Religious Life

Sukkot: Sheltering America’s Homeless

Sukkot: Sheltering America’s Homeless
13 Tishrei 5779 – September 22, 2018
Rabbi Alexander Davis

This past summer, I traveled with my family back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I always love visiting Portland. I think of it as one of America’s great cities- the beautiful skyline, parks, food scene, bookstores, vibrant downtown, and more. But Portland has gained another kind of reputation; unfortunately it’s not something to be proud of: homelessness.

Now, I’ve lived in New York City. I am used to seeing people on the streets. But what I saw in Portland is far worse than what I remember in all my years in New York. Practically everywhere you go downtown, people are living on the street. They literally have tents set up on the sidewalks. Tarps and shopping carts litter grassy areas next to freeway on-ramps.  People are sprawled out on benches and doorways, in parks and on road medians.

To be fair, the actual number of homeless people in Portland is not substantially worse than other major cities. But Portland doesn’t have enough emergency shelters meaning that more of the homeless are visible on the streets instead of in temporary shelters.

There are a variety of factors that go into the growth of the homeless problem in Portland: rising housing costs, the closing of beds in State mental health hospitals, the city’s mild climate, and more.

The problem of affordable housing is not unique to Portland. Minneapolis has its own challenge. Locally, we have heard in the past few weeks of a large homeless camp where some 300 people, mostly Native Americans, are camped out in hundreds of tents. There is a rising health and drug problem to say nothing of the coming of winter.

Now as we prepare to celebrate sukkot, as we dwell in our temporary shelters, we consider this issue. And we turn to our tradition for a Jewish perspective and a reminder of Jewish values.

Sukkot is meant to be a time of rejoicing. We call it zman simchateinu. We look forward to good weather, to hosting or being hosted for elaborate meals. And maybe we even sleep outside for a night or two as a backyard adventure with our kids. But at its core, sukkot is the story of our people’s homeless wanderings.

The Torah tells us explicitly, “l’man yeidu doroteikhem ki b’sukkot hoshavti et b’nai yisrael b’hotzi’i otam m’eretz mitzrayim. Dwell in temporary shelters that you may recall how God made the Israelites dwell in temporary housing as they wandered the desert for 40 years looking for home.”

Let me be clear. I am not saying that by dwelling in a sukkah, we will really know what it feels like to be without a safe, secure, permanent home. If it rains, we can go back inside. But sukkot can raise our sensitivity to a real problem facing our nation and our community.

A few Jewish sources speak specifically about housing. On Yom Kippur, we read the haftara from Isaiah who calls on us to “take the wretched poor into your homes v’aniim m’rudim tavi vayta” (Isaiah 58:7). This is not a systemic solution. It is a call for compassion and a reminder that addressing the issue is a religious duty for a Jew.

Other texts speak of housing as an act of tzedakah. The Torah commands that a poor person be granted “sufficient for what he lacks, according to what is lacking to him dei machsoru asher yachsar lo (Deut. 15:8).” It is an awkward, repetitive phrase: “sufficient for what he lacks, according to what is lacking to him.” One Talmudic text (Ketubot 67b) explains each clause as referring to a specific type of assistance: “Sufficient for what he lacks–this is a house. What is lacking–this is a bed and table.”

To be fair, the majority of rabbinic and medieval texts dealing with tzedakah focus on the obligation to provide food for the poor. That might reflect the reality in which food was expensive and housing cheaper. Or maybe it has to do with the temperate climate of the area in which the texts were written. I am not sure.

While Jewish law does not offer a definition of adequate housing, we can infer something from the laws regarding sukkah. A sukkah, by definition, has to be a temporary shelter, “dirat arei.” Therefore, in establishing rules of construction, the rabbis go to great lengths to define what is considered a temporary shelter. If we know what is temporary, it is reasonable to work backwards to uncover characteristics that would make a shelter permanent.

A sukkah, the rabbis tell us, must be stable enough to be lived in for a week but sufficiently unstable that it cannot be mistaken for a permanent house. It must be stable enough to eat, drink and sleep in it but still not be a home that provides true protection, a place of privacy or of storage. Opinions differ about what would make a structure too permanent. Some consider the determining factor to be height; others focus on the types of building materials used. While precise definitions vary, all agree that if the sukkah appears to a passerby as sufficiently stable to house a person for an entire year, it is not temporary.

In her chapter in the book, There Shall Be No Needy Among You, Rabbi Jill Jacobs draws out the implications. She writes, “From this discussion of the sukkah, we can infer that permanent housing should allow a person to live a full and dignified life year-round, and not only for a week.” It is not clear if temporary housing would meet that standard. But this much is clear: what we are seeing on our city streets does not.

Jewish law does not explicitly discuss the mechanism by which we provide permanent housing to the poor. It simply assumes that in a functional society, the poor have stable housing. The question for us might be: What is the most effective way for us to create the society envisioned by Jewish law? Giving tzedakah to a worthy organization, volunteering to literally build affordable housing, political activism around policies and programs that address this most basic human need. Each approach has a role.

This is a story about the early chassidic Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev. It was the custom for rabbis to host the most important members of their community for Sukkot – the wealthiest, the most intelligent, the most respected.

But Rebbe Levi Yitzhak did the opposite – he picked the poor people, the people no one spent time with and invited them to his Sukkah.

The important people got upset and questioned the rabbi about it. Reb Levi Yitzhak explained: Once, I had a dream that after 120 years, I died and went to Olam Haba. There I saw a magnificent sukkah. Inside Abraham Avinu was making a brakha, Moshe Rabbeinu was teaching Torah, Aaron and all the great Leviim were playing musical instruments and David Hamelekh was singing songs.

There were a number of people guarding the door to the sukkah. They asked for my name. I said Reb Levi Yitzchak. And they began to hesitate. They said, “Look, Levi Yitzchak, you’re a very fine person. But how can you compare to Avraham Avinu, to Moshe Rabbeinu, Aaron the Kohen Hagadol, to David Hamelekh. After all, this is a very special, exclusive sukkah.

And in my dream, I answered them: “In my sukkah, I didn’t invite the prominent people; I invited the little people, the forgotten people. If I did that in my sukkah, I think you can accept me and the likes of me into this sukkah.” And I was admitted.

Chaverim, we may or may not literally invite the homeless into our sukkot- though that would be a great mitzvah. But we can invite them into our conversations around our sukkot tables. We can invite them into our thoughts and prayers on the chag and into our hands and voices and votes after the chag.

On sukkot we are commanded to rejoice, v’samachta b’hagecha. How? The Rambam teaches that we rejoice by inviting to our festival table widows, orphans, the poor and unfortunate. That’s what real festival joy means, it means sharing our shelter and our joy with others.

Chag Sameiach!