October 7, 2011
Should my sukkah have a debt ceiling?
Each Sukkot we read in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that there “is a time to tear down, and a time to build up.” For my sukkah it was time for both.
Last year the legs of my sukkah were bowed and its roof supports looked flimsy. This year I wanted to rebuild my Jewish infrastructure, maybe even expand. But in a year of tight budgets, both personal and national, in a year when even the U.S. Congress had finances as shaky as any sukkah, how should I proceed?
Given the polarizing national debate on fiscal responsibility, I was concerned. Would my fiscal approach to sukkah repair cause it to lean to the left? The right? Or, overwhelmed, would I just sit in my sukkah, go with the Bachmann flow and, like my Yiddish-speaking grandmother, drink “a nice glass tea?”
As a practical guideline, the Talmud provides the requirements: the handbreadths, cubits and crossbeams, and that the roof covering, the schach, should provide more shade than allow sun.
What we don’t get is cost analysis and debt ceilings. Where could I turn for economic advice on how to rebuild my holiday infrastructure?
As the psalm says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Capitol Hill, that is.
For example, President Obama in his recent “jobs” speech before Congress said that “We can put people to work rebuilding America. Everyone here knows we have badly decaying roads and bridges all over the country.”
Obama called for a plan that would “put people to work right now fixing roofs and windows …” And to assist “responsible homeowners,” he added, “we’re going to work with federal housing agencies to help more people refinance their mortgages at interest rates that are now near 4 percent.”
Inspired by the president’s words, I thought, “I have badly decaying stuff, too—my sukkah—with a roof that needs fixing right now. Good-bye sagging schach. And with all that low-interest refi green, I might even add enough room for a few more guests.”
But eyeing my credit card, I wondered: Isn’t borrowing against the house how we got into trouble the last time? Maybe I should look to the other side of the sukkah, so to speak, for a more conservative idea.
Not that the Republicans or tea partiers had presented a schach reduction bill, but House Speaker John Boehner did have a different approach to infrastructure and putting Americans back to work.
“Private-sector job creators of all sizes have been pummeled by decisions made in Washington,” said Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in response to Obama’s jobs speech. “They’ve been slammed by uncertainty from the constant threat of new taxes, out-of-control spending and unnecessary regulation from a government that is always micromanaging, meddling and manipulating.”
Oh yeah, I had been slammed by uncertainty, too. I certainly could build a better sukkah without any meddling. And who needs rabbinic supervision for any of this stuff? It’s just too expensive!
So I was going strictly private sector—no more approved prefab sukkahs or out-of-control holiday spending. But upon reconsideration, maybe just a smidge of supervision might not be so bad, I thought. Who would decide if the etrog was fit to use in my sukkah?
Confused, I needed to talk to someone about both the spiritual and design sides of my plan. I needed a rabbi and an architect, so I called both: Rabbi Alan Lurie of Rye, N.Y.
Lurie is a modern-sounding rabbi with private smicha from a beit din, or rabbinical court, as well as a licensed architect who studied at the Chicago Institute of Technology. He is the managing director of the real estate firm Grubb & Ellis.
In the introduction to his book “Five Minutes on Mondays: Finding Unexpected Purpose, Peace, and Fulfillment at Work,” Lurie wrote, “Uncertainty can, in fact, be a great gift because it can cause us to rethink our established, fixed way of seeing things.” Thus, I thought, he could advise me on my own sukkah uncertainty.
“Certainly I wouldn’t go into debt. I don’t think the Shulchan Aruch would suggest that,” Lurie advised, crushing my expansionary dreams in a fiscally conservative way.
“We all don’t need so much. The country is going through a tikkun, a major correction. We need to readjust,” he said. “I know families who have playrooms bigger than our house, and they are still not happy.”
Moving the debate back in time from America’s founding fathers to a group of fathers much older, Lurie reminded me that the sukkah is supposed to be “a humble structure” and that size was not important.
“To build it just to impress someone is a ‘chet’ [a sin],” he reminded.
“And what about spending for repairs?” I asked.
“A rickety structure is kind of a lovely way to celebrate,” the rabbi responded, quieting my appetite for costly infrastructure repair, though he did point out that my “sukkah needed to be safe.”
“It shouldn’t fall on someone,” he said, sanctioning necessary repairs as the president had proposed.
So I would be “building up” after all, just in a scaled-down sort of way. By compromising, I would soon be on my way to a season of sukkah recovery.