On Sukkot, don’t forget those without a bountiful harvest

Leviticus 16:1-34

Numbers 29:7-11

Isaiah 57:14-58:14

Modern homes encourage myopia. We want seclusion, quiet and privacy. I grew up in Foster City and then Hillsborough. I knew few, if any, of the other people who lived in my neighborhood. It was easy to retreat inside and maintain privacy.

Sukkot, which begins this year on Thursday, Sept. 22 at sundown, offers a different mode. Once a year, we are commanded to dwell in sukkahs, temporary dwellings with partly open ceilings and three temporary walls. We are open to the world in a much more direct way. That openness helps us retrain our sight to again look around, to see more widely than we do during the year.

Our homes are climate-controlled. They have lights and refrigerators filled with food. Inside, in our myopia, it’s easy to pretend everyone else has such blessings. The sukkah, which is more open to the elements, and is just that much further away from the refrigerator, reminds us that our homes really are blessings and that many in our own immediate community experience hunger and poverty every single day.

Seeing requires filtering. Our eyes learn to make sense of all the shapes and colors around us in part by focusing on this at the expense of that. Often, filtering enters the social arena, as well. Whole categories of people become invisible, unnoticed, seemingly not present at all. God is asking more of us.

This year, Second Harvest Food Bank of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties served more than 250,000 people each month. That represents a 10 percent increase over 2009, which was in turn a 10 percent increase over 2008. The numbers are similar across the rest of the Bay Area. Hunger is getting significantly worse in our immediate area, even in these incredibly affluent counties in which we live.

Yet those in need are often invisible. We filter them out of our perceptions, we forget that there are children who go to bed hungry here, at home, in the Bay Area. As we develop the hard-calloused places in our hearts, it becomes easier and easier for scales to cover our eyes as we fail even to see those in need around us.

At the end of each year, we read about God’s perceptive powers. God calls forth the leaders of the tribes and the elders.  God also summons the children, the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. God sees the wholeness of the people. No one is invisible; we are all seen and noticed. We need to cultivate this quality of expansive sight. It is a key moral sense that helps open our hearts and direct our generosity.

I have been reading the 1930s and 1940s food writer M.F.K. Fisher. She wrote a book during World War II called “How to Cook a Wolf.” In it, she described real hunger as a daily experience for many Americans. She suggested recipes and ingredients that would stretch meager budgets and put enough calories on the table to feed everyone.

We are facing real and severe economic challenges, yet they pale in comparison. For most of us, the struggles are to fund our 401(k) plans, to send our children to college, to maintain an affluent lifestyle. We must see that for others, there are people struggling just to feed themselves and their families. We have an obligation to help.

Tzedakah is incumbent on everyone. Even the poor give to help others. This puts our own economic moment into perspective. Yes, we face real challenges. At the same time, those challenges make helping those in need even more important. Abraham found the generosity to feed all those who came to his door; in our own era, we too need to find the generosity of spirit to feed those in need.

This year as we dwell in our sukkahs, as we experience the world a little more directly, I pray that our field of vision expands. May God help us to see those in need, and to realize our own power to help and make a difference by supporting agencies like Second Harvest and Mazon.

May we discover an expansiveness of heart that allows us, even at a time of uncertainty, to share our blessings with those in need.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at RabbiBooth@kolemeth.org.