Sukkot Thoughts for 2020

Image: An Israeli street, with sukkot. (Shutterstock image; all rights reserved.)

It’s Sukkot, and on the rare occasions that I leave my house, Oakland looks like Israel this week.

As people lose their housing, the tent camps that already existed are growing. In Israel, the fact that there are sukkot everywhere would not be a surprise – of course there are sukkot everywhere! — but in the secular Bay Area, it is no holiday.

In a normal year, we use the sukkah to remind ourselves of the fragility of our daily lives. In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that the fragility we are currently experiencing is temporary.

In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that these should be temporary structures, not a permanent solution to anything.

In 2020, we need the table in the sukkah to remind us that the people in those temporary dwellings are hungry. We need to be reminded that while we may find the sight of the stars through the shakh (palm covered roof) quaint and lovely, there are people who see any hole in the roof of their shelter as a doorway for rain, cold, and illness.

In 2020, a study by Feeding America, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food insecurity, predicts that local food insecurity may affect 1 in 3 adults this winter and 1 in 2 children. The food banks literally do not know how they will meet the demand, especially with federal sources of food assistance drying up.

What can we do?

  1. Ask for help if you need it. Many people who were secure last year are insecure this year. Covid-19 and federal policy have destroyed jobs and left many people in a terrible spot. If you are one of them, it may be very difficult to say to the people who’ve always thought of you as a helper, not a helpee. Just remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. Remember, when we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah.
  2. We can support our local food banks. Government aid takes time to mobilize, but the charities are already up and running. They know their stuff. Find the food bank nearest you, or near some community you love, and give them whatever you can.
  3. We can support our local food banks with volunteer labor. Many of the volunteers that have staffed food banks in the past are elders who cannot continue that work because they are at high risk for Covid-19.
  4. We can support organizations that help people who don’t have homes. There are a number of good lists online, both local and national. For instance, the SF Chronicle publishes the SF Homeless Project, listing local programs. Your local Jewish Family & Community Services organization has such programs which serve both Jews and non-Jews. You can also check with Google to get an idea of local organizations.
  5. We can support organizations that serve victims of domestic violence, which has been on the rise. Locally, the organization Shalom Bayit (“Peace of the Home”) continues to do great work with very little money. Use Google to find local organizations you can support with donations or volunteerism.

No money to donate? Or, like me, are you unable to get out and volunteer?

  1. Educate yourself on local issues. What’s going on in your town? Who is helping, what is making matters worse? What bills are in the state pipeline that address these issues? What’s on your ballot that might make a difference?
  2. Write letters to local elected officials (think “mayor, city council, state representatives”) insisting that the care of the hungry and homeless is important to you. Write letters to the editor of your local paper (there’s one I need to do!)
  3. Make your contacts personal. That’s what the staffers of politicians tell us: signing a big petition may be satisfying, but often it makes little impression. Write to YOUR state rep, to YOUR mayor, to YOUR city council person, and explain that they need to do something or they won’t get YOUR vote next time.
  4. Reject NIMBYism. Building lower-cost housing is an absolute necessity, but often after a developer is persuaded to include it in their plans, the neighbors have a fit. Sure, insist on sufficient planning regarding parking and transit! Insist that things be done properly! But don’t be the person who starts talking about how “their kind” aren’t wanted in your neighborhood, and call it out when you hear it.
  5. Pray. If there are solutions or people that scare you, try praying about them before you utterly reject them. Ask God’s help in being part of the solution; ask God’s mercy on those who are suffering.
  6. And I repeat: Ask for help if you need it. Remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. When we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah. They may need the mitzvah every bit as badly as we need the help. It is OK to ask.

I’ve run on long enough; these are my Sukkot thoughts today. I wish all my readers safe shelter from the scary world, and blessings in all that you do.

A Map through the Wilderness

Image: Old map and compass. Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay)

I’m feeling pretty wild around the edges lately, and I gather from social media that I’m not the only one. I’ve been on Covid Confinement since March 10, and here it is September 24th! My world got a little bigger in June, when we merged bubbles with our son and daughter-in-law so that we could help with childcare after maternity leave ran out. Hugging the baby every morning is one of the best parts of my day, along with limping out to the car to go home every afternoon.

Diapers and teething have been a big help to stay grounded. It’s funny, the same stuff that made me wild as a young mother (repetitive icky tasks) are now the things keeping me sane.

I’m also still teaching online, and will have news about a new class for you soon, once the powers that be at Hamaqom have figured out details like pricing.

AND here we are, in the middle of the Days of Awe, approaching Yom Kippur, during the unholiest time in my memory. We are living through some ugly stuff: pandemic, government corruption on what used to be an unimaginable scale, a bitter election, unrest around the world, and an attempt in our country to come to terms with our history of institutionalized racism. Antisemitism is on the rise, and white supremacy is putting up a fight. That is too much stuff to deal with all at once, but it seems we have no choice but to deal.

