First Big Question: Why Grow the Vote?
Back in Washington DC in 1967, to oppose the US War Against Vietnam and the draft that fed young men into the war’s devouring fire, I illegally affixed a lock to the door of the national headquarters of the Selective Service System. I illegally refused to carry my draft card. And I made a public political event out of illegally handing my card, among those of a thousand others, back to the government that issued them.
I also sought and won my neighborhood’s endorsement to become a member of an antiwar, anti-racism slate of DC delegates to the planned Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I won the endorsement and our slate, which pledged ourselves to support Bobby Kennedy for President, won election to represent DC.
Some of my friends argued with me about my behavior. They thought it was self-contradictory, incoherent, and confusing.
One of Kennedy’s leading advisers thought that since my strongest commitment was more to end the war than to elect Kennedy, I should resign from the delegation. (His assessment was cprrect; I DID care more about ending the war. I thought electing Kennedy would best get that done .I didn't resign.)
And on the other side – or was it the same view? – some veteran Gandhian activists said it would confuse people if I supported Kennedy. Either “in the system” or “out of the system,” said some practitioners of each orientation. Not both.
I did not agree then and I don’t agree now. Voting is a nonviolent tool for change just as sitting-in, boycotting, witnessing, marching, rallying, vigiling are. Now more than ever.
The greater the urgency of the issues, the greater the need for us to use all these tools. And today, the issues are full of what Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of now.” The Shalom Center has been saying, even before the 2016 election, that we are facing a movement (now a government) that has all the hallmarks of neo-fascism: Obeisance to the largest, wealthiest corporations combined with a fake appeal to the “forgotten Americans” that espouses the Big Lie (many of them, a dozen a day), racism, subjugation of women, fear and hatred of immigrants and minority religions, hatred for an independent press, and treatment of the Earth as only an exploitable resource with no concern for the ecological intertwining of all life.
A politics of subjugation.
To challenge such a tyrannical politics it is necessary to deny the would-be tyrants control of the major levers of power --- armed forces; police, judges, and prisons; budgets and taxes and tariffs; regulations to preserve pure food, air, water; choices of what sources of energy to encourage.
We do that by winning elections.
So that’s why to “Grow the Vote.” In extraordinary times, it is more and more important for people to vote -- especially people from marginalized communities, who usually have much lower voting rates than those who feel fully part of American society.
Indeed, the movement to heal, renew, and transform American democracy has been moving into electoral politics as well as the streets, the airports, the collective application of individual power in groups like #MeToo, the offices of ICE and the doorways of prisons holding babies and children.
And not only making sure they cannot use these tools of power to subjugate the people, but creating and winning legitimacy for new forms of society that meet the bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs of the people.
So the vote in November is crucial. Getting people registered to vote, and then getting them to the polls to vote, is crucial.
If the religious communities of America are serious about our deepest spiritual teachings of the profound worth of every human being, Growing the Vote is crucial. For Jews, sharing Sukkot and its profound teachings with the “seventy nations of the world” and drawing on its wisdom to Grow the Vote is crucial.
Second Big Question: Why “Share Sukkot”?
There are many values hidden in the Sukkot festival that may only show up when you need them. One is hidden in plain sight: Because both Sukkot and the dates of major U.S. elections are connected with the Harvest, Sukkot in every election year always comes several weeks before the election. The festival could become a period of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual preparation for voting.
Would doing that just steal Sukkot’s richness from the Jewish people? Or could it take the values rooted in and affirmed by Sukkot, giving them a new voice in the broader world? And could that, for many Jews, give richer meaning to and more joy in a festival that has had little intrinsic meaning for them?
We are exploring the second possibility. Let me give an example:
Torah says that the runaway Israelites who had just fled from slavery to Pharaoh sat “in sukkot” (the plural of “sukkah,” the vulnerable “booth” or “hut” in which we sit and eat (and some sleep) for the seven days of “Sukkot” -- with a capital “S,” the name of the festival.
You shall live in sukkot [huts] seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in huts, in order that future generations may know that I settled the Israelite people in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Narrowness [Egypt], I YHWH/ Yahhh/ the Breath of Life -- your God. (Lev 23: 42-43)
This seems to mean that as frightened refugees fleeing a cruel master, they briefly lived in actual sukkot, flimsy huts with a leafy, leaky roof.
These traumatized and frightened runaway slaves would want never to forget the first safe housing they were able to cobble together -- flimsy though they were.
From that perspective, it is not surprising that Torah -- Deuteronomy 23: 15-16-- demands:
You are not to hand over to their masters
Serfs [slaves or indentured servants]
Who have sought asylum with you
From their master.
Let them dwell beside you,
In the place that they choose
That seems good to them,
Within your gates.
Do not mistreat them!”
So now think of Sukkot this way: a festival to celebrate not only the Harvest that the Breath of Life makes flourish every year, but a way to relive the joy of refugees of long ago, who could put an unplanned roof over their heads and some unexpected bread in their bellies.
Certainly one of the issues of this approaching election is the treatment of refugees. – Do we welcome them into our own homes? Does Sukkot remind us that our own homes are fragile – that we must see ourselves as frightened refugees, see the refugee “others” as human beings barely different from ourselves? How do we learn from the festival? We draw from Sukkot the values that speak to us as we approach the election of 2018.
We have gathered three sets of resources for helping each of us make our own decisions how to vote: Handbooks for registering voters and making sure they can get to the polls; posters of ushpizin, sacred guests we invite into the sukkah as heroes of the struggle to broaden the right to vote; and brief essays like this one, looking at the values of Sukkot to inform our decisions as we choose whom to vote for. To enrich our democratic power with these wisdoms, please click to <>.