Remembering the Downtrodden on Sukkot

Our brief stint in a temporary sukkah should remind us that for some people, life is always this uncertain.

Sarah Newman
Sarah Newman
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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play near a ritual booths known as a sukkahs in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood September 30, 2012.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children play near a ritual booths known as a sukkahs in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood September 30, 2012. Credit: Reuters
Sarah Newman
Sarah Newman

“The three jobs my husband and I work do not pay enough to survive. We are fighting for food and clothing,” says Iris, a mother of five who lives in Jerusalem. Her story is the reality for the nearly 900,000 Israelis who went hungry last year, including nearly 300,000 children.

Dylan is a soft–faced blond haired boy who lives in Kentucky with his mom, who is a substitute teacher. "We run out of food some months and I’ve gone days without sleep because of hunger," he says. Dylan’s story is shared by many of the 48 million Americans – including 15 million children – who face food insecurity, uncertain about what food will be available to them on any given day.

Sukkot is a time of celebration, to enjoy delicious meals of newly harvested foods in one’s sukkah with friends and family. The vulnerability of the temporary sukkah, even in a period of joy, is a reminder of the brokenness of our world. As we celebrate the abundance of the season’s harvest, we should also concede that both in the United States and in Israel, as in many other countries, it is not accessible to all. The temporary nature of a sukkah is their permanent reality.

Hunger is a symptom of poverty. In Israel for example, 3 in 10 people live in poverty. For them, every day is a struggle. People are often forced to make difficult choices – bread or electricity. Breakfast or school supplies. Lunch or bus fare.

No one should be punished for being hungry or poor. Hunger does not discriminate. Hungry people are children and grandparents, mothers and fathers, and single people. They are Jewish, Christian and Muslim. They are immigrants and native-born citizens. They are black, brown and white. They live in cities and small towns.

As we sit in a sukkah, the echoes of our exodus from slavery in Egypt should inspire us to demand equality and justice in the world. Our tradition teaches us that we cannot turn a blind eye to those in need. It is written in the Babylonian Talmud, “At a time when the community is suffering, no one should say, “I will go home, eat, drink, and be at peace with myself.”

A sukkah is also a place of welcoming, unity and peace. We bring together the four species – the etrog, lulav, hadas and aravot – to shake in our sukkah. One traditional understanding is that these disparate branches and citrus fruit are symbolic of different types of Jews, with their diverse lifestyles and beliefs. Each Jew is an essential part of the four species, and is responsible for each other.

Can we come together like the four species, and bring all of the Irises and Dylans into our tents? When we invite guests into our sukkot, we can be inspired by the story of Abraham and Sarah who welcomed strangers to their tent with food and drink. At the very least, we can bring the names, faces and stories of the poor into our sukkot.

Israeli and American organizations are providing critical emergency food relief to people of all ages. Every week, Leket, Israel’s national food bank, provides meals for 140,000 people. Feeding America’s network reaches one in seven Americans. But when approximately 40% of all food produced is wasted in Israel and the U.S., the issue is not lack of food but access and affordability. Hunger is solvable. But, charities are not responsible for eliminating this crisis, nor are they able to. Governments must provide social safety nets, livable minimum wages, and incentives to reduce food waste and increase access and affordability to nutritious food.

We too can take action. We can volunteer at a local charity, donate money to a food pantry, advocate for raising the minimum wage, or build a garden at our home or synagogue, and donate part of the produce. These are just some initial possibilities.

The sound of the shofar awakens us on Yom Kippur. Hunger and poverty are often hidden and silent. On Sukkot, can we awaken to hear and see hungry people in our midst and be inspired to act?

Sarah Newman writes Neesh Noosh: A Jewish Woman’s Journey to Find Faith in Food.

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