April 10, 2003
Poverty in Israel
Shabbat Ha-Gadol (Malachi 3:4-24)
The back cover of the April 7 Jerusalem Report magazine depicts an Israeli child trying to spell the word "poverty" on a blackboard.
The child spells the word "p-o-v-e-r-t-i" and the ad (run by the Women's International Zionist Organization) reads: "He doesn't know how to spell it, but he sure knows what it feels like."
This advertisement is a reflection of the grim reality that at the end of the year 2001, 1.17 million Israelis were living below the poverty line and, with the failing economy in Israel, the number is expected to climb to 1.29 million by the end of 2003 -- or 21.5 percent of all Israelis. Of this number, an estimated 530,000 are children, and the projected figure for 2003 is estimated to reach 605,000 children. That is 35 percent, or one of every three Israeli children, living below the poverty line.
This week's business section of the International Jerusalem Post features an article about Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's NIS 11.4 billion shekel budget cuts. In justifying the various cuts, which include many health and social services to Israelis living in poverty, Netanyahu reminds us of the bleak economic picture in Israel.
"The economy is very sick," Netanyahu said. "There is no money in the till, and we have a deficit of NIS 30 billion."
As the recession continues in Israel, Bank of Israel economists expect unemployment to climb to 12 percent, meaning that more than 300,000 Israelis will be out of work this year.
This ugly situation has even affected Israel's military. Recent reports in the Israeli press told of severe economic hardship among the soldiers of Paratrooper Battalion 890, one of the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) historically elite combat units. Many of the battalion's soldiers had to take weekend jobs or leaves of absence to help make ends meet. One of the battalion's company commanders even made a public call for assistance for the families of his soldiers. Such severe measures were traditionally unheard of in IDF circles.
We ponder this grim situation in Israel as we make our final plans for our Passover seder this week. As we shop to adorn our tables with the finest foods, the choicest of wines and the most exquisite silverware and tablecloths, we must not forget that the holiday of Passover is intricately connected to the mitzvah of helping the poor.
Jewish law teaches that it is customary to make charitable distributions to the poor before Passover, so that they may have matzah and wine for the seder.
The Passover seder itself commences with the mitzvah of charity. As a prelude to telling the story (maggid), we take a matzah, break it in half, display it for all to see and declare: "This is the bread of poverty which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt."
Why is matzah the "bread of poverty?" The Talmud teaches that a broken piece of bread is considered a symbol of poverty, and "since a poor man usually must eat broken pieces of bread, we use here a broken piece."
Displaying a broken piece of matzah is our way of reminding ourselves that as slaves in Egypt, we all lived in poverty, we all ate broken pieces of bread. We then proceed to declare: "Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover with us."
Who are these hungry people whom we invite to come and eat? This year, they are 1.29 million Israelis, including more than 530,000 children, 300,000 jobless individuals and the soldiers of IDF Battalion 890 (as well as many other soldiers). All of these Israeli brothers and sisters "are in need to come and celebrate Passover with us."
Let us be true to our words. Let us help them. If we can't physically invite them into our homes, then let us send our donations to their homes. When we shop for Passover this year, help the Israeli economy by buying Israeli products. Make a generous donation to one the various Israeli food banks. Insist that your rabbi conducts an appeal on Passover specifically for the purpose of helping poor families in Israel. Do what you can, but do something.
The haftorah of Shabbat Ha-Gadol announces the coming of Elijah the prophet and the messiah. Can we help prepare the path for them? Yes, by welcoming them into an Israel virtually free of poverty.
Our seder concludes with the declaration: "Next year in Jerusalem." Let us pray that next year we can stand in the streets of Jerusalem, or any city in Israel, and see poverty reduced to a bare minimum. We can start building toward that sacred goal this year.
Chag kasher v'sameach to you and all of our brothers and sisters in Israel.
Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.