Learning by doing

Learning by doing

Sukkot has a lot to teach us.

First, being forced to eat outside in a makeshift shelter provides a hands-on lesson in vulnerability. We can’t make the sun shine, or the temperature remain as high as we’d like. The roof must be open enough so that we can see the sky – but that means we can get wet if it rains.

If this teaches us nothing else, it must remind us that there are people who live with real hardships every day – whether in storm-struck regions of the country or hell-holes like Darfur, where they are continually vulnerable to forces beyond their control. When the week ends, we can return to our normal lives: dry, well-fed, within four solid walls. They cannot.

Next, we can use the holiday to learn about working together and about intergroup harmony – both in short supply. The lulav and etrog we wave during yom tov represents the joining together of four species (a citron, branches of palm trees, myrtle, and willow). But this joining of disparate groups is not echoed in our society. Ironically, while electoral politics and financial woes are, in themselves, polarizing forces, it is only by working together that we will be able to achieve any kind of lasting solution to the many problems we face.

A third lesson can be gleaned from the ushpizin ceremony. Originally found in the Zohar, the mystical practice allows us to invite our ancestors to join us in our sukkah. But for the ceremony to be truly meaningful, we need to open ourselves up to the message our ancestors have to teach. For example, Abraham and Sarah (invited on the first night) were noted for their hospitality. To truly “get” the holiday, we have to embrace this quality as well.

Finally, the Zohar warns us that not only must we be joyous on Sukkot but we must also “gladden the poor,” specifically by giving food to the poor. Otherwise, it suggests, the very ancestors we invite will not feel welcome. Especially now, in these economically troubled times, we must dig deep in our pockets and help those who are in need.

Sukkot is a time to be joyous. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something as well.