Hunger Games? Pass the Haroset!

The WORD 3/22/12.  If you do not have a tween or teen living in your home, you may not have been aware that the “The Hunger Games” film is opening in theaters tonight.  You might not even know what “The Hunger Games” are.  If your child, grandchild, niece or nephew is not with you right now to fill you in, let me share with you a few details about “The Hungers Games” from a Jewish perspective.

“The Hunger Games” is a film adaptation of a book (of the same name) written by Suzanne Collins, which is set in a future, post-apocalyptic North America.  Instead of the USA, the greatly diminished population lives in country called Panem.  The name Panem comes from the Latin phrase “panem et circenses”which means “bread and circuses.”  The idea behind the name is that a government need only provide the minimal nutrition for its population and put on a good show.  The government of Panem keeps its population on the brink of starvation, but puts a great deal of effort into putting on the Hunger Games (which I will discuss in greater detail below) each year.

Clearly, this runs counter to Jewish values.  In Pirkei Avot 3:21, we read the following, “If there is no sustenance, there is no Torah; with no Torah, there is no sustenance.”  In other words, if we cannot provide enough for ourselves and our families, then we cannot possible focus on studying the values and customs of our tradition.  On the flip side, though, if we organize our society in such a way that we are ignoring the ideals of the Torah, then we will ultimately starve ourselves.  We know that there are enough resources on our planet to feed us all.  The question is whether we distribute them in a just manner.

In Panem, the citizens are segregated into 12 districts with each district under the control of the Capital.  The districts are not allowed to communicate with another so that a citizen from one district knows very little about life in any other district.  And each district has an economic task which supports life in the Capital.

It is ironic that this film is being released the same weekend that we read a special portion from the Torah called “Ha-Hodesh” which reminds us that Passover will soon arrive.  In that text, we will read the following: “You shall observe the [Feast of] Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time (Exodus 12:17).”  Passover is arguably the most observed Jewish holiday (it’s neck-and-neck with Hanukkah) and the message of Passover is clear: we cherish freedom.

In Panem, each year the Capital hosts a disturbing event called the Hunger Games.  Two youngsters from each of the twelve districts, aged 12-18 are chosen by lottery to participate in the Hunger Games.  These 24 children then fight to the death while being video recorded.  The images are transmitted to all of the districts where it is required viewing.  The spectacle is intended to remind the residents of the districts that the Capital is in complete control and can make people do anything – even allow their children to fight to the death.

In contrast, our tradition teaches, “At age thirteen, one becomes subject to the commandments (Pirke Avot 5:23).”  In other words, we teach our teens that as they come of age, they answer to God by performing mitzvot.  They should not be beholden to the whims of their fellow human beings.

One of the goals of this kind of futuristic science fiction is to make us think about where our society is going.  If we forget about important values like feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed and empowering the next generation, then our descendants may inherit a world devoid of compassion and justice.  That is precisely what Passover comes to remind us each year as well.  “The Hunger Games” may start tonight but the first Seder is two weeks from tomorrow.  Have a wonderful, thought-provoking Passover.




About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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