The Talmud teaches us that we must not judge our fellows until we have come to stand in their place. That’s an important lesson to remember whenever we participate in the primal human ritual of repentance and forgiveness. We are obligated to atone and to ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have done to others.
But we are equally obligated to forgive those who have wronged us and now seek to repent. We cannot know what drove them to their hurtful deeds. We do not know how soon we may stand before them in sorrow and regret, as they stand before us today.
There is a larger meaning in this traditional lesson: the obligation of empathy. We are commanded to act justly toward the poor and the stranger, because we were slaves in Egypt. We are obliged to understand the suffering of our fellows, and to let that understanding guide our behavior toward them.
In the spirit of this season of repentance, it’s appropriate that several of the country’s largest Jewish organizations issued what they call the Food Stamp Challenge, asking Americans to spend the week of September 14 to 22 — the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — learning what life is like for America’s poor and hungry by living their life for a few days.
Initiated by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a coalition of a dozen major national agencies and 120 local Jewish community councils, the Food Stamp Challenge was a call to spend the week living on a food budget of $21, or $1 per meal, the average food stamp allotment. The challenge was taken up by members of dozens of communities across the country, as well as leaders of national Jewish organizations. It was accepted, too, by several members of Congress, including Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim member of Congress, and Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, many of whose constituents live the reality of hunger every day of the year.
The lawmakers’ participation is particularly pointed. Congress is taking up the renewal of the Food Stamp program in the days ahead as part of the annual Farm Bill. Democrats want to increase the level of food stamp assistance. They’ll face stiff resistance from the White House and its congressional Republican allies. Perhaps the Talmud wants to understand the position of the miserly. But we need not acquiesce.
Atonement and forgiveness, we’re taught, are to be sought from both heaven and the neighbors we’ve wronged. This year, we’re reminded that those neighbors can include millions we’ve never met. We are required to treat them justly, even if we’ve never met them. Our actions touch them, for good or ill.
On this holiday of atonement, we at the Forward turn to those of our readers and the larger community whom we may have inadvertently wronged, and we ask forgiveness.