These days we often tend to fondly regard Sukkot as one of our quainter holidays: waving the lulav and etrog, building a sukkah and eating meals in it, saying Hallel and processing in the Hoshanot. It’s a little nature-y, a little strange, and mostly just a welcome joyful occasion after the solemnity of the High Holidays.
There’s an older name for Sukkot in the Torah: chag ha-asif. “The gathering-in holiday.” Back in the day, this was our major autumn harvest festival. Around this time, our ancestors would’ve either just finished, or been in the midst of, the second wheat harvest, the millet harvest, the date picking, (not coincidentally) the etrog picking, the fig picking, the pomegranate picking, the olive picking, and the grape harvest-- and those are just the major produce crops of those times. Some of us may vaguely recall something about this, perhaps because a rabbi or a Hebrew school teacher will have noted that we lived in sukkot as we harvested and picked fruit.
But we don’t often think about what harvest meant in our ancestors’ society. It was a time to rejoice because it was a time of plenty, when you had the most food available to you that you would have until the spring harvest (around Shavuot). They would give extra thanks to God because of the bounty that they were gratefully bringing in, and make extra prayers for rain (hence tefillat Geshem on Shmini Atzeret), and sundry other supplications to beg God to rain favor down on the next crop, that they would have been just about to begin planting, or just starting to plant. And with the sudden and more or less temporary surfeit of food, it would have been the season of maximal tzedakah giving.
The nineteenth and twenty-third chapters of Vayikra/Leviticus, and the twenty-fourth chapter of Devarim/Deuteronomy instruct us that if we have fields we are harvesting, or vineyards, or orchards, we leave the corners of the field unharvested, so that the poor can come to get food. Likewise, stalks of grain or fruits dropped by the harvesters must be left for gleaners (poor people who followed the harvesting reapers to pick up stalks they let drop), sheaves forgotten in the fields likewise belong to the poor, and fruit dropped or left unpicked by accident must be left for them. All of these things are in addition to ma’aser ‘oni (tithes that one had to make to national efforts to feed the poor) in different years, and in addition to the contributions residents of a certain area were expected to make to the tamchui, or the food bank/soup kitchen from which poor people were fed (at least on Shabbat and chagim, if not also at other times), and miscellaneous tzedakah they were to give if asked for aid by poor individuals.
It would have been inevitable for our ancestors that this holiday, much like Shavuot, and much like Pesach (when they, in reciting ha lachma ‘anya, the part of the Seder where we say “all who are hungry, come and eat,” would literally have been inviting the poor of their community to come in and share the Seder with them) would have been linked with tzedakah, with feeding the poor.
So you can begin to understand how it seems like a particularly vicious irony that Sukkot is when the US House of Representatives has chosen to cut SNAP (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, AKA “food stamps”) by $40 billion, while at the same time approving vast subsidies and tax breaks for agribusiness megacorporations.
I will leave it to my estimable Christian minister, pastor, and priest counterparts to deal with the additional irony of Tea Party/Republicans cutting aid to desperately poor and hungry people and enriching and empowering already wealthy and powerful people (to say nothing of now attempting to force defunding of the ACA via threat of government shutdown), apparently while claiming to take such action in the name of a deceased Jewish man who seems to have made a career of agitating for giving more tzedakah, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick.
But for us, the irony is bitter enough in that this is a time we should be focusing on aiding those in need, on feeding those who have no other food, on providing opportunities to those who have no opportunities. And our government, theoretically elected by us, to execute the will of the American People, is-- with appalling relish-- doing precisely the opposite of those things.
Sukkot is supposed to be z’man simchatenu (the season of our happiness), for all the Jewish People-- from the heads of households and landowners to the basest of those held in bond, and even including the non-Jews among us. Now, for some people among us, and all too many among our neighbors in the American culture, this z’man is anything but happy, and, however indirectly it may be, we are partially at fault.
This cannot go on. More and more, as the right wing of our political representation grows ever more radical and fanatical, as the “left wing” grows ever more tepid, centrist, and content to be purchased by corporate “campaign contributions,” this situation is becoming less a political setback to the nation and more a humanitarian crisis.
We are, with little exception, not farmers anymore. Baruch Hashem (thank God), the Jewish People have prospered, done well for ourselves, even come to wield some influence. But we no longer find ourselves in a position to fulfill the mitzvot of pe’ah (leaving corners unharvested), leket (leaving gleanings), shichechah (forgotten sheaves), olelot and peret (unmatured or fallen grapes one had to leave for the poor), and the ma’aser ‘oni (tithes).
I think we have to restore the balance to our duties to the poor and hungry by not merely giving more regular tzedakah as we are able, but to committing ourselves, one and all, to political action, to social justice, to agitation for change. Regardless of your party affiliation, this treatment of the poorest, most vulnerable and needy among us cannot be tolerated. This is no longer merely a matter of budget lines and economic theories: this has become a matter of pikuach nefesh (saving lives). And regardless of other political beliefs, we must act maximally, aggressively, quickly, to help those who need it.
Julie and I have signed petitions, sent letters, and donated to causes. We will make phone calls. We will add our voices to the outcry in whatever other ways we can. That is our foremost tzedakah this Sukkot, and we urge you to do the same.
The holidays are said to be signs for us. For remembering the covenant, the Exodus, the Creation. Let’s also make this Sukkot a sign for us to remember our duties to our fellow human beings in dire need, our duties to aid in creating a more just society, to making future years, future chagei ha-asif truly z’manei simchatenu (seasons of our happiness).