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.