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Sukkot Humbles The Rich, Comforts the Poor, Good Timing for #OccupyAmerica

As the sun sets on Wednesday, October 12th, the Jewish community begins the Festival of Sukkot, a spiritual harvest festival commemorating the historic journey of the ancient Hebrews across the desert, the bounty of the fall harvest, and our reliance on God. However, Sukkot is much more than a way to commemorate this ancient journey, it evens the playing field between rich and poor.

Firstly, why do Jews rough it in the Sukkah for the Festival? Wouldn’t it make more sense to celebrate in a pub, club, or frat house?

On Sukkot there is a special mitzvah, an obligation, to rejoice and be happy. What makes me truly happy? Is it a new car, season premiers or the iPhone 4S? Sukkot is a remedy for my faith in possessions to make me happy. Surrounded by the walls of our temporary dwelling place, I remind myself that focusing on our friends, family and relationship with God can sustain my happiness.

More recently, as Jewish communities do not feel the constant threat of tyrants and anti-Semitism, Sukkot encourages me to help the many people who live on a constant basis without permanent shelter.

Another deeper lesson of Sukkot can best be understood by another name of the Festival. The holiday of Sukkot is also called the Festival of the Harvest – commemorating the time when we gather our crops and fill our storehouses.

If one has been blessed — our profits outweigh our expenditures, our portfolio has grown and our wine cellars are full and satisfaction and trust fill our soul — it is at that moment that the Torah tells us to leave our home and dwell in a Sukkah. The frail booth teaches us that neither wealth, good investments, IRA’s or even real-estate are life’s safeguards. It is God who sustains us all, those in palaces and those in tents. Any glory or wealth we posses came to us from God, and will endure so long as it is God’s will.

And if our toil has not resulted in great blessing — our investments went south, we lost our job and nest-egg, our cellars are empty, and we face the approaching winter with mounting debt and bills, living off credit from month to month, forlorn and fearful for how we will survive— then as we enter the sukkah we find rest for our troubled soul. Divine providence is more reliable than worldly wealth which can vanish in an instant. The sukkah will renew our strength and courage, and teach and inspire us with joy and perseverance even in the face of affliction and hardship.

Sukkot humbles the rich, for it can vanish in an instant. Comforts the Poor, a week to enjoy the embrace of the sukkah.

Sukkot hit at an interesting time, just as #OccupyAmerica is gaining steam.

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22 Comments

  1. AlexK

    10/13/2011 at 1:45 pm

    Rabbi Yonah,

    It would be nice if you highlighted the anti-Semitism at #OccupyWallStreet as well as any Jews from that movement doing something about it other than ignoring it. Thanks.

  2. AlexK

    10/14/2011 at 7:46 pm

    Patricia McAllister of Occupy LA: “I think this Zionist Jews who run the banks and the Fed… should be run out of the country.”

    Good thing we don’t need to feel the threat of anti-Semitsim anymore! Also, great to see it encouraged here as well. Heck, I agree with her. Why run them out of town when we can just take those “money people’s” wealth and belongings first, and just lock them up on some anti-99% charge?

  3. themiddle

    10/15/2011 at 1:30 am

    You know Alex, there are some idiots in that crowd, but that’s not the same as saying the the entire crowd is idiotic. There are antisemites in that crowd and that doesn’t mean they’re all antisemitic. It’s important to maintain a reasonable perspective here.

  4. froylein

    10/15/2011 at 12:39 pm

    What is their objective, Middle? As far as I can see, there’s a lot of blame laid onto part of a system they’re themselves part of, e.g. those with a fancy degree that was not likely to get them employed are now complaining about their study loans while they themselves discredited public education by choosing a fancy institution. A newspaper comment over here noted how stylish the protesters are, but that stylishness is bought at the price of outsourced (sweatshop) labour and minimum wages for hairsytlists, aestheticians etc. Are they protesting against their own corruptibility that made them buy things they couldn’t afford and for which they had no back-up plan for payments? Or the naivete in not seeing that ample product choices at comparatively low prices can only be achieved through moving workplaces abroad and making use of foreign raw goods? How many of them make it a deliberate decision to rely on fairtrade products whenever possible?

