On Sukkot, we leave our secure homes to dwell in simple huts, with a roof open to the skies, and walls swaying in the wind. The sukkah reminds us of the abundance in our lives. Yet what we have, our physical possessions, can disappear with a blast of wind, a torrent of rain.
The tenuousness of our lives and the fragility of our supposedly stable dwelling places became painfully clear during this past month of tragedies, natural and human. First Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston. Then Hurricane Irma forced thousands to evacuate Florida, with many returning to flattened homes and trailers that were no more. Then just before Rosh Hashanah the earthquake in Mexico City left thousands homeless. Hurricane Maria inundated the entire island of Puerto Rico, and the deaths and devastation, and duration of the residents’ travails is yet untold. And finally, tourists who trusted an open-air concert were mowed down in the streets of Las Vegas.
Our dwelling-places are no promise of security.
Not only that, but we should be cautious in making two common claims:
Natural disasters affect everyone equally
Hurricanes are a natural disaster while mass shootings are not.
These hurricanes, among the most powerful the country has seen, come from the sea and storms, but their force is exacerbated by climate change. The vast majority of scientists believe the data that shows that these extreme weather events are influenced by rising sea levels, warming oceans, and increased water vapor in the atmosphere. They are not random natural disasters, “acts of God,” but acts of careless humans.
And we also know that these disasters have the most devastating impact on the poor and the powerless. Poor communities are vulnerable to zoning that places them in harm’s way. Poorer communities cannot afford to improve their homes. Renters are subject to landlords who avoid necessary repairs. And when evacuation is ordered, who remains behind? Most often, those who have nowhere to go and no means to get there.
The disproportionate harm to the poor and the powerless does not stop with the end of the storm. While others return, drawing on financial resources and networks to rebuild and reestablish their lives, what happens to people who have no money in the bank, no insurance, and no jobs to return to? Every day without work takes food from their families’ mouths.
Then there are the undocumented immigrants, who are so fearful of deportation, they do not avail themselves of emergency assistance.
As Joseph F. Healey writes in Diversity and Society: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, “the situation of a minority group in the present are the result of its experiences in the past.”
We are blessed to have homes to retreat to after the sukkot holiday. For those who are homeless, who have lost homes in hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, for those who started off with very little and now have nothing, how will their lives go on? And how will we protect others from future extremes, whether weather conditions or human tragedies?
The joy of the Sukkah comes from what is inside of it, not what holds it up. The practice of building and dwelling in a Sukkah stems from our firm belief that our possessions are less important than our actions. That someday we will all share in the abundance of Sukkot. That sharing and caring are God’s way, while retreating into our comfortable homes and locking the doors will neither protect our bodies nor strengthen our souls. Sukkot begins with gratitude and ends in generosity.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we insisted that we have the means to overcome the evils that assail us. Through teshuva, tefila, and tsedaka, repentance, prayer, and giving, we can overcome the adversity. And though those holy days are behind us, we know that these tools are as necessary every day, not just once a year. It is time for us to give, to help those who have lost homes to hurricanes and earthquakes, to fight against new directives that harm our environment and increase climate change, to bring food to those in sanctuary, to show up when we are called, to do whatever small act we are capable of, to share our abundance.
As we have enjoyed the simple joy of the sukkah, let us all remember how blessed we are, and how much we have to share to bring blessing to all of God’s creatures.