The Urgency Of Demanding Joy

On the Government Shutdown and Who Matters

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One of the key commandments for the holiday of Sukkot—which begins tonight—is to be happy. V’samachta b’hagecha, the Torah instructs; you shall be joyful in your festival. The same meta-question underlies commentary after commentary on this verse: How on Earth could Jewish law command a person to feel happy? How does it work to command people, in a religious context, to feel a feeling?

As it turns out, that’s not what’s going on. The Torah teaches:

You shall observe the Festival of Sukkot seven days, after you have gathered in your grain and your wine; And you shall rejoice in your festival, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant, and the Levite, the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates. Seven days you should hold a festival for God …and you will have nothing but joy. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

In context, “be joyful” is better translated as, “to rejoice.” That is to say, you should do a series of actions. You should come together with your family, your workers, and the various people in your community who are most marginalized and/or who do not have resources (like, in the case of the Levite, land ownership) to “hold a festival,” presumably featuring the aforementioned grain and wine, on their own. And more than that: The Torah’s constant refrain to remember the “stranger, orphan, and widow” recognizes that those who are marginalized because they are immigrants or socially “other” in some other way, because they are young and at risk, because of gender and status, are especially impacted by poverty and other harms. (Yep, that’s ancient intersectionality.)  Everyone must be included, cared for, empowered.

Our joy isn’t really joy if it’s available only for the privileged.  There’s no joy if those who are most likely to experience harm are excluded from our purview, and our celebrations. That’s not holy rejoicing.

Unfortunately, many in Congress right now are using the government funding process to undermine exactly this vision of what’s possible when everyone is able to live with dignity and share in our growing prosperity.

Some lawmakers, as we speak, are using this year’s 12 appropriations bills that fund government services and programs, as well as the National Defense Authorization Act, to further their harmful agenda: attacking access to abortion; cutting programs that support women and children; threatening the health and safety of the LGBTQ+ community; undermining efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion; and taking aim at those experiencing poverty.

For example, the bills at present would gut $64 billion from public education, preschool funding, and job training for young adults and working families and it would it would pull access from as many as 80,000 lower-income children to to educational, nutritional, health, and social support and care. These bills would undermine diversity, equity and inclusion and anti-extremism training meant to protect and support all military servicemembers; they would attack gender-affirming care for veterans and their families, as well as banning the Pride flag and providing a license to discriminate more broadly on the basis of sexual orientation and gender.

These lawmakers would have us cut critical funding for food assistance to over 5 million low-income participants in the  Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Supplemental Nutrition Program. If these lawmakers have their way, this would be the first time in a quarter-century that families in need of WIC support would be turned away or waitlisted. And these bills would cause over 8 million women to lose contraception access, undermine funding for programs preventing teen pregnancy and intentionally spread misinformation about sexual and reproductive health care. It would bar federal workers from accessing abortion care through insurance, ban the District of Columbia from using its own funds to support abortion services, and make DC workers vulnerable to being fired over their own personal reproductive health care decisions. And almost all those detained in federal prisons would lose abortion access.

In case you were wonedering what’s at stake? This is what’s at stake.

Budgets are, in effect, moral documents. They tell us what kind of society we are, who we intend to be.

These annual must-pass federal spending bills should be an opportunity for our leaders to ensure that those most marginalized by our society receive the critical care and support they need to live healthy, safe lives.

When we have gathered in our bounty, we must come together, as one, and share of it. We must remember that not everyone is equal in their ability to provide, but everyone is important, everyone matters.

There can be no joy if we are leaving those in need without food to eat, without access to healthcare, if we are pulling their rights away from under them.

If we are lying to them about what will keep them safe, locking them out of the fields while we enjoy the fruits of the harvest alone.

That is, in fact, a desecration of the sacred, and a violation of everything for which the Torah stands, and everything that our values demand of us.

These bills must be passed by tomorrow–the first day of Sukkot.

Urge your Members of Congress to pass clean spending and National Defense Authorization Act bills, free from harmful and hateful language and program cuts NOW. STILL. You can do so easily here.

And then, together, we can rejoice–together.

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