For me, at the core of Jewish tradition is how we treat the most vulnerable in society. The measure of a culture is how it takes care of its impoverished, its sick, the aged, the lonely — those in need. Insights, laws, stories and customs about these social and ethical values permeate Jewish tradition.
I spent the holiday of Sukkot in Haiti. It is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, but the first in the world to free its slaves, which had great influence on America. It is a country with a proud history but also one that has been ravaged by natural storms, poverty, disease, a lack of education, minimal infrastructure and chronic corruption.
The January 2010 earthquake was a vicious attack on whatever stability existed in the country. About 11⁄2 million people found themselves without a home, approximately 250,000 people died, thousands upon thousands were injured, and a nation of 9.7 million suffered a profound wound to its psyche.
Haiti came into our lives that day, but has since fallen off our radar, although the suffering has not diminished.
Sukkot commemorates the ancient Israelites wandering in the desert, living in portable booths or tents. It is also about an agricultural society’s celebration of harvest. In our modern lives in the United States, have we lost contact with the soul of the holiday? Living in sturdy homes and shopping in supermarkets is far from what life was like for our ancestors.
For so many people in Haiti, and for nearly 2 billion people worldwide, the journey of Sukkot continues. They are still living in tents, with no end in sight. Their wanderings are not limited to 40 years but to generations.
I wondered how I would observe Sukkot in Haiti. I found my answer at a meeting in the small village of Payaye, a rural, removed area in the Central Plateau, the poorest region of the country. It is also the headquarters of the Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP), a grassroots organization that addresses problems of food production and land protection.
Sitting in a sukkah-like shelter made from palm leaves, branches and bamboo sticks, I met a remarkable human being who told his powerful story. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a thoughtful, passionate, socially and politically aware agronomist, founded MPP in 1973 to organize the men and women who work in agriculture and make their lives better.
His work grew out of a deep concern for the Haitian farmer. He described a Haiti where 80 percent of the land once had trees; now that’s been reduced to about 2 percent. He told us about a Haiti that once produced more than enough food for its population and now can provide only 40 percent of its needs. International agri-business has all but destroyed the work local farmers in this overwhelmingly rural society.
MPP is organized in a grassroots manner. It starts with small groups, consisting of 12 farmers, and then builds to a national organization of more than 50,000 people.
Its focus is organization (protecting the rights of farmers), education (empowering farmers to see themselves as agents of social justice and economic change), cooperation (working together for more efficient production, processing and distribution of food), agriculture (the foundation of sustainable development and health) and environmental protection (making sure that the farmers have clean water and sanitation systems).
Jean-Baptiste does his work at great personal risk. He has received many death threats. His work poses a threat to the Haitian establishment and to international agricultural business.
As I sat in that “sukkah” and listened to him, I thought, what a perfect candidate for the prestigious Goldman Environ-mental Prize. In fact, he was awarded that prize in 2005. The late San Francisco philanthropists Rhoda and Richard Goldman knew that protecting the environment is at the heart of human survival.
Jean-Baptiste’s eyes lit up when I told him I was from the Bay Area and had known the Goldmans. That prize has played a critically important role in his ongoing perseverance, knowing that the world affirmed his work.
Perhaps our best understanding of the holiday of Sukkot is that it does not end. It is an ongoing journey of helping to shape a world where more people can live in dignity, with basic necessities.
“Little by little the bird builds its nest” is a Haitian proverb.
Indeed, that is how the world changes; one act at a time. We give voice to our Jewish values when we stand and sit with the most vulnerable. The holiday of Sukkot reminded us of the fragility of life and of the impoverished around the world; Haiti continues to remind us that fragility is a daily reality for so many people.
Perhaps we can build nests of safety and hope in our own communities and throughout the world.
Rabbi Lee Bycel is the founder and CEO of CedarStreet Leadership, a leadership development group based in Berkeley. For more information, visit www.cedarstreetleadership.com.