Sukkot and Our Duty to Alleviate Poverty

This Friday marks the end of the celebration of Sukkot. The word Sukkot, of course, means “booths,” and refers to the temporary dwellings that we spent the past week eating, singing and even sleeping in. We remember the wandering of the Jews in the desert and celebrate the fall harvest season. As we spent the past week in the sukkah — with its fragile walls and a ceiling made of leaves and branches — we reflected on the fragility of our lives and our possessions and, perhaps, we thought about those who are not as fortunate.

Although our harvest is bountiful indeed, not all Americans share in it: 5.4 million American families live in unsafe or unhealthy housing conditions. That number pales next to the 31 million Americans today who are hungry, or at immediate risk of hunger. Even those who receive government assistance remain in need: 58 percent of employed former welfare recipients have incomes below the poverty line.

Just as the rhythms of our Jewish calendar have us thinking about our many blessings and those who remain mired in poverty, the congressional calendar is now turning to consideration of the most important federal anti-poverty program. Last week, more than half of the members of the Senate signed a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to bring welfare reform reauthorization to the floor of the Senate chamber for a vote before the end of the 107th Congress. The bill, titled, the “Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids Act of 2002” (WORK), has bipartisan support. The Senate bill is a strong improvement over the current welfare system and a strong improvement over the welfare reform bill passed by the House of Representatives in May. The House bill would increase the number of hours per week of work required of welfare recipients, while limiting the availability of education and training and other services required to make employment viable and attainable. At the same time, the meager increase in funding for childcare falls way below the $4.5 billion that is needed just to maintain current childcare services, which are provided to only one-seventh of families who are in need.

The WORK bill would maintain the current work week for welfare recipients, increase childcare funding by $5.5 billion, give states the option to restore welfare benefits to legal immigrants, encourage more education and training and make it easier for individuals to receive substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling. While significantly better than the House bill, this bill would leave many millions without child care. Currently, only about 2 million of the 15 million eligible for child-care services actually receive help. The Senate bill would provide child-care assistance for only an estimated 100,000 more low-income children than the current program. No parent should be forced to choose between losing benefits because they are not working and leaving their children alone because the parent has to work.

The Torah and the Jewish tradition teach us that providing for the poor is not a matter of charity but an obligation. “If … there is a needy person among you … do not harden your heart and shut your hand…. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

As Jews and Americans, we should require nothing less from our government today. In a land where one in three children will be poor at some point during their childhood, we can and must do better.

As Sukkot comes to an end, so too does the 107th Congress. The circumstances could not be more urgent. It is crucial that comprehensive welfare legislation pass this year, since budget constraints will make it even more difficult to pass legislation that would positively affect families next year. With the lessons and experience of Sukkot fresh in our minds, let us remember those who do not share in our prosperity. Let us help spread a sukat shalom, a shelter of peace and healing, over those who most need our help. And let us join with them to encourage the Senate to pass just and humane welfare reform during this session.

Rabbi David Saperstein is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Rachel Wainer is the legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism focusing on economic justice issues.

Fragility Around Us

On Sukkot, the Torah commands us to live in booths for seven days.

As if we need these temporary huts to remind us of life’s fragility.

Nevertheless, my husband, Larry, and I, along with three of our sons, dutifully haul down the disassembled pieces of our prefab sukkah from the garage rafters.

“Hey, this isn’t the holiday where we’re supposed to feel like slaves,” complains Jeremy, 13, while carting the first load to the backyard.

“Why do we have to build our own sukkah when the Israelities had God to build theirs?” chimes in Danny, 11.

But eventually, with as much grousing and grumbling as the original Israelites, my sons deposit the redwood lattice-work panels, support slats and minibungee cords in a disorderly pile in the backyard.

My husband stares at the pieces, knowing that the sukkah, which we purchased four years ago, came with no instructions save the overly optimistic “Easy to Assemble.”

But after a few false starts, the sukkah is built, never quite the same configuration as the previous year, but always rickety, vulnerable and in compliance with the talmudic requirements — three sides and a roof that is covered with palm leaves or other organic material, allowing more shade than sun, but permitting a view of the stars at night.

“All seven days of the festival, each one should turn the hut into his permanent residence, and his house into the temporary one,” the Talmud (Sukkah 2:9) tells us.

Spending time in the sukkah is supposed to remind us not to put our trust in a sturdy dwelling or a mass of material possessions that provide only the illusion of security. Rather, we should put our trust in God, who protected the Israelites while traveling in the wilderness for 40 years.

But this Sukkot, I don’t feel secure in my house or my sukkah.

Not when more than 3,000 civilians, firefighters and police officers weren’t safe in four airplanes, two 110-story office buildings and the Pentagon.

Not when Israelis can’t ride on an Egged bus, eat in a pizza parlor or attend a Passover seder in a hotel dining room without fearing for their lives.

And not when Americans and Israelis alike wait for the next suicide bomber, chemical or biological assault or even nuclear attack.

This Sukkot, it is God’s protective powers that seem illusory.

“I think God doesn’t protect us because he wants us to find our own way,” Danny says.

But we’ve been struggling to find our own way throughout history, only to encounter more enemies who want to annihilate us and more battles over our homeland. And God has stuck with us.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, which is traditionally read during Sukkot and which normally seems incongruous with the holiday’s joyous mood, is now alarmingly apropos: “Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun” (Sukkah 1:1-3).

The author of Ecclesiastes, purported to be King Solomon, points out that no matter how righteously or wickedly we live, we all come to the same end — death. But, at the same time, the author exhorts us to live life, whatever its duration, fully and enthusiastically, for Judaism is life-affirming, not nihilistic and despairing,

Or as my son Gabe, 15, says, “Even if we don’t feel safe, we must press on, just as the Jews did after Amalek, the Romans and even the Nazis. That’s what Sukkot is all about.”

And so this year, despite our doubts and fears, our reluctance and our half-heartedness, we press on.

We take comfort in the familiarity and the rituals of Sukkot — building and decorating the sukkah, celebrating and eating with family and friends and taking up the lulav and the etrog.

We take comfort in the fact that the Israelites, who dealt with their share of fears and foes, eventually reached the Promised Land.

Yes, the huts poignantly remind us of life’s brevity, but the holiday itself reaffirms life’s permanence. For Sukkot, the most important festival mentioned in the Bible, has been celebrated by Jews around the world for over three millennia, except during the Babylonian Exile.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the sun” (Sukkah 3:1).

Like the Israelites, this is our season to journey in a frightening and unknown wilderness, battling an elusive and evil enemy and suffering unbearable losses. The purpose yet escapes us, as does an awareness of God’s protective presence.

And like the Israelites, we hope to persevere and ultimately prevail. And to some day ritualize, commemorate and comprehend this dark period in our history.