Should my succa have a debt ceiling?

The owner of a succa that needed new infrastructure, columnist Edmon J. Rodman looks into the US debate on job creation for a bipartisan solution.

By EDMOND J. RODMAN/JTA
October 10, 2011 14:47
Should my succa have a debt ceiling?

Obama in broken succa 311. (photo credit: Edmon J. Rodman)

LOS ANGELES - Each Succot we read in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that there “is a time to tear down, and a time to build up." For my succa it was time for both.

Last year the legs of my succa were bowed and its roof supports looked flimsy. This year I wanted to rebuild my Jewish infrastructure, maybe even expand. But in a year of tight budgets, both personal and national, in a year when even the US Congress had finances as shaky as any succa, how should I proceed?

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Given the polarizing national debate on fiscal responsibility, I was concerned. Would my fiscal approach to succa repair cause it to lean to the left? The right? Or, overwhelmed, would I just sit in my succa, go with the Bachmann flow and, like my Yiddish-speaking grandmother, drink “a nice glass of tea?”

As a practical guideline, the Talmud provides the requirements: the handbreadths, cubits and crossbeams, and that the roof covering, the schach, should provide more shade than allow sun.

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What we don’t get is cost analysis and debt ceilings. Where could I turn for economic advice on how to rebuild my holiday infrastructure?

As the psalm says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Capitol Hill, that is.

For example, US President  Barack Obama in his recent “jobs” speech before Congress said that “We can put people to work rebuilding America. Everyone here knows we have badly decaying roads and bridges all over the country.”

Obama called for a plan that would “put people to work right now fixing roofs and windows …” And to assist “responsible homeowners,” he added, “we're going to work with federal housing agencies to help more people refinance their mortgages at interest rates that are now near four percent.”

Inspired by the president's words, I thought, “I have badly decaying stuff, too -- my succa -- with a roof that needs fixing right now. Good-bye sagging schach. And with all that low-interest refi green, I might even add enough room for a few more guests.”

But eying my credit card, I wondered: Isn’t borrowing against the house how we got into trouble the last time? Maybe I should look to the other side of the succa, so to speak, for a more conservative idea.

Not that the Republicans or tea partiers had presented a schach reduction bill, but US House Speaker John Boehner did have a different approach to infrastructure and putting Americans back to work.

“Private-sector job creators of all sizes have been pummeled by decisions made in Washington,” said Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in response to Obama’s jobs speech. “They’ve been slammed by uncertainty from the constant threat of new taxes, out-of-control spending and unnecessary regulation from a government that is always micromanaging, meddling and manipulating."

Oh yeah, I had been slammed by uncertainty, too. I certainly could build a better succa without any meddling. And who needs rabbinic supervision for any of this stuff? It’s just too expensive!

So I was going strictly private sector -- no more approved prefab succas or out-of-control holiday spending. But upon reconsideration, maybe just a smidge of supervision might not be so bad, I thought. Who would decide if the etrog was fit to use in my succa?

Confused, I needed to talk to someone about both the spiritual and design sides of my plan. I needed a rabbi and an architect, so I called both: Rabbi Alan Lurie of Rye, New York.

Lurie is a modern-sounding rabbi with private smicha from a beit din, or rabbinical court, as well as a licensed architect who studied at the Chicago Institute of Technology. He is the managing director of the real estate firm Grubb & Ellis.

In the introduction to his book “Five Minutes on Mondays: Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work,” Lurie wrote, “Uncertainty can, in fact, be a great gift because it can cause us to rethink our established, fixed way of seeing things.” Thus, I thought, he could advise me on my own succa uncertainty.

“Certainly I wouldn’t go into debt. I don’t think the Shulhan Aruh would suggest that,” Lurie advised, crushing my expansionary dreams in a fiscally conservative way.

“We all don’t need so much. The country is going through a tikkun, a major correction. We need to readjust," he said. "I know families who have playrooms bigger than our house, and they are still not happy.”

Moving the debate back in time from America's founding fathers to a group of fathers much older, Lurie reminded me that the succa is supposed to be “a humble structure” and that size was not important.

“To build it just to impress someone is a 'chet' [a sin],” he reminded.

“And what about spending for repairs?” I asked.

“A rickety structure is kind of a lovely way to celebrate,” the rabbi responded, quieting my appetite for costly infrastructure repair, though he did point out that my “succa  needed to be safe."

"It shouldn’t fall on someone,” he said, sanctioning necessary repairs as the president had proposed.

So I would be “building up” after all, just in a scaled-down sort of way. By compromising, I would soon be on my way to a season of succa recovery.

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.


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