow Jews around the world to celebrate a fresh start by looking back on the year just ended and committing not to repeat past mistakes in the months ahead.

Recently, in preparation for the holidays, the Jewish nonprofit agency that I work for took part in its third annual Volunteer Day. Over the years, we have cooked lunches for homebound HIV/AIDS sufferers, packed grocery bags for poor and anxious families with young children and served hot meals to veterans and seniors.

This year, some of us went to work at a local food bank. As we unloaded crates of donated goods and prepared them for distribution to a network of pantries and soup kitchens, I was struck by the range and quality of food that people had seen fit to send. A bird’s eye view revealed little — from above, the crates were awash with bright-colored labels in multihued tones and there were cans and boxes and packages of every shape and texture.

But a closer look proved instructive. These were not just your typical donation offerings, not only the soups, rices and beans that seem to overpopulate the average consumer’s cupboard. The food I saw told a more interesting story.

There were dried plums, imported tuna and expensive Italian capers. I found gourmet pasta, fresh juices and can after can of pricey artichoke hearts. I even stumbled across bags of designer, hand-ground Colombian coffee and boxes of macadamia nuts.

In Judaism, the Torah commands us to feed the less fortunate. But our tradition doesn’t leave it at that; it urges us to adhere to a stricter standard.

"When you give food to a hungry person," we are told, "give him your best and sweetest food," and from what I could make out, people are listening. Surely these donations were not simply the result of excess purchases; after all, canned goods last a long time, and most people who enjoy capers once will likely have cause to use them again.

I felt humbled by the rich diversity we found at the food bank that day. To me, it clearly indicates the donors’ intuitive sense, both on a personal and communal level, of what is decent and right.

These donors understand the fleeting nature of financial security. They recognize that the families who receive their aid are no less sophisticated and no less deserving than they are — they simply have imported tuna palates on a kidney bean budget.

With the New Year upon us, once again, Jews struggle to unpack their hearts and open their minds. Once again, we affirm the people we are and imagine the people we wish to be.

This year, let us resolve to do better. When you meet someone to transact business, give her your best and sweetest deal. When you see someone you love, give him your best and sweetest kiss. And be sure that when you give your food to a hungry person, you give him your best and sweetest food.

I know you would hope for the same.

H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.