Dwelling in Vulnerability: A Sukkot Reflection

By Rabbi Elyse Winick, Director, Adult Learning

Sukkot is easily my favorite holiday. From putting up the sukkah to the seasonal cooking and eating, I am in my happy place. When the weather permits, I take my laptop outside and turn our sukkah into my home office. We are commanded to dwell in the sukkah, and, though I'm not hardy enough to sleep there, I try to do everything but. There's nothing quite like a Skype meeting surrounded by gourds.

I'll admit, though, to feeling like I'm missing out on something when the temperature is just right and the skies are blue.

Our obligation to build and dwell in a sukkah appears in Leviticus 23, where the reasoning behind it is “so that your generations may know that I made the Israelites to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” Since Sukkot is also a harvest holiday, another explanation is to remind us of the farmers who lived in booths in their fields during the harvest to maximize their picking time.

If you’ve ever spent time in a sukkah, you know that its other message is one of both vulnerability and sanctuary. Its temporary nature, its natural instability, the way it can be permeated by rain and cold — everything about it speaks to the tenuousness of place. With a roof covering that must provide both sun and shade, we are only nominally protected from weather’s extremes. The sukkah provides shelter, but it also reminds us that we are not fully at home.

Tradition says that, if it rains, you stay in the sukkah until the rain is bothersome enough to spoil the soup. It’s not a terribly high threshold to kick us back into the warmth and safety of hearth and home. Because we can. Like the sukkah itself, our displacement is temporary.

But we know that what is temporary for us is a constant state for others, the countless vulnerable populations whose status is tenuous and whose displacement is protracted. They can’t simply relocate to find the safety and stability we all need. They can’t feel secure that where they dwell will give them security and protection.

Recognizing these poetic parallels is just the first step to living what we believe. You can make the connection between our time in the sukkah and the experience of people like refugees and immigrants a concrete part of your Sukkot, and there are plenty of resources to guide you. T’ruah: the rabbinic call for human rights has a valuable guide on Mikdash/Sanctuary that can help you think about how shelter (like your sukkah) is sacred space. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) has resources on protecting, resettling, and advocating for refugees. CJP has a designated fund to provide legal aid for immigrants.

This Sukkot, we know that remembering is not enough. We must use our collective memory of what it means to be vulnerable to help those who really are.

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