Torah: Bay Area privilege insulates us from others pain


I’m not a big fan of camping. For me, roughing it is a queen-size bed. So Sukkot presents some unusual challenges. I like eating out in the sukkah, but I have to admit I sleep there only under extreme protest. Yet it is precisely this quality about Sukkot that makes it such a critical holy day.

Sukkot exposes us to the elements, at least a little bit. It takes us outside of our sturdy homes and places us in the world just as it is. Sometimes, that means it’s too warm or too cold. Or here in the Bay Area, both in the same meal. But most of all, it reminds us of how tenuous our lives are and how fragile our wealth and blessings.

The Bay Area is one of the great “super ZIPs” of the United States. Super ZIPs are addresses in which there is a great concentration of education and wealth. This new phenomenon highlights an increasing isolation and segregation in American society. It is now possible to grow up, go to school, attend college and find a job without ever interacting meaningfully with someone from a different economic background. We can insulate ourselves from those in need and never hear their voices.

The Talmud (Bava Batra 7b) tells a curious story. A certain man lives in a house with a courtyard. Elijah the prophet visits him regularly. One year, the man decides to build a gatehouse at the entrance to his courtyard. Though the behavior is permitted by the Mishnah, Elijah stops visiting him. The Talmud teaches: Though the man was allowed to build the gatehouse, he could no longer hear the cries of those in need. And if they were walled off, Elijah would not visit, either. In other words, by keeping himself closed to the cries of those in need, this man also walled himself off from spiritual life.

We in our super ZIPs risk walling ourselves off from those in need. We no longer need to hear their cries; we can avoid being confronted by hunger or poverty. Yet when we do so, we risk our deepest most sacred selves. Today in the United States there is 8.1 percent unemployment. And that outrageous number reflects only the tip of the iceberg because of how many people have dropped out of the labor market entirely. There are many — as much as 20 percent of the population — unemployed or underemployed.

Compounding that challenge, the drought in the Midwest this year is driving food prices up enormously. Those in need are more vulnerable and will find it harder than ever to put food on their tables, to find enough to feed their children. Second Harvest serves over 240,000 clients on average per month in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. And those are two of the most affluent counties in the United States.

The psalmist says: The Earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness. This means the blessings of wealth and prosperity we uncover are on loan from God. Though we have the use of them, they do not truly belong to us. To have a blessing is to have a responsibility to share that blessing with others. At my Sukkot meals, there is an abundance of calories. No one goes hungry, and I often need to get rid of some post-Sukkot weight. In such a climate of abundance, surely I can find a way to help those hungry in our own area?

Sukkot puts us outside, with no guard house. It literally pushes us outside of our comfort zone, away from the tangible reminders of affluence, and recalls to our minds how great a blessing our homes and dinner tables truly are. By being open on at a least one side, by having a ceiling that has more shade than sun but through which one can see the stars, the sukkah remind us to attune our ears to the cries of those in need around us.

There are many ways to help. I am a big fan of Second Harvest, one of the great local organizations for feeding those in need. It collects and distributes groceries to many distributions centers in the Bay Area. I urge you at this time of increasing need to make a donation, perhaps 3 percent of your grocery budget, to such a charity, and so respond to the cries of the hungry by sharing of your own blessings. And that act of sharing means perhaps that we will be heard in our own moments of loss and distress by our Creator.

Rabbi David Booth
is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].