“When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a festival, he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not indulging in rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut … This rejoicing is a disgrace…”
(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Sh’vitat Yom Tov 6:18)
So, right about now, many clergy people are thinking to themselves, “Oh my gosh, I haven’t even recovered from the High Holy Days, and already there’s another holiday?!?!” And, typically, many congregants are thinking, “We just spent SO much time in synagogue, can’t we just skip this next one?” Consequently, the Festival of Sukkot doesn’t often get the emphasis that it deserves. Just as the busy, contemplative, exhausting, meaningful days of the High Holy Days are wrapping up, it comes time to build a sukkah. This booth, with walls on at least three sides, and a roof that allows us to see the sky, is one of the primary symbols of the festival of Sukkot.
The lulav and the etrog (comprised of four species which the Torah commands us to gather for this holiday: willow, palm, myrtle, and a citron) are often our favorite part of the holiday, because we get to shake them all around us and reflect on God’s omnipresence. Yet, I’ve always been much more moved by the sukkah itself. It is a temporary structure, meant to serve as shelter, but only to a certain extent. A strong-enough wind may knock it over, and rain will certainly drip in through the roof. It recalls the transiency of our Biblical ancestors, as they wandered in the wilderness before arriving at the Land of Israel, as well as the centrality of agriculture and farming in much of our history.
We are encouraged by our traditional texts to invite others into our Sukkah. We welcome friends, family members, and even Ushpizin, spiritual and biblical guests, into our sukkot. Part of what enables us to mark this festival, also known as Z’man Simchateinu, our Time of Joy, is this tradition of celebrating with others. Thus, the sukkah is a place of joyous gathering, open to the world, and a reminder of our obligation to others.
Yet, as the quote from Maimonides above reminds us, in order to fully observe a festival, we have to ensure that everyone is also provided with the means to observe. The poor and destitute in our midst must be allowed to celebrate as much as we are. Thus, we find another powerful symbol in the sukkah – its openness requires that we continue to confront the troubles of the world.
And, boy, does the world have some troubles right now. As reflected in the weeks of protests behind the growing “Occupy Wall Street” movement, there is much dissatisfaction with seemingly unending corporate greed, economic injustice, and an insurmountable gap between the most wealthy and the most impoverished among us. There has been a fascinating Jewish presence during the Occupy Wall Street protests, and, as reported by the Jewish Week, the Kol Nidre service was said to have been attended by nearly 1500 people.
As our next festival approaches, some organizers are planning on building at least one sukkah in the midst of the gathered people. Could there be a more meaningful symbol? Could there be a better structure to juxtapose with the typical building lining Wall Street?
Just as Deuteronomy demands, “There shall be no needy among you,” (Deut. 15:4), so does our heritage repeatedly mandate us to take care of each other. We must also do all we can to advocate for the cause of those in poverty: “speak up, judge righteously, and champion the poor and the needy.” (Prov. 31:9)
The Reform Jewish Voice of New York State urges us to continue to learn about issues of Economic Justice with this year’s Advocacy Shabbat, taking place on November 4-5. Will Occupy Wall Street still be going on by then? If so, will they have changed anything in our society? If not, will we have already forgotten the concerns the protestors raised? No matter what, the Advocacy Shabbat will remind us that we are obligated, as Jews, to ensure justice for all, no matter what. I hope you and your congregation will participate. I hope that you will heed the teachings of Sukkot and keep your eyes open to the world around us. And, I hope that, together, we will champion the poor and the needy until, perhaps, one day, we will no longer need to.