Contrasting Commandments

Each year the stark contrast between the inward focus of Yom Kippur and the outward thrust of Sukkot speaks to my soul in a louder voice.

Yom Kippur is all about quiet and contemplation. Sukkot is about building and action.

Yom Kippur asks us to look at ourselves. Sukkot asks us to look at the world.

Tradition teaches that after we rise from our Yom Kippur introspection and eat a bit, we should go outside and hammer the first nail in our sukkah.

The sukkah represents the frail huts where our ancestors lived on their 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They also symbolize the temporary huts that farm workers lived in while bringing in the harvest from the fields.

For us who are neither nomads nor farmers the sukkah takes on different meanings.

Sitting in a sukkah, we are at the mercy of the sun’s heat, the wind’s chill and the rain’s wetness. These are temporary conditions for us, and we can retreat to our homes if we become uncomfortable. But so many in the world live without means to escape these elements.

Our tradition demands that we help them.

Sukkot celebrates the harvest.

  • But our celebration is vain unless it sharpens our concern for those who have no harvest. In the United States one in six people faces hunger.
  • Our celebration is an abomination if we ignore the wretched conditions and wages of those who bring food from fields and factories to our tables.

Our Torah teaches we must leave the corners of our field for the poor and needy (Leviticus 19:9-10). We also learn: God commands us to “open our hands wide for… your poor and your needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

The text does not say the poor and the needy but YOUR poor and YOUR needy. The poor and needy are OUR problem and OUR responsibility.

 Each of us has different talents and different capabilities. None of us can do everything but each of us can do something.

Contrasting Commandments

          Yom Kippur commands us to contemplate how we can make the world better.

          Sukkot commands us to do it.

 

The Parsonage Has A Sukkah!

The Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot begins tonight, five days after Yom Kippur. We celebrate by building a sukkah, a small hut outside our homes to symbolize the temporary homes of our ancestors while they traveled through the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt.

“A child who has the experience of building a sukkah,” my Theology/Liturgy Professor, Jakob J. Petuchowski, of blessed memory, used to tell us, “has a Jewish experience worth six months of Sunday school.”

The outstanding American writer, Noah Gordon, in his 1964 best-selling novel The Rabbi, captured the essence of just how important a sukkah can be for a child: “The bond between Michael and his zaydeh (grandfathergrew stronger during the early fall, when the days began to shorten and the autumn feast of Sukkot drew near. Each autumn during his four-year stay with the Rivkins Zaydeh built in their postage-stamp back yard a sukkah, or ceremonial hut. The sukkah was a small house of wooden planks covered with boughs and sheaves. It was hard work for an old man to build it, especially since hayfields, corn shocks and trees were not plentiful in Brooklyn. Sometimes he had to go deep into Jersey for raw materials, and he badgered Abe for weeks until he was driven to the country in the family Chevrolet.

‘Why do you bother?’ Dorothy asked him once when she brought a glass of tea to where he strained and perspired to raise the hut. ‘Why do you work so hard?’

‘To celebrate the harvest.’

‘What harvest, for God’s sake? We’re not farmers. You sell canned goods. Your son makes corsets for ladies with big behinds. Who has a harvest?’

He looked pityingly at this female his son had made his daughter. ‘For thousands of years, since the Jews emerged from the Wilderness, in ghettos and in palaces they have observed Sukkot. You don’t have to raise cabbages to have a harvest.’ His big hand grasped Michael behind the neck and pushed him toward his mother. ‘Here is your harvest.’ She didn’t understand, and by then Zaydeh had been living with them long enough not to expect understanding from her.”

Our family sukkah to which we invited congregants every year was a very precious part of our family’s Jewish identity over the years. Our children were fascinated by it as babies, loved decorating it as children, and helped set it up when they were older. They loved inviting their non-Jewish friends over to help decorate. Now they have children of their own, and celebrate Sukkot with them.

Each year we looked forward to having our congregants join us for a reception in the sukkah. As much as our sukkah meant to our children, it meant at least as much to us.

In addition to the huts our ancestors lived in when they wandered through the desert for 40 years, the sukkah today symbolizes that too many have homes to live in all year around that offer no more protection against the elements than these fragile huts. The Sukkah teaches us that the less fortunate are our responsibility. We cannot in good conscience turn away.

Yes, Rabbi Petuchowski was right about the sukkah and six months of Sunday school. In fact I think he might have  understated the case.

In Bad Segeberg, Germany, our hosts Pastorin Ursula Sieg and Pastor Martin Pommerening got wind of how important the custom was to us back home and took it on themselves to erect a sukkah in their backyard.

This gesture means so much to us. This sukkah more than any other we have ever enjoyed symbolizes our hope for inter religious cooperation and reconciliation that inspired us to spend these ten weeks in Germany.

Eternal God, spread סוכת שלום “the Sukkah of Peace” over us, over all Israel and over all humanity! May we may dwell in it together in harmony!

Amen

Sukkah photo

Pastorin Ursula Sieg (l) Pastor Martin Pommerening and my wife Vickie sitting in the magnificent sukkah Martin and Ursula erected for us to honor the festival of sukkot in their backyard.