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Rabbi David Wolpe Headshot

A Religious View of the Fiscal Crisis

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Religion boasts some strange practices; in our world among the strangest is the Jewish practice of dwelling in makeshift huts for a week during the festival of sukkot, beginning Monday night. The usual explanation is that it recalls the wandering through the desert after the liberation from Egypt. The Israelites dwelt in huts then -- we do now.

Historical roots do not eliminate the symbolic meaning. Jewish tradition prescribes that the Sukkah not be too sturdy. If it is a permanent structure, it cannot be used -- it is not kosher. Because permanence is an illusion.

Recall Shelley's famous poem Ozymandias? The sonnet tells of a traveler who sees a giant pedestal in the desert:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away

The lesson is manifest: all that remains of a colossal edifice is evidence of the hubris in believing that something will remain. The tyrant builds for eternity but is forgotten.

As I write this, fortunes fall. 401K plans, once the bulwark of a secure retirement, are drained of value. In short, although the economy will likely recover in time, once again a generation is learning the lesson of Ozymandias: when you believe something is forever, you are ascribing to human beings the eternity that properly belongs only to God. Although we are on the eve of Yom Kippur, sukkot says something important at this frightening time.

Prosperity inflates more than expectations. It enlarges our sense of ourselves. We created this; our wisdom prevails. What governs success is not good fortune but predictability, certainty, the stability that we have forged. Perhaps we should inscribe a motto above Wall Street the way it was once inscribed above the philosophy department at Harvard University. The story goes that philosophy department at Harvard voted for a motto to be carved above the door: "Man is the measure of all things." But while on vacation pious workmen replaced it with the motto actually engraved on Emerson Hall: "What is man that You are mindful of him (Psalm 8)?"

The sukkah is fragile because we all live in sukkot. The illusion of safety is persistent; the same people who bewail the stock market now pledge their troth to T-bills. The deeper question is whether we understand that nothing we do is guaranteed in this life. Everyone and everything is ephemeral. Orienting oneself toward transcendence may be the best buffer against a world that inevitably passes away.

There is another law that governs the construction of a Sukkah. You cannot build an opaque roof. The roof is composed of cut leaves and branches. One must be able to see through the roof to the stars. The heavens remind us, we who live in brittle boxes, that there is something greater than ourselves. What we create is temporal; what creted us is eternal. In uncertain times that should be a comfort.

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