Gimme Shelter: Building Our Sukkah When Material Shelters Fail Us

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In the sukkah in Jerusalem. Credit: AP

The holidays did not take me by surprise this year, but I cannot truly say that I was ready for them. On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, at the end of Selichot services, I joked with my rabbi that this year, the earliest the Hebrew calendar ever falls on the Gregorian calendar, I could have really used an Elul Bet. An extra month to prepare my High Holy Day sermons, plan NOAM’s pre-Sukkot hike, and write my papers from the last academic year would have alleviated quite a bit of stress during this very rushed period.

But alas, I will need to wait until Adar (in February this year) for my extra month in this leap year. In the meantime, Sukkot could not have come at a better time.

The days leading up to Sukkot have been difficult. Literally minutes after I left my house for work one morning, two children were murdered - apparently by their mother - in my neighborhood. There is little that any of us can say; it has simply left me, much of my neighborhood, and Israeli society at large in tears.

Halfway across the world, floods in Colorado and the neighboring states forced thousands of people out of their homes, destroying many homes and damaging even more.

Of course, these were not the only recent two tragedies. But these two, more than any other seem so relevant to the holiday we are currently celebrating. Both of these incidents make me think of our need for shelter. In one case, in my seemingly “sheltered” neighborhood, the unthinkable happened. In the other, people’s permanent shelters could not protect them from the unexplainable forces of nature.

Leading up to the holiday, some friends and teachers of mine noted the connection between the Colorado floods and the holiday, reminding us that even our most permanent shelters are not impermeable to acts of God/nature. The incident in my neighborhood proved that even the quietest, crime-free areas are not impermeable to what I can only imagine was an act caused by great emotional anguish. But what good does building the temporary hut that Jews eat in throughout the week of Sukkot do in fixing these problems?

The sukkah, at its best, breaks down our barriers and forces us to take shelter with one another. One of the real blessings of Jerusalem is seeing not only the countless sukkahs lining the streets, but the interactions between people because of it. On the first night of the holiday, I was graciously hosted by a couple whom I met for the first time that evening. Despite our already being squeezed into the sukkah, they did not hesitate to invite in any passers-be to join us in our meal.

When we move out of our homes - our permanent shelters - and into our sukkot, we are immediately forcing ourselves out of our bubbles and into the reality of others as well. We are forced to encounter those who may not have food to eat or those who may not have loved ones with whom to share the meal. In the sukkah, our humble shelter must become the shelter for anyone who needs.

Inside of our homes, we have walls to keep out the noises of the neighbors, to block the sights of the suffering of others. In the sukkah, we hear what goes on around us, we see those who may need help, we feel the heat, the cold, the wind or the rain.

The sukkah cannot prevent the tragedies like the ones that started the week leading up to the holiday. But it does force people to open their doors and open their hearts; it does, at its best, encourage hospitality, empathy, and community. Indeed, the sukkah, through its very basic nature and its lack of true shelter, forces humanity to do its best to make up for what the sukkah lacks. And hopefully, when our sukkah is truly successful, we are reminded that no shelter is ever perfect, and that we have a constant obligation to make one another more secure any we can.

Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM - the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.

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