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Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb

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Sukkot, Interdependence, Deuteronomy and Elizabeth Warren

Posted: 10/03/2012 11:06 am

Though the now-unfolding Festival of Sukkot (aka Tabernacles) is called zman simchateinu or "season of our joy," the first morning of the holiday caught me in a foul mood (getting kids out the door before school can do that to a person). The early worship with its uplifting songs, the joyous recitation of the Hallel Psalms of praise, even the Hoshanot ("Save Us"-marching-around-the-synagogue) didn't help much. What did was the Torah reading.

I love how our tradition assigns pro-humility, big-picture-thinking passages from Deuteronomy to this special holiday. Chapter 8, after reminding us how dependent we were upon God's generosity during the 40 years in the wilderness, gives a warning which is most timely today (8:11-18):

"Beware lest you forget the Eternal your God ... lest when you've eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and dwelt in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold, and all that you have -- [then] your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Eternal your God ... and say in your heart, 'my power, and the might of my hand, made for me all this success'." No, of course, don't go thinking that you did it all by yourself; rather, "remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you the power to make success."

Sitting in shul, my mind flashed back many moths, to a clip-gone-viral of a parlor meeting with Elizabeth Warren (She's now a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, where I briefly lived and voted, before becoming disenfranchised by moving to the nation's capital where citizens have no voting representation in House or Senate -- but that's for another post). Warren was addressing what's become a big question this season: How much credit one should take credit for individual success? Her eloquent, so-true, by-now-well-known statement:
"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody.

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that, and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."


As a rabbi, I just love it when Torah and headlines overlap; when ancient wisdom and urgent issues line up so neatly. That truly cheered me up. Our sacred text spoke directly to a great concern of the day, and the Torah reading came along to remind me of just why Warren's message -- you didn't build it yourself, it wasn't just your power or the might of your own hand -- had so resonated with me, and so many others in the blogo-YouTube-sphere.

This line of thinking also resonated with President Obama, who picked up the same trope in July, and has stuck with it -- because it's true. And it's holy. "You didn't build that" alone; you, along with something bigger than you, did. In Bible-speak, that "something bigger" is God, symbol of interdependence and social responsibility, the Creator and Sustainer of all -- who the Bible tells us has special concern for the poor (more on that in a moment), resets the capitalist clock once a generation by redistributing land (see Leviticus 25), and is strongly pro-regulation (see, well, the whole Torah). Oh yeah, and whose multiple tithes and mandatory donations put average "tax rates" between one-quarter and one-third of income, with fully 10-20 percent of ideal GNP devoted specifically to poverty relief.

It makes sense that Barack Obama, as a good Christian, gets it; he has Jesus' remarkable example to follow, as well as the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible (though he'd get it were he a devout Muslim as well, since the Holy Quran too teaches radical love of neighbor). Why though does Paul Ryan, man of faith that he is, generate draconian budgets that get the Nuns on the Bus and other believers all riled up, for their abdication of the social contract? Why does Mitt Romney denigrate efforts to combat climate change (which will do unspeakably bad things to our neighbors as well as our grandkids), and insist that "you did build that yourself"?

I'm a religious values voter. And as such I'm voting for those who celebrate the common-wealth over personal wealth -- who advocate public equality above private equity. The Torah reading on Sukkot grounds me in doing so.

And that same Torah reading goes on, in Deuteronomy 10:17-19, to describe the same God-Who-Liberates as the One who "does execute justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, in giving the stranger food and clothing. Thus you should love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt..." There's that special concern for those who are structurally disadvantaged in society, or what Catholic theology calls "the preferential option for the poor." And based on Deuteronomy 10, I guess that God supports the DREAM Act (in Maryland, vote yes on question 4!) -- after all, how can you love the stranger (the ger, i.e. the immigrant, the landless outsider in your land with limited social capital), without letting her/his deserving kids go to college? This isn't bleeding-heart liberalism; it's Torah-true Judaism.

Then came the special maftir or final-paragraph-of-Torah reading, from Leviticus 23:39-44, which prescribes the four species we lift up together on Sukkot -- date palm, myrtle, willow, and citron or etrog, all water-loving species from different growing zones. Water is a huge theme on this holiday; later tradition even tells us that from on high, "verdicts are sealed ... on Sukkot, for water." Yes, our ability to feed our families and bring goods to market in the year ahead is associated with this holy convocation. Clean, holy, "life-giving/living waters" (mayim chayim, as Sukkot's Haftarah from Zechariah 14 rhymes), drunk by all, are a key part of Sukkot.

And most famously, per that same passage, on Sukkot we dwell in sukkot (plural of sukkah, the temporary hut which springs up this season in so many backyards). The sukkah is the ultimate symbol of fragility and interdependence. Against our gated communities and our hermetically sealed mansions (remember that part about not forgetting God when you build fine houses?!), the sukkah reminds us that our fate is bound up with those around us. We breathe the same air, whether clean or laden with toxins. We get doused by the same rain, whether pure or acidified. We schvitz under the same sun, whether its energy gets trapped by greenhouse gases or not. We co-exist with our neighbors, rich or poor. We're in it together.

Yes, Sukkot provided succor. By the end of the Torah reading, as someone whose life is devoted to making Torah relevant and timely, I was finally in a good mood. Since then, I again gladly shake my lulav and festively dine in my sukkah, knowing that these are not arcane rituals; they are holy and timely manifestations of this holiday of interdependence, par excellence. Chag haSukkot Sameach -- a joyous festival of Sukkot to all.

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Fred Scherlinder Dobb is Rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md., the opinions expressed here are his own, though the synagogue joins him in endorsing marriage equality, urging Marylanders to vote 'yes on 6'...

 
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