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“If I Were a Rich Man”: A Sukkot Reflection

Jevin-EagleThe great sage, Teviyeh, from “Fiddler on the Roof,” gives voice to the universal issues of poverty and wealth with humor and candor as he calls out to God: “It may sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. After all, with your help, I’m starving to death. Oh, dear Lord. You made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, it’s no shame to be poor … but it’s no great honor either. So what would be so terrible … if I had a small fortune?”

In fact, in the Torah, money is often a sign of divine favor. In Genesis 13, we learn that Abram was not rich, but “very rich in cattle, silver and gold.” In Genesis 26, we learn about Isaac, who “sowed in that land and reaped a hundredfold in the same year. God blessed him, and the man grew richer and richer until he was very wealthy.” And in Genesis 30, we learn of Jacob, who “grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks.”

In many respects, Sukkot is the holiday of abundance. In fact, it has two other names: “The Feast of Ingathering,” a celebration of the ingathering of the fall harvest, and “The Holiday,” about which Deuteronomy 16 commands extra rejoicing: “You shall be altogether joyful.” As Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg writes, “Sukkot has become the model for this wordily enjoyment, which is why it is called the time of rejoicing” (“The Jewish Way,” p. 112).

But like everything else in life, on Sukkot means and ends can get confused and we can take things to extremes. S.Y. Agnon’s classic short story, “That Tzaddik’s Etrog,” and the recent Israeli film “Ushpizin,” tell of the great lengths people will go to in pursuit of the most “perfect” etrog. Take a look at the cover of the Artscroll holiday guide, Succos: it shows the inside of a sukkah that looks fancier than many formal dining rooms!

Of course, the motives for such behavior can be positive, as the traditional concept of “hiddur mitzvah,” beautifying a mitzvah, is certainly a factor in all three of these cases. But even with the best of intentions, these actions can lead to distortion and excess. Further, for people with limited financial resources, building even a modest sukkah and buying a simple lulav and etrog can be a real strain.

Sukkot is powerful because it is not only the holiday that celebrates abundance, but it also teaches us how to relate to money and physical possessions. The very verses in Deuteronomy 16 that command extra rejoicing also tell us to celebrate the holiday with “the foreigner, the orphan and the widow.”

Observance of Sukkot traditionally includes inviting “ushpizin,” honored guests, into the Sukkah. Who are these special visitors — the great “spirits” of our tradition, the forefathers and early leaders of the Jewish people (from Abraham through King David). Yet, according to the Zohar, the masterwork of medieval Jewish mysticism, the ushpizin honor us with their presence because of our generosity and hospitality. If there are no poor people present at the meal, these great spirits quickly take leave of our sukkot.

The structure of the sukkah itself teaches us important spiritual and ethical lesson. On the Shabbat of Sukkot, we read the following words from the book of Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities … vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Do I have excessive pride in myself? Am I better than others (or more favored) because I have more money? Is what I have mine solely because of my brains and hard work?

To stir us from such thoughts, we are commanded to leave our homes and dwell in much smaller, temporary structures, that “level the playing” field between people — and between all of us and the elements. As Rabbi Isaac Aboab, the 14th century Spanish Talmudic scholar teaches us, “The sukkah is designed to warn us that man is not to put his trust in the size or beauty of his home, though it may be filled with all precious things … let him put his trust in the great God whose word called the universe into being, for He alone is mighty, and His promises alone are sure” (Menorat Hama’or III, 4:6).

So, is there is problem with celebrating plenty and enjoying one’s abundance? Decidedly not. After all, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah all accumulated wealth. On the other hand, we must be very careful about the dangers of excess. Not only must we be humble and generous, but we must also ask difficult systemic questions about the concentration of wealth in our society among a small elite. Should 1 percent of people control so much of our economy? Is this consistent with our values and vision for the world? Does God intend for the few to prosper while so many languish in poverty?

Sukkot invites us to think deeply about our relationship to material possessions, to other people, and to the Divine. In Teviyeh’s cry we hear an earnest, hard-workin, and impoverished person calling out for help from God in the midst of his struggles. And at least as far as I’m concerned, if his request for a “small” fortune was granted, would it be so terrible?

Jevin Eagle is a second-year student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Before attending Hebrew College, he was CEO of DAVIDsTEA, a senior executive at Staples and a partner at McKinsey and Co.

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