Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sukkot in a Year of Economic Distress

There really should be a name for these few days that pass between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, just like we have a name for the days between Pesach and Shavuot and for the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But we don’t…possibly because the festivals are not considered—or, at least, are not traditionally considered—as the related ends of a common spectrum that runs between them like those other sets of festivals are. Indeed, they are distinct from each other and almost unrelated in terms of their history or their featured rituals. But it doesn’t feel like that at all to me when we actually move through them each year. In fact, it feels to me precisely as though we are moving along a path of ideas that leads us from celebrating the majesty of creation on Rosh Hashanah to owning up to the fragility of life as we know it on Sukkot. And the fact that that road leads through Yom Kippur, the day on which we force ourselves to acknowledge our own role in how things are in this breakable world of ours only makes the sense that these fall holidays go together feel that much more reasonable.

That the core idea of Sukkot has to do with finding in faith a reasonable refuge from the insecurity inherent in human life seems an especially resonant idea to talk about this week. Not being an economist or even an especially astute observer of most financial matters, I can’t even begin to explain how our country could have come so quickly and so dramatically to this financial debacle we appear to be experiencing. Or perhaps it was only unexpected to me…but I believe that there must be many others like myself, people who only understand the workings of high finance from a distance and on a certain elementary basis. But the one thing that actually is becoming clearer to me with every new twist and turn in the story is that the crisis our country is facing is more one of emotional confidence than one rooted in purely economic factors. As a result, I think the solution is going to have to have to do not merely with throwing money, even unimaginably vast sums of it, at the problem…but with addressing the root cause of all this instability. When people lose confidence in their banks, they worry that their money may not be available to them when they want it. When banks lose confidence that the owners of the money of which they are the stewards will behave normally, calmly and reasonably, they begin to sell off their assets so as not to be caught short. When huge financial institutions sell, markets tumble…and average investors lose even more confidence. That’s why it seems to me that the crisis we are facing is more philosophical in nature than rooted in the exigencies and inherent volatility of the stock market. It’s all a matter of trusting: in the dollar, in the bank, in our country itself and, even more so, in its leaders.

Sukkot offers an antidote to the ill ease seizing us all by providing a gentle reminder that the world is made of mud and dust, not gold or silver. That we’re here on earth for a few brief days and that our mandate is not to make ourselves rich but to do good. That the only reliable antidote to fear is trust in God. And that the source of confidence in the world—the only real source of unyielding confidence of the kind that can usher people through times of great uncertainty—is faith. And so we leave our lovely homes for a few days and eat in flimsy huts covered, not with water-tight roofing, but with entirely water-non-tight pine boughs. We gather in synagogue to recite Hallel, to chant the Hoshanot, to shake the lulav and etrog as a way of remembering that our ability to enjoy the world and its bounty is a gift from God, not an inalienable human right. We build a beautiful sukkah at Shelter Rock, but it isn’t a permanent or truly sturdy structure. Its walls are made of plywood and it has no doors. You can see the sky through its roof. It has no flooring, no windows, and no insulation. It is, in every sense, a hut—a beautiful one, to be sure—but not a real home in which any of us would want to live. But it does feel good when we dine there…and it makes us secure and happy in a way that seems completely illogical, but which all of us know well. Perhaps that sense of pleasure we know from dining in our own sukkah derives precisely from feeling ourselves under God’s watchful presence in a way that none of us feels as easily in our sturdy, insulated homes with locks on the doors and windows, and electronic security systems beeping and flashing away, all of it far more reminiscent of the dangers associated with modern life than expressive of a basic sense of security and safety. We aren’t really more safe in the sukkah, of course—except, perhaps, in a relative sense—than we are in our homes, but we feel that way as we voluntarily step into the sukkah and find, to our amazement, that we are (generally speaking) more at peace as we dine in our flimsy huts than in our impregnable homes. The message is clear: the more deeply we feel the presence of the Almighty in our lives, the less troubled we are by the insecurity of human life. And it’s not just a good message for us to enjoy, but also a message that Jewish people could do well to bring to our troubled countrymen and women at this time of national crisis.

I love Sukkot. I like the fall, like seeing the leaves change color, like feeling the brisk air in the mornings as I walk to shul. This year, I feel especially eager for the holiday to begin…because, like all of you and like all Americans, I’ve been feeling more than just a bit insecure these last few weeks. I’m yearning to replace that creeping ill ease with a sense that all will be well…if we keep our eye on the ball, refuse to lose faith in ourselves and our national character, and work together to make right what has gone terribly wrong. As those of you who were in shul for the first day of Rosh Hashanah know, I have great confidence in our country, and great pride. I think we can weather this storm. Actually, I know we can. I have a whole stack of statements from various banks and brokers in my briefcase, in fact…and I’m planning to open them and peruse their possibly dismal contents in my sukkah next week. How that will make me feel, I’m not sure. But if the sun is shining and my sukkah hasn’t tumbled over just quite yet…that will be a good sign for the future! (October 10, 2008)

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