photo: elibrody, cc by-nc
The lack of respect for those harmed by public housing is our lack of respect as a society. Their appeal is trying to restore festivity to the Festival of Sukkot, whose name emphasizes the need for a roof over one’s head. The passing thoughts of a former yeshiva student and today a social activist in honour of Sukkot and the meeting of the court of public housing.
By Rabbi Kobi Weiss
A summer night, somewhere in Jerusalem, twenty-something years ago. After a marathon Torah-study session which had lasted into the wee hours of the night, some of the students decided that there was nothing more fitting to do than take a night dip in the Dead Sea. A group of students organized the trip and one of the rabbis who was young in spirit decided spontaneously to join in. Only at the edge of the sea did he realize that he did not have a swimming costume. The rabbi gathered all the students and said in a thundering bass voice: “Students, either all of us with or all without.”
During the Festival of Sukkot, we are all without a home, but only because it is a festival (chag). Why do we feel so festive when we sit together in the sukka? After all, it is a dramatic decline in our quality of life: Armchairs are exchanged for plastic chairs, the need to get together into a small structure requires crowding, walls of clothes wood cancel all privacy. The answer is clear: The influence of external circumstances on us is dependent on connection and meaning. Sometimes that is all the difference between a challenging nature trip and a beret army trek, between harassment by the General Security Services and a ride on a roller coaster in Luna Park.
Sometimes the difference arises from the unusualness of the event, from the lack of normality in it. To find oneself naked in a busy street is a common nightmare, and it is in no way like the very same situation in a public sauna in Holland or as an extra in a photo of Spencer Tunik at the Dead Sea, where twenty years’ earlier a rabbi stood without a swimming costume and declared,” Either all with or all without.”
As a rabbi in a human rights’ organization, active in the sphere of public housing, I am often asked what are the Jewish sources dealing with the importance of housing? Where in Judaism do we find references to the importance of public housing, except perhaps for the verse “Bring the desperately poor a home”? A person who lives inIsraeltoday without a home lives without civilization. A person who sleeps in the street feels like someone who is excluded from the human race. The summer protest about housing touches on this very point: In Israeli society, to be homeless is to not meet the minimum condition for human life.
The Torah commands, “all that are home-born in Israel shall dwell in booths“. When we are all sitting in the sukka, we can treat it as folklore, as a large scouts’ camp, and note that our sitting in the sukka is “that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt:“. That is the basic idea of respect for man and his freedom. The children of Israel sat in sukkot in the desert and, in another version, “in Ananei Kavod.” – honour is the whole story, one can sit in the Ananim (clouds) or in a sukka and keep one’s honour. When honour is lost, we in one stroke are thrown from spiritual elevation to subhuman, to leprosy and exclusion. Leprosy according to our Sages is like dying. Living a life outside society, our Sages add to the list(which also includes the blind and the childless) the poor – for exactly the same reason. Is there any way at all to justify the banishment of a man just because his bank account does not have enough money?
The struggle for housing rights is a question as to who we exclude from society, who we consider as dead. Thus, we have become a permissive and materialist society, money is the main thing, but can we get used to the idea that money also determines life itself? The moment that a poor man lives without a roof over his head and we as a society allow this situation, we live less; the moment we allow a policy of not taking care of those who cannot get housing and define them as living outside society, we all – even those of us who live in fancy palaces – we all are less human, we all in fact live and think of living only for our money and not more than this, even if we like to think otherwise.
Returning to the days of being a yeshiva student: I am reminded of two different stories which seem to me now to be completely contradictory. The first occurred in the town of the founder of the Musar movement,Rabbi Israel from Sealant. One day people came to him and told him in horror that there was a man found dead from hunger in his home. “Rabbi, see what we have come to,” the students bewailed, “a Jew dead of hunger in our community.”The wise rabbi answered: “The Jew did not die from hunger, he died from shame. If he had not been too ashamed to ask for food, he would still be alive.”
The second story: In one of our Musar lessons a saying of the “grandfather” from Slovodka was quoted, according to which honour is part of man’s basic existence. After the suicide this year of Moshe Silman and Akiva Mafai, the meaning of those words is clear: these two men did not die of hunger, they died because their respect had been taken away (the film “Hayuta and Berl “ deals with the same issue from the point of view of the attitude to old age). Did the Jew of Rabbi Israel from Salant die from shame? Yes. Is it correct to deal with this in the patronizing and methodical way he did? Is dying of shame less shocking than dying of hunger? Is the moral demand on the community for death from shame easier? Is a man whose heart is beating but whose soul is burnt something that we are ready to get used to in an enlightened society?
On the third day of the festival (Wednesday, 3.10), the Peoples’ Court for Public Housing will meet in Bat Yam. Tenants of mortgage companies and homeless will appear there and sue the Ministry of Housing and the public housing companies. They will sue them for expropriating from us as a society the most fundamental thing: Respect for the individual. Their appeal is an attempt to restore festivity to the festival of Succot, whose name emphasizes on the need for housing.
At a period when cold nights are returning all of us to our homes, the Torah commands us all to go outside, to sit in a decorated sukka, and thus for seven days to make the homeless feel at home. This is nice, but when most of us are going back to warm houses, some people will stay in the sukka. Some will remain without housing, some will be forced to give up their privacy for another year and live with their parents, some will have to spend another year in a tiny flat with ten other people. These people are also part of our souls, the soul-searching of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will not be complete without the understanding that we have a duty to build a cloud cover of honour for everyone.
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