Cheshvan: Fear of Hunger

Cheshvan: Fear of Hunger

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

This summer I saw an extraordinary piece of theater, featuring the writing of Daniil Kharms, an avant-garde Russian writer, who died in a Soviet prison in 1942. One poem particularly haunted me:

This is how hunger begins:
The morning you wake, feeling lively,
Then begins the weakness,
Then begins the boredom;
Then comes the loss
Of the power of quick reason,
Then comes the calmness
And then begins the horror

I found the poem almost unbearable because it forced me to look so precisely at something I greatly fear. Even though I have personally never been hungry in a serious way, I, like many other Jews, have a fear of hunger that feels written in my DNA. We Jews often compensate for that fear in many ways, by never having a meeting or gathering without food, by (overly) lavish hospitality, by unhealthy relationships with eating. And the fear of hunger in the belly can extend to other kinds of hunger: fear of never having enough money, enough power, enough acceptance, enough love.

How extraordinary then that the Shmita year asks us to stop planting and harvesting and to risk hunger, precisely the thing we fear the most!

And yet, this is a powerful practice. What if we were able to sit face to face with the thing that really scares us?  What if instead of rushing to prevent or disarm the thing we fear, we could let it be, just for a little while?

It’s scary to even contemplate the idea. To do so requires trust. The Torah anticipates this by asking rhetorically, “And should you ask: What will we eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops? I will ordain my blessings for you in the sixth year and it will yield a crop sufficient for three years.” (Leviticus 25:20-21)

The Shmita year offers us the opportunity to conduct the thought experiment: If we could assume blessing, if we could assume sufficiency, how would it impact our experience of fear? Perhaps if we were able to sit with our fear, we could better understand the nature of what scares us. Perhaps we would conclude that our habitual reaction is indeed the best way to respond – and perhaps not. Perhaps we could even experience that we are in fact provided for in ways we hadn’t previously recognized.

That would be a blessing indeed!