Sukkot and the Great Meltdown
All the Jewish holidays are times of rejoicing, but only Sukkos is specifically known as “the time of our rejoicing.” The special joy of Sukkos is connected to the extra measure of closeness to God we feel as we leave our fixed, permanent dwellings to spend a week in an impermanent structure, with no fixed roof over our heads.
That miniature exile, explains Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, leads to a negation of the material world (bitul hayesh) and paves the way for a greater closeness to God. The sukkah is a reminder of the Clouds of Glory that protected our ancestors in a howling wilderness, and helps us feel God’s enveloping love.
THE ENTIRE WORLD is currently experiencing its own form of negation of the material, though few have been heard expressing much rejoicing . World stock exchanges are crashing, and the retirement nests that millions had squirreled away in “safe” pension plans are disappearing. The only question according to many economists is whether we are on the cusp of a worldwide recession or depression.
Already the meltdown in financial markets has had major consequences. Two of the world’s leading investment banks have bit the dust, and the rest are being reorganized on a completely new footing. The American presidential election, which was a dead heat three weeks ago, increasingly looks like it will end in a Obama rout, though he has given no indication of any economic understanding and even though one of the causes of the crisis was the pressure placed on banks by Democratic legislators to offer mortgages to non-creditworthy home purchasers. (By speaking more frequently and impulsively, McCain has removed any doubts about his own grasp of economics.)
Whatever slim chance remained that President Bush might act to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions prior to leaving office have been reduced to zero. The global economy could not bear another such shock at present.
In my own community, the social safety net based on private philanthropy from abroad has been removed from under thousands of families, as much of the massive wealth which supported thousands of chesed organizations has disappeared.
ECONOMISTS WILL STUDY and debate the causes of the meltdown for years. But one thing is clear: part of the crisis has a moral component – in particular a severing of the relationship between productive activity and wealth. Decades ago, I read that the economic future of a society could be judged by the ratio of engineers to lawyers (and, we might add, financiers.) For the last fifteen years, too many of Americas brightest have been drawn not just to the big law firms but to Wall Street and affiliated hedge funds. Rather than to inventing better widgets or finding a cure for cancer, they opted for the quickest way to earn millions.
Financial institutions play an indispensable part of the grease that makes a global economy possible and play an indispensible role in wealth production. But the only thing that the twenty somethings in big Wall Street firms could take pride in was the size of their annual bonuses, which were often in the millions and based almost entirely on short-term profits. Money became the measure of all things.
No wonder the young hotshots ended up, in the prescient words of a 2007 British comedy skit, amalgmating thousands of mortgages pushed upon “unemployed . . . men in string vests” sitting on the porches of tumbledown shanties, into investment packages sold to other investment firms around the world, in which neither buyer or seller had any idea of the value of the mortgages comprising the package. If the underlying real estate turned out to be worthless, well, the bonuses would have already been paid and someone else left holding the bag.
As long as these young men and women were pulling down million dollar bonuses, they were sure that their success owed directly to their superior brains and talents. “They were infused,” writes David Brooks in the New York Times, “with a sense that they had it all figured out.” But the complex risk-allocation instruments and swaps they developed, failed to take into account the markets’ heard psychology, and their risk-sharing swaps only served only to link financial institutions around the world in one death grip, like a drowning swimmer pulling down his would be rescuer.
Hundreds of thousands who viewed their million dollar bonuses as the just measure of their talents are now out of jobs. And the fingers of blame are pointed elsewhere – at dim-witted politicians, failed bosses, and all manner of forces beyond their control.
Not only on Wall Street and other world financial centers was the relationship between productive activity and the enjoyment of the fruits of such activity severed. Americans have been living well beyond their means, unwilling to postpone enjoyment of those things money can buy until that money was earned. Credit card debt swelled to 100% of GNP in 2006 from 50% in 1980.
In the midst of the worldwide depression beginning in 1929, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, who would be martyred in the Kovno ghetto, wrote a piece that applies no less to today’s crisis. The problem, he wrote, was not that there was no more money, but that all trust had broken down. The credit upon which any modern economy is based had dried up. Those with money refuse to lend it (check the current interbank overnight lending rates), suppliers will not sell on credit.
Reb Elchonon saw a Divine lesson in that loss of trust. He attributed the loss of trust between people to a loss of emunah (belief) in God.
The sukkah beckons us to leave behind our false sense of security in the physical world and to enter into a different realm, a realm described in the Shemoneh Esrai of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, filled with awareness of God. The move from our fixed abode to the sukkah allows us to contemplate the world of Spirit, a world without limitation, in which men are not set against one another in competition over a limited pie.
The Talmud interprets the verse, “I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths (sukkot) when I took them out of Egypt,” to mean that only by throwing off our bondage to the physical world do we escape the spiritual depravity of Egypt.
Sukkos will not return to all the trillions that have been lost. But it can help us recognize that true joy does not come from the things money can buy and that our ultimate security does not rest in the size of our retirement fund.
This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 17 October, 2008