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Bread, Guilt and Grace

Bread, Guilt and Grace

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"Will the Shabbat Queen really come all the way to India?" asks six-year-old Miriam, pausing in mid-flight like a startled butterfly, her deep, joyful eyes full of questions.

"If we make everything ready for her, she will surely come," I answer hopefully. We start to make challah, kneading the dough on the wood-topped table. Miriam wants to make the plaits, and she is the one who remembers to set aside a portion for G‑d. She rolls it into a tiny doll's challah and tells me G‑d will take all the pieces of challah and make The experience of being satisfied after a filling meal never fails to produce a feeling of guilt them into one big loaf for the angels' Shabbat meal. We carry the plaited loaves outside to rise beneath the scorching sun of our South Indian prolonged summer - waiting for the monsoon to break, praying that it will come this year and ward off famine. Everyone is anxious.

After dinner I feel a strong need to say the Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals). Birkat HaMazon had always struck me as very cumbersome until I came to India. Since then, the experience of being satisfied after a filling meal never fails to produce a feeling of guilt, conscious as I am of the millions who live here and are never filled. It seemed to require some act of will on my part to expiate this guilt, and the idea of raising each meal to a sacrament naturally suggested Birkat HaMazon, which took on a new and urgent significance in the context of my life here.

Still, it was not satisfactory, opening as it does with praise to the "One Who sustains and nourishes all His creations" with the gift of food, and leading to a plea for special care for the House of Israel. As I pray, I know that all are not sustained and nourished here, where I furtively eat behind closed doors. I know that G‑d's rich abundance remains tightly clutched in the fists of the few, while the meek quietly suffer and dare ask no questions.

I long for the "House of my People" to reach out and enfold in their prayer the brave, silent children of India who live in perpetual misery and despair from birth till death and are never satisfied with enough to eat. Still, I know that G‑d is not to blame, and there is no reason to refrain from praising Him. So I expiate my guilt by prayer, and this leads to a new kind of haunting uneasiness.

I have recently begun to give my last day's few pieces of leftover bread to beggars, meticulously wrapping it in plastic and depositing it with some uncertainty in one of the scores of continually outstretched hands which follow me everywhere each day. The chosen beggar is always puzzled and peers through the plastic with some doubt. I move off quickly and then look back and watch him break off a piece and chew it, first with hesitation and then with obvious relish. The joy which fills me as I watch a ragged, hungry man or woman eat my bread is an indescribable gift, and I receive infinitely more than I give. So, in a sense, I am the beggar and he the giver of grace...


After breakfast we search for the portion of the week in my big Torah and in Miriam's brightly colored Children's Bible. Today it is Beshalach, and I tell Miriam of the miracle of the manna. She is delighted but slightly puzzled that G‑d has not sent some manna here for the hungry children of India. I go on reading, and the problem of hunger and bread follows me even here. It torments me wherever I turn. We are taught that at the crossing of the Red Sea even the most humble serving-maid saw the Divine Presence more clearly than the greatest of the later prophets. Yet, we find that a few days of thirst and hunger almost make the people forget what they had witnessed. "Better to be slaves in Egypt than to perish here in the wilderness for lack of food," the chosen ones cry out in their hunger. What hope is there for us? I wonder, and there is no one to help me through this labyrinth of dark thoughts.

The joy which fills me as I watch a ragged, hungry man or woman eat my bread is an indescribable gift

That night, when Miriam came inside to announce that she had found the first three stars, I performed Havdalah for the children and myself. As I haltingly chanted the ancient words of the blessing which separates the seventh day from the rest of the days, our Shabbat came quietly to an end. The sweet, precious herbs from Modiin, hastily yet firmly stuffed into my overflowing and overweight suitcases by my friend Emunah, linked us with other Jews who were so far away.

The promise of the Messiah was all around us. It rose up with particular urgency like the sandalwood incense which cast its strong, deep fragrance all through our little house and out through the open windows until it merged with the joyous profusion of jasmine and the poignant air of sadness, which settled like a tattered, starry blanket over our turbulent little South Indian town, carrying us into another week of struggle and hope.


The imminence of the Messiah's coming has become very real to me since coming to India. What had once seemed a poetic adornment to a symbol-laden religious concept has become transformed into a simple and actual waiting in perfect faith for an impending event. It seemed quite natural and inevitable that the redemption would somehow someday come here where it was so greatly needed.

I was filled with wonder and admiration for the quietly suffering, uncomplaining masses of India who carried on their febrile lives without the thought of any hope, any vindication. The alarm and dismay at what I saw here had grown in me until it became an urgent, painful cry of longing for the Messiah to appear and transform the endless darkness and misery into light and joy.

More and more frequently now the words of Maimonides rose to my lips, "I believe with the wholeness of faith in the coming of the Messiah," and more strongly, "and though he tarry" (and perhaps even because of that) "I will continue to wait for him each day."

From B’Or HaTorah Journal: Science, Art and Modern Life in the Light of Torah. B’Or HaTorah is an English-language journal for wondering Jews, scientists, artists, teachers and students. It examines personal and intellectual concerns through the microscope and telescope of the scientist; the algorithm of the mathematician; the discourse of the philosopher; the imagery of the artist, poet and photographer; and the tested faith and learning of the Torah-observant Jew.
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Anonymous February 11, 2012

One day some while ago I did something which I had been thinking about for a while: I had made challa bread, wrapped them into paper and traveled into town where all week I had passed beggars on my way from work. Now I hurried to find them: Where were they all gone? Within an hour I had found the ones that I wanted to share the bread with, I just asked them with my eyes if they wanted bread, and they all did, and without words they all started eating right away. I did it in a hurry, and then traveled home for my own shabbat, feeling strangely blessed by giving this unknown people shabbat bread. So far I've just done this once, feeling both inspired but also a bit odd walking alone with those breads, but it also felt like the right thing to do at that moment, and in some way as a way to honour the creator. Reply

Prof. Ross Barnard May 14, 2010

What a beautiful story. I have experienced the same thoughts and feelings in India. It is a challenging place. It shocks you,forcing you to think deeply about the things you mention and how to deal with them from day to day. Reply

samantha saipan, village May 5, 2008

fabulous Reply

Brittany Horwitt Plantation, FL via chabadtallahassee.com June 8, 2007

Having witnessed 3rd world hunger and poor conditions, people (i.e. Angelina Jolie) have starved themselves because they feel guilty. I also feel this way after traveling and coming back to the states. But this article reminds us that "G-d is not to blame, and there is no reason to refrain from praising Him." Lessening guilt through prayer and mitzvot are to be encouraged and helps greatly. Thanks. Reply

Leona Juris Stanfordville, NY.USA via chabadulstercounty.org March 30, 2006

I so loved this article. I spent tme in India and feel so very much as the author does. But I am now visiting my son in Tiberias, where the contrasts are not so great, but the sense of walking ancient holy ground permeates my being as it also did in India.
I have so much to be grateful for and this article made that a little bit clearer to me.
Thank you Reply

David Schiff vallejo, ca September 4, 2004

I loved it ! Reply

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