On Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot, Rabbi Michael Goldman, Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, spoke about homelessness using my art installation Temporary Shelter as a jumping off point for the conversation. Read his words below.
GAS – FOOD – LODGING
Rabbi Michael Goldman
One of my favorite roadway signs is that big blue one you see on every interstate in America: “GAS – FOOD – LODGING.” It is either the easiest thing to overlook, or the most sought-for thing on the road, depending upon your situation. When you’re driving down I-95 with a full tank, a good night’s sleep behind you, and a cooler full of sandwiches at the ready, you don’t even notice this sign. But when you’re empty-light is blinking, or when home is another 6 hours away and you can’t keep your eyes open, or when your kids are screaming for something to eat, that same sign reads like a psalm: the very names of safety themselves. All the other poetry of our lives–the people we’re driving to visit, the meals we enjoy, the beauty and fun of our homes—depends upon those three ordinary, overlookable words and what they represent: “GAS – FOOD – LODGING.”
Sukkot is all about getting us to stop and notice, to think about the third member of that triad. That’s been the holiday’s purpose ever since the beginning of our history. The passage in Leviticus that gives us the reason for building and dwelling in a sukkah tells us this by way of its strange grammar: Lema’an yed’u doroteikhem—“So that your future generations shall know”–[here comes the significant]—ki basukkot hoshavti et b’nei Yisrael behotzii’i otam me’eretz Mitzrayim—“because I caused Israel to dwell in sukkot–in shacks–as I brought them out of the Land of Mitzrayim” (Lev. 23:43). “Caused them to dwell”–?! It sounds a little odd.
Wouldn’t it have been easier just to say: “Because they dwelled in shacks”? That would be how to say it if, just in the normal course of their wanderings, Israel built shacks to dwell in just to keep themselves shaded or dry. So something more must be meant.
And anyway, didn’t we live in tents? Mah tovu ohaleikha, Ya’akov—“How good are your tents, Jacob,” said Bil’am, the prophet of Midian as he surveyed our encampment from high ground. So these shacks were something in additiol to what served as our normal dwellings over those 40 years. One explanation comes from The Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Akiva. He holds that even in the wilderness, when we dwelt most of the year in tents, God told the Israelites to make “sukkot mamash” (B. Talmud, Sukkah 11a)–real shacks, in order celebrate the holiday of Sukkot.
Rabbi Akiva is saying that even in the desert, even as we were nomads, God still wanted us to experience a more profound kind of homelessness than we already knew. God was saying: You think your tent is cramped? Smoky? Leaky? Well, be thankful even for this! It could be worse. And for some, it is. So as they celebrated sukkot, Israel gave thanks for the shelter they had and lamented—and maybe, even understood– the plight of others who had even less.
By Rabbi Akiva’s reading , when we observe Sukkot today, we are not just commemorating our own wanderings. We’re remembering that, from the very beginning of our story as a people, God was educating us to care not only about our own well-being, but that of others as well. Our tradition draws from this same deep spring of empathy when it teaches that the ushpizin come to our sukkah only when we have first invited the poor. And notice that she didn’t say “our poor,” because that’s not necessarily what is meant.
At Kiddush this afternoon, go into Reception Hall 1 and spend some time looking at the exhibition there, which is called “Temporary Shelter: An Art Installation About Homeless New Yorkers,” and you’ll deepen your understanding of what Sukkot is really about. The installation is by Heather Stoltz, a fabric and fiber artist based in New York, and who happens to be a Temple Israel Center member. “Temporary Shelter” is built around a sukkah frame. The panels, on both the inside and outside, are made of fabric collages that tell the stories of homeless adults and children in our area.
Heather got the inspiration for “Temporary Shelter” from conversations she had with homeless people while working as the Community Service Coordinator for the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in the City, which hosts a men’s shelter several nights a week.
The inside of Heather’s sukkah is adorned with tapestries that tell the stories of nine homeless adult new Yorkers. After having spent some time reading the curation that accompanies the art, I realized that these stories are more ordinary than they are extraordinary. They are about people with the same aspirations that I have; only their luck wasn’t so good as mine. And many things that are a mere inconvenience to me are huge obstacles to them.
One of the panels tells the story of Joe, who lost his job, and then his wife, and with her, his house. The shelter into which he was forced to move allowed for only one suitcase. “Very concerned with maintaining a tidy appearance, he ironed his shirts each morning, encouraging the other shelter guests to do the same.”
It’s been said that one of the hardest things about being poor is all the time it takes. I’ll try to remember that the next time I reach into my closet for a freshly-starched shirt, which I had delivered to my home.
Just as moving and instructive as the narratives about homeless adults is the art made by their children. Heather visited several New-York area shelters that host families. Some of these places offer after-school activities for the children. Heather partnered with some of the instructors to help the children make the beautiful collages that hang on the sukkah today.
