Parashat Toldot

Manipulating Food Supply to Gain Power

What we can learn from Jacob's food politics.

Print this page Print this page

The ruse works; Jacob satisfies his father's gustatory cravings and thus receives the blessing intended for Esau: he and his offspring will be masters over his brother and his offspring, powerful among nations, and amply provided for by God (27:1-29). Jacob has clinched the birthright, deftly using his brother's and father's appetites to secure his dominance.

World Hunger Crisis

Jacob's use of food to wield power is an ageless tactic, in our times deployed on a global scale to devastating effect. The worldwide crisis in rising food prices has added an estimated 44 million individuals to the ranks of the malnourished, bringing the total to about one in seven people on our planet. Amazingly, as prices and hunger have risen, so have the profits of large-scale agribusiness and agricultural commodity trading companies.

No single cause has created this crisis, but the effects of the rich world's trade policies--and thus our own responsibility--cannot be ignored. While important benefits can accrue to developing nations from liberalizing trade agreements, such agreements have also increased dependence on imports from rich countries and made developing nations vulnerable to volatile markets and rising prices. Oxfam International recently summarized how such policies spread hunger: "trade agreements have enabled rich countries to dump highly subsidized commodities on developing country markets…without providing adequate safeguard mechanisms to defend vulnerable sectors, and maintained significant barriers to rich country markets for the agricultural products in which poor countries are most competitive."And within the nations that have been so affected, it is the poorest of the poor and women who suffer most acutely.

The policies sustaining our global food market allow rich countries and corporations to reap profit and power while the global poor grow increasingly hungry. As we assess our responses to the story of the birthright, we should allow for the uncomfortable possibility that our patriarch's actions were deeply flawed. Let us learn from our deep unease with Jacob's exploitation of Esau's hunger. Our brothers' hunger indeed calls out to us from the earth: Whether we exploit it or allay it is our choice.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.