This Torah Tidbit is brought to you by Repair the World and our grantee-partner American Jewish World Service (AJWS). Check out the full dvar tzedek on which this excerpt is based at AJWS.
In Hollywood, happy endings are pretty much guaranteed. In life – not so much. This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, tells the story of Jacob and Esau: two feuding brothers meeting for the first time in years. (The reason for the rift? Jacob stole first-born Esau’s blessing and birthright from their father Isaac. Kind of a big deal.)
At the meeting, Jacob brings his brother lots of apology gifts – camels, goats, cattle you know, the usual stuff – in hopes that the bounty will make up for everything he took years before. But, as this week’s dvar tzedek author, Leil Lebovitz writes, “In putting together his gift, it doesn’t occur to Jacob that his brother—who he knows had, since their last parting, grown wealthy and powerful—might have no use for all these animals. Jacob isn’t thinking rationally; he just wants the problem to go away.”
Leil goes on to say how this story of Jacob and Esau’s reunion can offer insight to those of us concerned with global hunger. Read on to find out how:
Jacob’s gifts and Esau’s response might offer some insight to anyone concerned with addressing global hunger, a problem of enormous magnitude, affecting nearly one billion people around the world. Put simply, anyone thinking seriously about combating hunger may want to consider the lessons from Parshat Vayishlach—namely, the idea that gifts are sometimes motivated by self interest rather than sheer altruism, aren’t always in the best interest of the recipient, and lack consideration for the reality of the conditions on the ground.
While not exactly gifts per se, emergency food shipments to nations in need often end up causing more damage than good. Take Haiti, for example, a nation which used to produce nearly half of all the rice it consumed. Following decades of damaging free trade agreements and in-kind food aid and the delivery of 15,000 tons of American rice after the 2010 earthquake, the nation’s agricultural economy has been decimated, with local farmers unable to compete with the massive shipments of free grain flooding the island. Thanks to all of these “gifts,” Haiti now imports 80 percent of the rice its population consumes.
While shipments of food may be needed in the immediate aftermath of emergencies, our government’s policy of always sending American food rather than cash to buy food from local farmers foments a vicious cycle that often brings about disastrous outcomes. And American food policy, effective as it is sometimes is in providing immediate relief to those who need it most, is often responsible for devastating long-term repercussions such as the rice shortage currently plaguing Haiti.
The parsha, Leil says, offers us a simple solution to this problem: “give gifts that will strengthen and build relationships, rather than throwing money and resources at a problem without consideration for how to solve it in the long-term.”