The below piece was pro­duced as a part of a Passover sup­ple­ment for Dwelling in a Time of Plagues in response to the idea of lib­er­a­tion from the plague of hous­ing insecurity.

A plague is a force so robust that one can­not hide from or escape it. This is the bru­tal­ly harsh real­i­ty of hous­ing inse­cu­ri­ty and home­less­ness in Amer­i­ca today. Hav­ing served as a Rab­bi in home­less camps on many occa­sions, I have seen first­hand what deep despair can look like: indeed, a mod­ern plague. A plague that crush­es the spir­its of any­where between half a mil­lion to one and a half mil­lion peo­ple in Amer­i­ca each year. 

Jews are moral­ly man­dat­ed to feed and tend to the most vul­ner­a­ble in our midst. In the Shulchan Aruch, Joseph Karo writes: If some­one comes and says, feed me,’ you don’t check him to see if he is an imposter, but you feed him right away” (Laws of Tzedakah YD 251:10). 

In the Torah, a soci­ety that pun­ish­es those who feed the home­less is anal­o­gous to Sodom, a city that was rid­dled with moral per­ver­sion. Not only are we encour­aged to engage in hos­pi­tal­i­ty and acts of kind­ness; we are warned that there will be col­lec­tive con­se­quences for those who mis­treat the down­trod­den (San­hedrin 109b). The cit­i­zens of Sodom not only avoid­ed wel­com­ing guests, and abused them, but also pun­ished those who helped oth­ers. They issued a procla­ma­tion in Sodom say­ing: Every­one who strength­ens the hand of the poor and the needy with a loaf of bread shall be burnt by fire!’” (Pirke DeR­ab­bi Eliez­er 25). How can we ensure that Amer­i­ca does not resem­ble Sodom? 

This is a life-and-death issue. To ignore it is to absolve our­selves of our sacred respon­si­bil­i­ty; to wait around for action is to betray the very essence of jus­tice itself. From Hen­ry David Thore­au to Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Amer­i­ca has a strong tra­di­tion of object­ing to and even defy­ing laws that vio­late core spir­i­tu­al val­ues. It is not enough to pro­vide mea­ger soup kitchens to which one must trav­el. Many peo­ple with­out shel­ter need more, and find them­selves so des­per­ate that they are beg­ging in the streets. We must respond com­pas­sion­ate­ly. The Jew­ish peo­ple need to be at the fore­front of this call to action.

To down­load the full Passover sup­ple­ment, which includes ten authors and ten artists respond­ing to ten mod­ern plagues, please click here

Dwelling in a Time of Plagues is a Jew­ish cre­ative response to real-world plagues of our time. Col­lec­tive­ly, the com­mis­sions in this con­stel­la­tion of art projects around North Amer­i­ca grap­ple with con­tem­po­rary crises: the glob­al pan­dem­ic, insti­tu­tion­al racism, xeno­pho­bia, ageism, forced iso­la­tion, and the cli­mate cri­sis. Dwelling is gen­er­ous­ly sup­port­ed by CANVAS.

Rab­bi Shmu­ly Yan­klowitz is an author and activist. He is the Pres­i­dent and Dean of the Val­ley Beit Midrash col­lab­o­ra­tive adult edu­ca­tion pro­gram, Founder & Pres­i­dent of Uri L’Tzedek, the Ortho­dox Social Jus­tice Move­ment, and Founder & CEO of The Shamay­im V’Aretz Insti­tute. His work has pub­lished in the New York Times, the Wall Street Jour­nal, The Atlantic and the Huff­in­g­ton Post, as well as many sec­u­lar and reli­gious pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Shum­ly is the author of sev­er­al books on Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, social jus­tice and ethics. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.