Mortgage Meltdown has Made Every House a Sukkah
Ever since I led protests two years ago to stop Muammar Gaddafi from taking up residence next-door to me in Englewood, New Jersey, at the Libyan-owned mission, I have pushed my city government to challenge the Libyan tax-exemption – granted in 1982 before Libya became an international sponsor of terrorism – so that our citizens would not be forced to subsidize a government that blew up airplanes, discotheques, and slaughtered its own people in its streets. It is indeed a curious phenomenon that our city will, if its law-abiding citizens are behind in property taxes, aggressively move to sell the debt to investors who can foreclose on their homes and turn the families out on the streets but have not lifted a finger to compel one of the world’s most murderous regimes in the world to pay for their own police protection, trash removal, and other tax-payer funded services.
This theme of government being able to toss you out of your home follows a larger lesson Americans have learned since the mortgage meltdown of 2008 which is that your home is never really your home and home ownership has come to have little meaning. All domiciles can be quickly plucked away by banks, mortgage lenders, governments, and others over a delinquency of just a few thousand dollars.
The impermanence of property is the universal lesson behind the Jewish observance of the festival of Sukkot, Tabernacles, which begins Wednesday night. We Jews largely move out of our homes into temporary homes and shelter called ‘sukkas,’ reminiscent of the impermanent dwellings that housed the Jews while they travelled in the Sinai Wilderness for forty years. The message: never rely on money or property but on God alone for permanence. The Bible says it eloquently, “It is not by bread alone that man shall live but rather through the word of the living God.” Here one can easily substitute bread for JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and a slew of other mortgage lenders who, amid their own multi-billion dollar government-funded bailouts, will pluck your home right out from under your feet if you’re in trouble.
America is currently engaged in a social war about money and property. One side – epitomized in the Wall Street protestors – portrays capitalism and banking as a heartless source of gluttony and greed. To the protestors investment bankers are leeches that have sucked the blood out of the American financial system to finance their Ferraris and Hampton seaside estates. The other side celebrates capitalism as the very engine of economic prosperity and calls the protestors anarchists whose envy seeks to change America into a European-socialist state. In Herman Cain’s words, they are “jealous” Americans who “play the victim card” and want to “take somebody else’s” Cadillac.
Each side has a point, but not the one they’re trying to make. The protestors are wrong in expecting the government to subsidize those who are perfectly capable of working, an act that creates an undignified dependency, makes hearty men and women wards of the state, and bankrupts the nation. ‘Man is born to work,’ the Bible declares. But they are absolutely correct that millionaire and billionaire bankers got bailouts that did not trickle down to everyday home-owners who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. And what good is the American dream if government itself creates an unleveled playing field? Without Wall Street there would be no investment and without investment there would be no enterprise. But enterprise that is rigged so that Wall Street can bet the whole farm while those who work in the fields are forced to save these firms with their tax dollars when they go belly-up is unjust.
Conversely, the opponents of the protestors want to make the point that only hard work and financial prosperity will save America from impending collapse. In truth we’ve seen that Solomon, Bear Stearns, Lehman, and Merrill Lynch – banks filled with employees who put in twelve-hour days – were swallowed, collapsed, disappeared along with their billions in capital. More tragically, the untimely and heart-breaking death of billionaire visionary Steve Jobs shows that a man can create technology that will reinvent life but cannot escape human ignorance as to how to overcome illness and the inevitability of death.
While I am personally on the side of those who believe that limited government leads to far greater individual initiative and entrepreneurship and the demonization of all of Wall Street is an utterly unfair act of scapegoating, surely both sides can agree that money and property do not bring ultimate stability or happiness.
Hence, the Jewish religion forces its adherents to move out of their homes for a week every year to remind us of the transient nature of life and property and that we dare never grow dependent on articles and objects to make us content or give our lives purpose. Life ought never be reduced to the vulgar acquisition of things. Rather, it is the family that moves into the sukkah with us – spouse, children, friends and guests – that lends our transient existence permanence and purpose.
The morning after Steve Jobs’ death the New York Times quoted Walter Isaacson, Jobs’ biographer, as asking him “why so private a man had consented to the questions of someone writing a book. ‘I wanted my kids to know me,’ Mr. Jobs replied… ‘I wasn’t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.'”
Here was a man who gave us the world in our pockets. But on his mind were the children he feared he neglected and he agreed to open his life so that they might appreciate the decisions he made.
In my first years as Rabbi to the students at Oxford University I struggled mightily to support our growing organization and cover the costs of feeding hundreds of students per month for Shabbat dinners and host world-renowned speakers that would draw our students to values-based debates. Fearing that I was not up to the task and on the verge of throwing in the towel, I called a Rabbi friend who served as a mentor. I told him, “I am envious of all my students who have chosen a different path. They graduate from this elite university, go to high-paying jobs, and don’t know from financial hardship. I have no stability in my life.” He listened patiently and then said in a barely audible voice, “Your mistake is to believe that stability comes from money in the bank when in truth the only stability one can have in this world is to know where one’s children will be in ten years time. Your work will teach your children values and give them an inspired path along which they will walk. And that is about the only permanence one can hope for in life.”
It is a lesson that Gaddafi, who stole tens of billions from his people, should have learned as he now hides, homeless, and separated from his own children, like Cain, desperately wandering the earth, seeking out any shelter, however transient, that might lend his life just a few more days of permanence.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published “Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself” (Wiley) and in December will publish “Kosher Jesus.” Follow him on his website www.shmuley.com and on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.