Dwelling in the sukkah is, for me, the quintessential New England Jewish autumn activity. Building and decorating the sukkah provides a welcome opportunity to use a different part of my brain and body than the liturgy-heavy observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sitting and listening to the birds chirping with my morning coffee is always an exquisite experience, even if the bird songs are competing with the noise of morning traffic. I have been checking the two-week forecast since the day after Rosh Hashanah. While I always feel invested in the weather around Sukkot, having moved back to Boston from California this summer, I feel particularly invested this year. Would it feel appropriately autumnal? Would butternut squash soup feel like the right choice for our meals? Would it rain, forcing us to do kiddush outside and then retreat inside for dinner — or perhaps to skip dwelling in the sukkah altogether? I’m guessing that some of this resonates with many of you, even those who don’t live in New England.
The Mishnah (Sukkah 2:9) teaches that we are allowed to leave the sukkah when it is raining hard enough that the water would spoil our food. Other teachings expand this idea to mean that one is exempt from eating in the sukkah if the weather would cause us discomfort. As I reflect on these teachings and my own desire to be outside, I am aware that many people do not have the luxury of choosing to go inside when they are uncomfortable or if their food is spoiled. Further, as many of us choose to dwell in temporary huts without running water, electricity or sufficient shelter from the cold, others have been forced into this same situation, whether by hurricane as those in Puerto Rico have experienced, being kicked out of our homes like many LGBTQ youth, being caught in an economic system that leads to crises in affordable housing, or for any number of other reasons. It is even conceivable that a sukkah is better equipped to meet the basic needs of its temporary dwellers than what some others have around the world. And it is true that each of us contributes to the systems that force people to live without the safety and security of a home.
How, then, do we reconcile the joy we are commanded to experience with the harsh reality implied by our choice?
First, the joy itself is its own kind of resistance. Sitting with family and friends for meals, putting aside technology: this is its own sort of revolution. Conditioning ourselves to live lives that are slower and more connected is key to creating a world is more humanely paced, more intentional, and more focused on relationships.
Second, the Torah teaches that we dwell in sukkot “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of mitzrayim (Lev 23:43). ” The sukkah itself is a reminder of our own liberation from slavery. Over and over again in the Torah, this leaving of mitzrayim, the narrow places, is used as key motivation to remember those in our world who are still slaves. In a national moment when our own liberation is, or feels, tenuous, how much more so that we should lean into the sense of connection to other people that Sukkot fosters. The structure of the sukkah, requiring only two and a half sides, being open to those around us, reminds us that we find strength and security in those relationships, not in walls. Rambam brings the role of those outside of our community into clearer focus reminding us that cultivating a joy of Sukkot that is devoid of interaction with those in need is gluttonous (Mishnah Torah, Yom Tov 6:18). Our joy is not the true joy of Sukkot if it is only about ourselves, or even only about those we know; it must include everyone.
The challenge of Sukkot is to bring both the lessons of the sukkah and the joy of Sukkot into the world.
In every way, Sukkot raises the questions of how to cultivate joy in times of tragedy, where we derive safety and security, what it means to have enough in our daily lives, and how to share what we have with others as a critical expression of our own humanity.
These questions beg us to ask questions on a systemic level: How are we contributing to cycles of the continuous production of goods that fuels factories that employ unsafe and oppressive environments, and pollute to contribute to climate change? When do we allow the desire for safety and security to build walls of prisons or borders rather than cultivating relationships? This year, as we sit outside and hope for the weather to hold, may we be reminded that the world has enough and motivated to figure out how to redistribute the world’s bounty.