Since its inception, Christianity included a significant stream of asceticism. John the Baptist is portrayed as a kind of hermit, content to live the life of a penniless vagabond. The Jesus of the Gospels does not exactly repudiate wealth, but neither does he promote it. Later Christianity made self-denial the object of special value with clergy taking vows of poverty. And by the thirteenth century, monks renounced the ownership of private property.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, contemporary evangelicals of a certain disposition have adopted what has been tagged as “prosperity theology.” Proponents of prosperity theology have no qualms about accumulating wealth. In fact, they promise financial well-being as part of God’s plan for those who live a life of faith and generous donations to the church. To them there is no shame in being rich. Further, financial success is proof of God’s blessing.
From the Jewish perspective, both attitudes are wrong. Poverty is not some badge of honor. Rather, it is a sad condition from which victims must be extricated through the generous gifts of others. The Torah requires farmers to set aside the corners of their fields for the poor, and allow the poor to glean at harvest time. The prophets condemn those who fail to satisfy the needs of the poor, widows, and orphans. Concomitantly, the accoutrements of wealth are not a status symbol. Material success is not the aim of life but the means of attaining greater success and achieving a meaningful life.
Sukkot is the festival that brings this message to the fore. In his philosophical explication of the Torah entitled Horeb, nineteenth century Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (Section 30): “Remember, too, that every acquired aptitude may change and that the ancestors of the rich grandchildren once lived in booths in a wilderness for forty years. So you will learn not to be a slave to your wealth and not to be led astray from God.” Wealth can be a slave or a master. Wealth, used judiciously, can make lives better. But when the acquisition of wealth becomes an end in itself, it corrupts the soul.
The sukkah is an aid to remind us never to become slaves to wealth.