Sukkat Shalom: Between Slavery and Liberation

By Miriam Grossman and Jill Zenoff

Take part in JCUA’s Sukkot Action for Justice, during Sukkot, on Oct. 11. At the Mortgage Bankers Association meeting, we’ll be calling attention to how the foreclosure crisis is affecting Chicago families.
Learn more and register for the event

At the beginning of their journey from slavery to liberation, the Israelites found themselves displaced from their homes with little to no forewarning. Scrounging what supplies that could be found and only enough food and water to last a few days, they constructed sukkot, temporary shelters made from sticks and twigs, in which they would dwell.

Unable to see beyond their past circumstance towards the promised land, when their food and water supplies ran out, many were ready to return to Egypt. The inhumanity and brutality of slavery seemed a fair exchange for what passed as food and housing security.

It wasn’t until the Israelites became a food-secure people with the miraculous appearance of mana at morning’s dew and water from Miriam’s well, were they ready to continue on their 40-year journey towards freedom.

Upon entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were able to construct cities and build communities. The sukkot they used to shelter themselves on their journey were transformed from a symbol of displacement to a symbol of the harvest bounty.  In the fall, farmers would build sukkot in their fields so they would not have to trek daily to and from their homes. At the completion of the harvest, the Israelites would once again dwell in the sukkah as they made pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer their finest produce as sacrifices, shake the luluv, pour water on the Temple alter in an attempt to show gratitude for the past seasons bounty, and ensure the winter rain fall would be enough to carry them through another season.

The heart of an exodus

For our ancestors and for us, Sukkot marks the heart of an exodus. Ancient Jews traveled the desert for 40 years. Forty years lost at the half waypoint between slavery and liberation. A journey they could have finished in months.

Instead, an entire generation died wandering they could not envision, believe, or take clear steps towards freedom. Believing, this was the best their society could do, the most they deserved. They died with liberation and the Promised Land right on the horizon.

Some were complacent, some were scared, but all of them faced the choice our nation faces today: Do we accept our slow wandering towards freedom and die in the desert, satisfied that at least things could be worse? Or do we choose to charge through the desert and demand something more?

Sixty years after the Civil Rights movement, we are still wandering between slavery and liberation. People of color are targeted and displaced through disproportionate foreclosures and predatory lending, the destruction of public housing, environmental racism, and a broken immigration system. Families of all backgrounds, but especially families of color, are surviving economic injustice every day.

Impossible decisions

In August alone, Illinois saw a 20 percent jump in foreclosures, and 1 in 4 Chicago mortgages are underwater.  In Cook County, more than 500 homes are foreclosed in an average month. In 2010, there were 151,304 foreclosures in Illinois. It is estimated that from 2009-2012, Illinois will face 384,490 foreclosures.  People are being forced to make impossible decisions between a roof over their heads and food on their plates; shopping at the corner convenient store or making the hour-long trip out of a food desert to the nearest grocery store for access to healthy, safe, and nutritious foods.

Poverty and food insecurity are on the rise. We are seeing the largest percentage of Americans living below the poverty line in 15 years. Hunger is all around yet small farmers and food producers’ livelihoods are being threatened (Farmegeddon, Food Inc.). Yes, this moment in American history is vastly better than our past, but it is not enough.

The fragility of homes, food systems and lives

Sukkot calls on us to see the world differently. We commemorate the agricultural and historical significance of our ancestors experience as we build our sukkah cities year after year. We eat, sleep, and host guests in the sukkah, shake the luluv and are commanded to be joyful. The lack of physical barriers between our communities, ourselves, and nature serves to reconnect us to the land that brings us sustenance.

At the same time the structure itself invokes feelings of insecurity with incomplete walls and flimsy roof coverings made of palm fronds and reed mats. The Sukkah calls upon us to acknowledge the fragility of our homes, food systems, and lives so that we might create Sukkat Shalom, a shelter of peace, through community and action (Take Action). To say, “We believe this desert is not the end.”

For the Israelites, freedom came when they had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies for one cannot sustain life without the other. We must not be afraid to rock the boat, when like the Jews in the desert, this is the best we have ever known. There is so much waiting on the other side.

Upcoming Actions:

Sukkat Shalom March, Tuesday, Oct. 11,  4-6pm

An interfaith Sukkah March and clergy press conference with testimony of families of all faiths in foreclosure. Join us in a marching Sukkah in front of the Hyatt Regency, downtown Chicago, as we protest outside of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America Conference and stand for Sukkat Shalom.

Points of Engagement:

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