Sanctuary Movement
Justice, Religion

Sukkot #TorahForTheResistance: The Torah of Sanctuary

This piece is part of the #TorahForTheResistance series. Read other #TorahForTheResistance pieces here. 

The early Rabbinic sources debate the meaning of the word “sukkah”. God tells us to dwell in sukkot on the holiday because God caused us to dwell in them in the desert. However, our texts of desert wanderings never mention us actually dwelling in sukkot . In his poetic blessing, Balaam describes us as dwelling in tents. And we did stop in a place called Sukkot . But no actual sukkot. All of this culminates in the dominant Rabbinic opinion that the sukkot of the desert were actually God’s Clouds of Glory which protected us. That is, they were not a human shelter but a Divine one.
It is therefore not surprising that a sukkah in Jewish law is encouraged to be a shared experience. Unlike the other symbols of the holiday, it does not need to be owned by the user. On the holiday it is customary to invite not only real guests, but heroes of the past known for their own hospitality. Everyone gets to sit under God’s protection during the seven (or eight) days of the holiday, characterized by an unstable structure and a flimsy roof.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where some people must sit under God’s protection under unstable conditions year round. This includes people who are threatened with deportation and those seeking refuge or asylum in our country.

For the moment – although that too might be fleeting – government agents are not willing to cross religious boundaries to remove these seekers who do not have official documents permitting them to remain. So these people become de facto prisoners in religious institutions while hoping for a better life, or at least a more autonomous one. Some came to this country of their own free will seeking a safer place to live. Others came here against their wills, but returning is much more dangerous than staying. Or they have friends, family, and a social structure in this country. Whatever their reasons, at the moment they are confined to taking sanctuary within the walls of a religious institution. They trust that by sitting under the protection of a Godly institution they will remain safer, even at the loss of personal comfort, autonomy, and mobility.
In the Talmud of the land of Israel ( Talmud Yerushalmi ) we have a story (in T’rumot 8:4) of Ulla, son of Koshav, who was wanted by the government and fled to Rabbi Joshua son of Levi in Lod. With Lod threatened by the government unless they turn over Ulla, and following the teachings of our traditions, the great Rabbi Joshua son of Levi turns over Ulla. But, after giving up Ulla, Rabbi Joshua ceases to be visited by Elijah the Prophet, who had been a frequent guest. Distraught, Rabbi Joshua fasts multiple times until Elijah visits. However, when he does, Elijah asks, “Should I appear to one who gives others over to the authorities?” Rabbi Joshua protests, claiming he followed the teachings of the tradition. Elijah informs him he did not, however, act per the teachings of the pious.

Per Elijah’s condemnation of Rabbi Joshua, we must move beyond our day to day traditions to find more piety.

Perhaps we may use Sukkot as a launching point to become more involved, standing with those who seek sanctuary on a daily basis. We should share experiences and lives with those seeking sanctuary, working together to make a self-imposed imprisonment feel slightly more like a regular life. Together we should celebrate holidays, birthdays, and milestones.
Hopefully, we will soon live in a world where sanctuary from the government is not necessary. But until we bring about an idyllic world where the sukkah of David is restored for all, we will keep resisting and offering what resources we can to our neighbors as they fight for stable, secure lives here in the U.S. I wish everyone a chag sameach.

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