    In Germany, we’ve got a system that’s called “social market economy”, i.e. capitalism paired with an extensive social system. There is a rough estimate that 73 percent of our income go to taxes, fees for public services, and mandatory insurances. It is not a bad system as long as it doesn’t get abused – and as long as people remain humble and reasonable enough consumers.

  5. AlexK

    10/15/2011 at 2:24 pm

    Funny Middle, you’re nowhere in this post telling GM to maintain perspective:

    http://jewlicious.com/2009/11/charming-signs-at-the-most-recent-tea-party/

  6. froylein

    10/15/2011 at 4:27 pm

    Sashka, are you holding a grudge? 😉

  7. themiddle

    10/15/2011 at 9:41 pm

    Don’t be bitter, Alex, it doesn’t suit you.

    Froylein, like what happened in Israel over the summer, the problem is that there are so many protesters with different key concerns that it’s hard to say that the movement is about this or about that. I think what’s driving it is frustration with a number of issues. The first is that there is a serious dearth of jobs and of jobs that are in line with people’s training or qualifications. Students who graduate can’t find work. A lot of people who were gainfully employed have not found work for a couple of years now and many others who have lost jobs since then realize that the jobs they’re used to having don’t exist or the competition is so fierce they can’t beat out such large numbers of competitors. Even upgrading skills isn’t helpful when most available jobs are in the high tech sector. Not everybody can be a great engineer or programmer.

    So the key issue is the tough job market and the fact there is no light at the end of the tunnel for most of this market’s victims.

    I think another issue is the growing divide between rich and poor because one of the outcomes of this economy is that the middle class is being pushed down in terms of standard of living while the wealthy seem to have adjusted to this new economy and are doing fine. The poor are worse off than ever.

    Another issue is the housing market. Many people in the US have lost their homes, many are behind in housing payments, many are in foreclosure or on the way to foreclosure on their homes. Many former homeowners are now renters. Many current homeowners are “upside down” on their mortgage, which means they owe more than the value of the property.

    Finally, and I think this is what’s driving the anger: nobody got punished for what happened. The banking industry, together with the mortgage industry, together with wall street banks and the government, which was supposed to supervise them, managed to destroy the American economy. The irresponsibility they showed was criminal, and yet nobody has been charged, convicted or imprisoned. On the contrary, the manner in which the US government addressed the problem is by giving the banks loans and arranging for the purchase of idiotic investment banks by solvent banks. The banks promptly gave their failed executives bonuses and continued plodding along just as before. In fact, they have acted in bad faith in that they took the money the government gave them and have made borrowing far more difficult that it needs to be – they went beyond protecting themselves and into harming the market. They keep playing games with the mortgage market, essentially harming it and ensuring the US economy can’t recover.

    With respect to the government that failed in its mission to oversee and protect consumers, borrowers and the economy, as if once wasn’t enough, they managed to bring the US economy back to the brink of failure during the summer with the entire debt-ceiling fiasco which was self-inflicted. Yes, it’s the fault of tea-party idiots, but the fact is that once again, instead of protecting citizens, they harmed them. They’ve caused the economy, which was beginning to gain traction and show some momentum, to falter again. It was unnecessary. And, of course, they have not experienced any pain or suffering and won’t until the next election. Meanwhile, people can’t find work and can’t feed themselves or their families.

    These legitimate concerns are, unfortunately, being mixed up with all kinds of other concerns because the Occupy Wall Street movement is led from the bottom up. In Israel, over the summer, the protesters did have a leadership with some clout over the protesters, and were able to configure a list of demands that ended up making some sense and which weren’t over the top. They got a commission to review their claims as a result, and the government did vote to put into effect some of the commission’s recommendations. I don’t see that happening in the US unless leaders emerge who can formulate a set of realistic demands and then get their followers to peacefully demonstrate on behalf of those goals. Right now it’s a big mish-mash.

