Aside from the historical reminder found in the Torah that during the years of
wandering God provided us with protection in the form of a succa, there are two
ways of looking at Succot and its message. One is that the succa, with beautiful
decorations and lovely furnishings, is a way of expressing thanksgiving at the
bounty of the fall harvest, the appreciation of nature and of nature’s God.
Succot was the source and the inspiration for the American Thanksgiving
Yet there is an alternative message as well: leaving one’s
permanent home, leaving behind one’s precious possessions, entering into and
living in a temporary hut that can hardly withstand the trials of time, is a way
of making one aware of what it means to be homeless, to be poor, to be
A succa is fun, but what would it be like to live in a rather
flimsy hut without a real roof for any length of time? Not so much
What would it be like to live for years in a refugee camp? Many Jews
suffered that deprivation in the past, and now there are people all over the
world who face such a life. Just think of the innocent Syrian refugees in
Jordan. Who knows when they will be able to return to their homes? What does
that do to children whose lives are turned upside down? Yes, they have some
temporary protection, but little more than that.
Moving into the succa is
also a way of reminding all of us that we can go too far in seeking luxury. All
we really need is a roof over our heads. For those who can afford much more, the
succa is a reminder of humility and modesty, of doing with less. Remember when
the president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, made do with a tzrif – a modest hut?
When David Ben-Gurion as prime minister lived in a small house in Rehavia, when
Teddy Kollek as mayor of Jerusalem lived in a small walk-up apartment, as did
prime minister Menachem Begin? The succa asks us to consider the homeless of the
world, including those in our own cities – yes, we have them in Israel, too.
Some of them would be happy to have even a succa to live in. But one does not
have to be on the streets to be deprived of a real home. There are so many
families in Israel who cannot afford to own a home, who live in cramped
quarters, doubled up because there is no housing for them.
There was a
time when the government considered it part of its task to provide housing for
all at affordable prices.
Look at the housing prices going up in
Jerusalem. When was the last time you saw a sign that did not indicate it was
“luxurious housing”? You don’t have to be poor to not be able to afford anything
being built today. When we moved to Jerusalem 40 years ago, we purchased an
apartment at a reasonable rate – nothing fancy, a fourth-floor walk-up – but
affordable because the government made it available to olim. My children were
able to buy basic apartments in the ’80s because there was a program of housing
for young couples. What happened to all that? A Jewish society is a caring
society – or should be.
But that was all before Milton Friedman became
the undisputed prophet of economics in Israel. Personally, I would prefer the
prophet Amos, who spoke about those who “impose a tax on the poor and exact from
him a levy of grain” (5:11), “who defraud the poor, who rob the needy” (4:1),
“who have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair
of sandals... who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground”
(2:6-7), as they “lie on ivory beds lolling on their couches” (6:4). This was
the same prophet who said that God despises the festivals, the hymns and the
music as long as such things happen, and calls for letting “justice well up like
water, righteousness like an unfailing stream” (5:24).
These are good
words to remember as we sit in our succa this year. ■ The writer, former
president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the
National Book Award. His latest book is
The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).
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