One theme I noticed when looking at these pictures was the prevalence of the natural elements. The collages abound in images of drenching rain, overwhelming skies, a sheltering tree, even a menacing black sun. For most kids, rain or cloud or sun would mean nothing more than the difference between a ballgame or indoor play. But for these young people, the elements seem to represent almost divine forces, ones that decree the survival or the collapse of oneself and one’s entire family.
The kids’ narratives reveal many of the hidden traumas of homelessness. Meia, a six year old, writes: “Being homeless you have to switch schools a lot. I switched schools five times. It’s sad because I have to make new friends and meet new teachers.” Imagine that you’re six, and already have been to five schools. Imagine living nowhere long enough to put down enough roots to have something like this, our synagogue community; the stability that allows parents to raise their children in a community that won’t vanish with the next unpaid rent check. As I read these stories I wondered would be the long-term consequences of these intangible losses—loss of friendships, of mentorial relationships, of continuity in education.
“Temporary Shelter” endeavors to bring us closer to the lives of homeless New Yorkers. It is not about ‘homelessness’ per se, about statistics and demography and agencies. These are all important considerations. But for us to care about homelessness as the pandemic that it is—for us to do more about it—it’s good for us to start with the human story. The hope is that seeing the textured, patterned stories here will cause us to be more attentive to the homeless people we see in our very own community.
I recently heard of a famous violinist, Josh Bell, who gave a concert in Washington, DC, which people paid hundreds of dollars to her. The very next day, he dressed himself in old, torn clothes, disheveled his hair, and went into the Metro. There he performed exactly the same numbers as he had at the concert. But no one stopped to listen. Same music, for free.
When someone loses their dwelling they become as if invisible. They fall off the postal grid; they are bussed about from place to place and have no place that would announce ‘I am here.’ When I used to volunteer at a men’s shelter in New York City, I was always puzzled at how silent the residents were when they were in the presence of people with homes. They were ashamed, and because of it they effaced themselves before strangers.
And no wonder. When we drive by them on the street or pass them on the on-ramp, they are as invisible to us as road signs for things we don’t need at the moment. No need to pay heed; I’ve got a full tank.
Just as Heather’s sukkah brings to us some of the reality of the lives of a few homeless individuals, it also restores to our Jewish conversation one of the sukkah’s original purposes, to get us to pause and really think about lodging, not just to drive by.
Earlier I mentioned Rabbi Akiva’s teaching that Israel in the wilderness had to go through the exercise of making real shacks, in order to help the imagine even a greater state of homelessness, someone else’s homelessness. Another view is offered as well, that of Rabbi Eliezer, who holds that we build the sukkah to commemorate the ananei kavod—the clouds of God’s presence, the pillar of cloud which God used to shelter us during the day, and the pillar of fire by night. Rabbi Eliezer focuses on the miraculous, while Rabbi Akiva emphasizes the mundane.
If you spend a little time in the Temporary Shelter installation, you’ll come to understand that they’re both right. As Rabbi Akiva would say, what would be more ordinary than shelter, shelter mamash? Those who have it can go through the day without ever thinking about it. And yet, as Rabbi Eliezer might respond, shelter is one of the most profound miracles; it is divine protection over our heads.
It should break our hearts to hear Daniel, age 12, say, “I don’t like living in the shelter because it doesn’t feel like home.” It also should break our hearts to hear Kiana, an eleven-year-old, say, “It feels good to be in a shelter.” Why? Because she teaches us that to have even that is a miracle.
Of course, the purpose for raising our awareness in the first place is to motivate us to change. This means, at the very minimum, committing ourselves to acts of hesed locally. If you’re interested in volunteering in the soup kitchen which our synagogue helps to staff staffs, please contact me or Rabbi Tucker. You might also consider giving extra this year to Temple Israel’s Hungry and Homeless Fund, if you didn’t manage to do so right after Yom Kippur. I have placed fliers for that on the table next to Heather’s exhibition. Take one home and send it back with a check. And we should be moved to keep the larger issues, the political question of homelessness on our docket when we vote in the upcoming election, and hold our officers to their promises.
The Torah tells us “vesamahta behagekha—“Be joyous on your holiday” (Deut. 16:14) The Sages understood this to be not just an observation but an actual commandment; we’re required to be happy today. So let’s add to our joy in two ways. One is to commit to bring in a check on Sunday for our Hungry and Homeless Committee. The other way is to celebrate the bounty that we are lucky to have. The weather promises that we’ll be able to dwell in our sukkahs and enjoy the company and the food. We’re grateful for the gas in the tank that brought our loved ones close, the food we offer one another, and the lodging under which we have the privilege of offering hospitality.