  8. Abu Zibby

    10/16/2011 at 4:55 am

    Froylein is right, the only way out of the mess is by educating the consumers and stop banks and politicians to abuse the system.
    For decades banks and state owned have been shoving cheap credits and mortgages down their customer’s throat, encouraged by politicians and backed by the FHA. This system goes back to the new deal but has since been abused by several admistrations, Democrats and Republicans alike. Of course it didn’t work out for everybody. And the system of mortgage/debt traps is bound to fail because it distorted the market in the first place. Running out of options the goverment will now utilize the resentiments against the banking sector an will make them buy foul bonds, dragging the whole banking business into the abyss, too. What could go wrong?

  9. froylein

    10/16/2011 at 5:11 am

    Middle, banks and mortgages have been a hot topic over here as well as mortgages were sold that only could be re-paid under ideal conditions. Then again, you may only have one mortgage here while I’ve seen over there that people can get several mortgages on one property’s security. While this may be a tempting option in times of economic hardship and banks may or may not be moral in selling such mortgages (demand/supply) and politicians may or may not be responsible for not regulating the banks rigidly enough (the US wealth and development is deeply-rooted in Calvinist / Puritan free trade and economic liberalism), there is also a great deal of naivete in believing that if you cannot pay back one mortgage, you’ll be able to pay back a third, second, third etc. one. Over here, such a practice would be considered fraudulent. There are pros and cons to market regulations, but, as Abu agreed, consumer education is vital to protect both the interests of the consumers as well as those of the suppliers and in turn the fiscal interests of the government. A well-educated middle class is also the basis of a solid democracy, but an educated people is not as easily governed as an exhausted plebs.

  10. themiddle

    10/17/2011 at 12:57 am

    I recommend Michael Lewis’s The Big Short.

    In the entire US of A, there were only a few hundred people, if that, who understood (not knew, UNDERSTOOD) what the banks and investment banks were doing with mortgage securitization and far fewer than those who knew that these mortgage packages were also being repackaged in a way that would convince the jerks at the ratings agencies to rate these mortgage packages as relatively secure. There were even fewer people who actually understood what was going on or were given the opportunity to understand what was going on AND to BET against it.

    Many extremely sophisticated investors were ruined by what happened. Many could not and did not anticipate it. Putting the blame on the middle class or upper middle class or any other citizens is a game played by bankers who should have known better, mortgage companies who should have known better, politicians who should have known better and the folks who already owned their homes from way back and for whatever reasons did not sell or buy during the last few years of the bubble, thus avoiding the pain that millions of Americans suffered and suffer and who confuse their good fortune with some profound insights into the market and into what happened here.

    The system is meant to work with integrity and with countless checks by the government. It is intended to protect citizens, not to enrich bankers and investors unfairly. I challenge anybody reading this to show me that more than one percent of the population understands what derivatives are. If that. In fact, I challenge readers to explain derivatives to me.

    There is no excuse for what happened. It’s not the fault of one person or one group, but it is the fault of those who ran these financial institutions and of those who were supposed to provide oversight and protection for all Americans.

  11. froylein

    10/17/2011 at 9:37 am

    IIRC, derivatives with regards to credits are that credits, loans etc. can be traded resp. the risks that come with a loan, credit etc. can be traded. This, certainly, resembles a betting agency rather than solid investments. Then again, isn’t that the price people are only now realising they’re paying for the economic-political system they’re in?

    • themiddle

      10/17/2011 at 10:30 am

      They were gambling, that’s for sure. Banks were gambling. And I’m not sure they’re quite done gambling. As for whether that’s the consequence of the political system or rather a case of poor governance of that political system in combination with court-approved corporate manipulation of the government, I’d say it’s the latter.

      In any case, the Occupy Wall Street protests make sense in light of what happened, but if a leadership doesn’t materialize, these protests will make media noise for a while and might even spawn off some political candidates, but I doubt they will actually bring about change. Politicians are worries about donors and voters (maybe even in that order), not people hanging out on the street.

