It was the third day of our congregational trip to Israel. This time, we didn’t head straight to Jerusalem but spent our first days in Tel Aviv. We soaked in the stories of exciting beginnings at Independence Hall, stood in quiet contemplation of the violent realities at Rabin Square, and sauntered unhurriedly through the ancient streets of Jaffa. A few of us even stopped for a bite, I kid you not, at Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub! Then, on this particular morning, we woke up, grabbed something to eat, and boarded our bus which promptly deposited us bamidbar, “in the wilderness” – which happened to be a sizable parking lot somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a nowhere like so many “nowheres” we see here in the States – unlovely, too much concrete, and dirty fields just beyond the wheel stops at the lot’s edge. Unbeknownst to us all, however, we had just begun the adventure and the promise known as Leket Israel.
All our lives, we’re taught that Israel is “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8), “a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:8), the Promised Land “which [God] swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 6:8). That’s what the Torah says.
But there’s another side to Israel. A side where “the Promise” doesn’t quite ring true. Because while there aren’t too many people in Israel who are starving, there are plenty who live in poverty and cannot afford, as our guide told us, “to shop the edges of the grocery store.” They can’t afford fresh fruits and vegetables.
Leket Israel is the guarantor of the Promised Land’s legacy. It’s Israel’s national food bank. Where we had arrived was not a dirty field at all (well, not just a dirty field). It was a farm filled with sweet potatoes. BIG sweet potatoes. The farm’s owner had contacted Leket Israel and invited them to come get unneeded produce (either unsuitable for commercial sale, or simply set aside in fulfillment of Lev. 19:9’s instructions to “leave the gleanings of your harvest”). Volunteers, of which Leket Israel has some 40,000 annually, descend on sites such as this one and pick it clean. The food is then transported to organizations around the country that get it to needy families. 300 farms participate, donating 173,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables every week.
Leket Israel does even more. It supplies over 7000 sandwiches each day to needy school children in 24 cities. And it partners with catering halls, restaurants, bakeries and hotels collecting over 350,000 excess meals (from weddings, b/m celebrations, etc) each year.
In this week’s parashah, Bemidbar, God teaches Moses and Aaron how to bring their community bemidbar Sinai, through the wilderness of Sinai: “The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance” (Num. 2:2).
Everyone knows, God included, that the wilderness is a tough place to build a home. But sometimes, we don’t get a choice about how our lives unfold. Wild things tend to intrude without them asking for permission. Life complicates.
But in these complications, there is also opportunity. When our days are formidable in their challenges, when we witness hardship in the lives of others, we are beckoned to engage with full heart and mind in the seeking of solutions and resolutions. As much as the wilderness can be harsh, it can also be breathtaking in its beauty. It is our sacred task, our holy honor, to bring out the magnificence that others cannot yet see.
Leket Israel assents to this sacred task. Through its gleanings of the fields, its sandwiches for kids, its redistribution of surplus meals, and its programs educating families about nutritional excellence, Leket Israel responds to God’s call that the Israelites “camp around the Tent of Meeting,” bringing them and us ever closer to God’s Presence among us.
Our group working bamidbar next to a parking lot that morning in the middle of nowhere probably did not comprise Leket Israel’s most productive crew of volunteers. Some of us were old, some overweight, others out of shape. Our yield may have been something akin to meager, but you can bet we picked as many of those sweet potatoes as we could, and we did so with voluble enthusiasm. The wilderness can be tamed wherever it appears. Everyday, there are opportunities to share the fruits of our lives’ harvests. But it’s not everyday that a city-dweller like me can actually stick his hands in the dirt and pull out a meal.
There’s an exceptionally heartwarming story about a Depression-era farmer in Idaho who habitually sends needy children home with bags of fresh produce, instructing them to return with payment in the form of a specific marble of this color or that design. The farmer never finds an acceptable exchange, and always dispatches the child to seek a different marble and, “Oh, take this bag of beans to your mom, as well.”
Prof. Michael Walzer (in Exodus and Revolution) teaches “that the winding way to [the] promise passes through the wilderness.” Whether we find ourselves bamidbar as tourist, as farmer, or as unwilling resident, there are always blessings to be found. We must stay alert, keeping open our eyes and our hearts to the wild things around us. We never know when a dirty field might hold within it the ancient promise to yield a better life for those who make camp in uncertain lands. Our assent to these sacred tasks will assure that every man, woman and child is never so distant from the Tent of Meeting that God’s bounty cannot be theirs as well.
This d’var Torah was written for the Israel Religious Action Center, an extraordinary organization that embodies the mitzvah to ensure all may camp around the Tent of Meeting. Learn more about Leket Israel by clicking here.