Where to find God in all of this? I have no idea where God is right now; I’m flying blind. However, I do know how to find holiness: I have a map, called the Torah, and I have instructions for interpreting it: Jewish tradition and my own conscience. Here’s my Pocket Map for Finding Holiness:

  1. Prayer. I put my worries and my hopes into words, and I either write them out or say them. When I have no words, I listen, in case God or the Universe or somebody wants to communicate. I also say the prayers of Jewish tradition that help me navigate, that remind me of my path.
  2. Charity. The Hebrew words is tzedakah, but it means giving from the cash resources I have to alleviate the suffering and privation of others. This reminds me that there are many people in the world worse off than I am AND they have to worry about all the other stuff too. Tzedakah helps me keep my perspective.
  3. Acts of Kindness. These are also known in Hebrew as gimilut hasidim. It isn’t enough for me to give money. I spend some time doing acts of kindness, which have gotten tricky in the age of Covid. Used to be, I did volunteer work. Now that I’m sequestering away from the virus, I do acts of kindness by being a better listener when someone needs comfort. After all, I’ve still got the phone and the computer.
  4. Study. Torah study serves several purposes. If I aim high enough at difficult material, studying completely occupies my brain, and gives me relief from worry. I can’t translate Aramaic-infused Hebrew AND perseverate over the government at the same time — I’m just not that smart! — and by studying Torah, I am learning more about that map I’m trying to follow.
  5. Busy Hands. This takes several forms: cleaning the house is mundane self-care, but it also reminds me that I am responsible for my corner of the universe. Gardening gives me a sense of connectedness to the natural world. Knitting literally keeps my hands busy, so that I don’t eat my emotions, and it gives me things to give away to friends and the many support people in my life.
  6. Saying “I love you.” I try not to let a day go by without letting the people I love KNOW that I love them. I might say it straight out, or I might tell them something specific for which I’m grateful. It lifts them up and it lifts me up, too.
  7. Care of the Body. Eating right, keeping clean, and exercising are not glamorous activities, but they are another way of acknowledging my place in creation. I’m a bodily creature, and I’d better take care of this body if I want to keep living in it.
  8. Music and Art. I try to read something good, or look at art, or listen to good music every day. Knitting lets me play with colors, but I also need the art of others. The arts affirm what’s best in humanity, including in me.

Looking back on this list, it seems so mundane! But it’s the truth, it’s what keeps me going. What keeps you going in these difficult times? What is your map to holiness?

Tisha B’Av 5780 / 2020

This week we observe the 9th of Av, aka Tisha B’Av. It is the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE and the 2nd Temple in 70 CE.

Without the Temple, Biblical Judaism was impossible. The sacrificial cult was an essential element of Biblical Judaism, and without the Temple standing on that particular bit of real estate, the sacrifices are not valid.

Each destruction remade the Jewish world. After the return from Babylon, Judaism changed: we had a big scroll we called the Torah for public readings, which we had not had before. We had a large body of prophetic writings. Most importantly we knew that though we had a covenant with the God of Israel, it was not a guarantee of safety. We had been beaten, badly. To survive as a people, we developed additional institutions (Torah, synagogue) to maintain our identity even when we did not have access to the Temple.

We needed those institutions, because in 70 CE it happened again: the Romans punished us for insurrection and tore the Temple stone from stone, forbidding us to rebuild. A few years later, after another revolt, they scattered us to the four winds. We remained in exile, in Galut, for almost 2000 years.

In the face of the destruction of our old way of life we used imagination and ingenuity to remake Biblical Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism. The new Judaism was still linked to the Land of Israel, but it could survive anywhere, and survive we did.

We are living today in a time of destruction. The institutions of democracy, which have been mostly very good for the Jewish people are now under attack, not only in the US but in much of the world. A pandemic of Covid-19, a deadly and poorly-understood disease is sweeping the world, killing hundreds of thousands. Some old institutions are dying as well, and the world economies are straining. Climate change is reshaping the planet under our feet.

People are frightened, for good reason. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways, and the “normal” we remember from December is not likely to return. Frightened people are irrational people, and we see evidence of that in public tantrums, irrational decisions by leaders, and in the general level of anxiety in our culture. We are living in a time of cataclysmic change.

This Tisha B’Av I will listen to Lamentations, and I will think about the fact that the Jews of 586 BCE and 70 CE were able to mourn their losses and find enough strength in their hearts to let go of the past (eventually) and move on into the future. They were willing to do what they had to do to keep Judaism alive. I will pray for their strength, for their stubbornness, and for their creative will. I will pray for young leaders with good ideas, and for the humility to accept their leadership.

We are only beginning to deal with the changes ahead of us. I have no idea where we will wind up. I only know that the Jewish people have endured and I am committed to my own small part in our survival.

What to do? I shall keep on living a life of Torah. I will keep what mitzvot I can, and I will teach mitzvot to others. I will keep learning and studying and teaching. That’s what our ancestors before us did, the reason there are still Jews today.

May the day of sad memories stiffen our spines while our hearts stay supple. May the map of Torah bring us safely home.