  12. DK

    10/17/2011 at 10:35 pm

    If you look at who is attempting to absurdly smear the protestors as generally anti-semitic, you will see that they are all too often Republican operatives. It’s not just an unreasonable overreaction, it is a cynical ploy.

    I think it helps to hit the streets in a liberal democracy. Time will tell. Waiting for pols to just get inspired to do the right thing was definitely not working.

  13. themiddle

    10/18/2011 at 3:11 am

    True. But at the same time, there are antisemitic activities and the Occupy movement would do well to make a point to squelch them and reject them without reservation.

  14. Abu Zibby

    10/18/2011 at 7:53 am

    @DK, could you please elaborate on this. Is Kalle Lassn and Adbuster’s hate against Jews a cynical Republican ploy? If yes, how so?

    It’s certainly one of the most moronic tin-foil-hat arguments I’ve heard in a while. I don’t imply that you are a moron, but ur argument is. It puts the bat into the moon.

  15. DK

    10/18/2011 at 10:13 am

    Abu, I was specifically referencing the use of homeless schizophrenics on video as proof of the protestors inherent anti-semitism.

    Lasn is Canadian, and not in charge of this American-based movement, though you are correct that he and Ad Busters are credited as having helped inspire it. But frankly, as someone who does not read Ad Busters, I think many were inspired not by Tahir, not by Lasn, but by our peaceful co-religionists in Tel Aviv.

    The specific fight over the Gaza/Warsaw Ghetto cover between Lasn in Canada and the Canadian Jewish Congress and Aish’s Honest Reporting is a fight that I can only say despise the behavior of both sides. I have no love for Lasn nor Aish’s Honest Reporting. I would ideally prefer not to be involved with anything that either of them are involved with, even tangentially. But life is messy, and sometimes we are stuck in a space with organizations and individuals that are loathsome.

    This protest is not about anti-semitism. There will be individuals who are anti-semitic, and they will not always be shut down as aggressively as we would like, in part because some of them are scary/crazy. Having said that, if you check with Occupy Judaism, you will see the movement is against the anti-semites.

    I am looking at the long-term issues that have to change. Not for excuses to derail those seeking reform. We are facing a devastating future if we don’t act. Please look at our options as realists, and do not heed the operatives with an agenda.

  16. Jack Rogers

    10/18/2011 at 11:25 am

    I can only wonder at how much press coverage there would have been if this had been a TEA Party occupation and if Mz McAllister were a caucasian speaking about some racial or religious minority.

  17. AlexK

    10/18/2011 at 11:33 am

    EXACTLY.

  18. DK

    10/18/2011 at 1:19 pm

    Jack and AlexK,

    I totally agree with you that the media would have jumped on that and applied a double standard.

    What I would say is that I personally would not do that, and I do not consider the tea party problematic from a racial or Jewish standpoint. My disagreements with them are ideological and policy oriented.

    I think the reflexive below the belt kicks in hopes of smearing and dismissing the opponent instead of debating him are egregious, and feel elements of the Jewish community are of the worst offenders on both sides.

  19. sheela

    10/18/2011 at 2:09 pm

    Rabbi Yonah,
    Thank you for this. My husband lost his job almost a year ago and is still desperately looking for work. Still, I can’t get fully behind the Occupy Whatever contingent because… well, because they have no clear message, and it’s only a matter of time before (best case scenario) the feeling the passion of this “movement” peters out, and everyone goes home, or (worst case scenario) someone with a f-cked up agenda hijacks this “movement” for their own motives.
    In any case, it’s a great comfort to know that although we’re facing tough times, our family are still together, and still enduring, like our faith. Let the “Occupiers” tweet and text on their expensive i-Gadgets (while they beg for “donations” to their cause) — it’s good to know that the basic necessities of life (food, shelter, friendship and faith) can be provided by such a simple. lovely structure like the sukkah.

  20. jpeditor

    11/1/2011 at 3:35 am

    OWS is supported by ACORN, Obama, SEIU, Pelosi, the American Nazi Party, the American Communist Party, and now CAIR, the PR firm for the muslim brotherhood.

    Wow, what a choice, wall street OR IDIOT SCUM?

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