Sukkot: Above and beyond

Sukkot: Above and beyond

Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Mahwah, Reform

One of the great joys of Sukkot is sharing—food, space, joy. This holiday epitomizes Jewish hospitality. Deuteronomy 16:14-15 commands, “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.” We are not only commanded to observe this festival, but to celebrate with others. Rambam expounds, “While eating and drinking himself, one is obligated to feed the stranger, orphan and widow. If you do not, you are not performing a mitzvah for joy, but for your stomach.” The emphasis on sharing joy and generosity during this Festival of Booths is significant.

Our tradition tells us that when we dwell in the Sukkah, an intentionally temporary structure, necessarily more modest than our permanent homes, we must share. There is an understood kal v’chomer—how much the more so!—that we should extend a warm welcome when we are in a place of comfort and stability. I don’t know many people who feel an overwhelming sense of stability in the current world. For the past year and a half, we have found ourselves exiled from the comfort of “normal” because of covid (not to mention storms, political polarization, and many other destabilizing factors).

Is it still incumbent upon us to open ourselves and our temporary homes when we go beyond the manufactured fragility of the sukkah into the emotional, mental, and physical quagmire of 5782? We have been instructed by medical experts that we can do our part in keeping our communities safe through three vital behaviors: getting fully vaccinated when we qualify, washing our hands often, and maintaining social distance. It would seem that the warm welcome would go out the proverbial window.

On the contrary, when we present our generosity, consider the needs of others, and find a way to share celebration, we root ourselves in another kind of security. We may be uncertain of the future, but we become more certain of our values and our self-respect.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz wrote an essay, “Imagining the Impossible,” that examines this question of hospitality in our time of pandemic and the intentions of the rabbinic Sages who codified the laws of the sukkah. “I would like to think, they even predicted that a sukkah might have to be built during a pandemic necessitating as many open walls as possible! And so, key to this year’s sukkot is the leniency around open spaces that are imagined as actual walls.” She points to specific halakihc ideas that allow for a sukkah with greater air-flow and ability to social distance.

Her halachic deliberations inspire my imagination as well.

Many of us, during this holiday, invite Ushpizin into our sukkot. Ushpizin are righteous ancestors, no longer living, but still welcome to join us in festive celebration. If our sukkot can traverse time, span beyond the grave, they are clearly imbued with some spectacular flexibility. While the halacha is clear about the physical dimensions of our booths, it appears that the metaphysical dimensions have infinite possibility. As we leave walls open, allowing for air-circulation and space, instead of considering the space circumscribed by our sukkot, we can consider the vastness of our thresholds.

Yes, we may have fewer physical guests in our sukkot this year. Perhaps that is wise. Instead, we can practice a different kind of hospitality, an acknowledgment of the need of every person to feel welcome and a sense of belonging. In turn, as we share food, funds, and favor with those in need, we sturdy ourselves along with the orphan, widow, and stranger.

Every night we pray to God, “Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” This year, more than many others, we have the opportunity to partner with God. With an increased awareness of how intertwined people’s lives truly are, and how much we depend upon one another, we extend our metaphorical sukkot to spread peace in the world. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (z”l) wrote, “The world we build tomorrow is born in the prayers we say today.”

May we spread our sukkah of humanity, kindness, and tzedakah with God’s sukkat shalom.

Chag Sukkot sameach.

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