By: Rabbi Jordan Helfman,
Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, Canada
& World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ)
Executive Board Member
The Homeless Man in the Sukkah
During my second year of rabbinical school I flew to a small city on the border of Texas and Arkansas once a month to help facilitate Jewish living. The synagogue was in the downtown area (built before much of the community moved to homes in the suburbs) and featured a small courtyard in the middle of the property.
On one of my visits the community was abuzz with discussions over the sleeping bag and garbage bag full of clothing that a homeless individual had left under our sukkah.
What do you do with a sleeping bag that has been left in your communal sukkah?
During this recent High Holy Day season, we were again reminded how our small decisions influence the scales of all humanity. Included are the unconscious decisions we make when building our sukkahs.
Depending on where we live, this specific question may seem anachronistic. In some communities visitors are warned not to be seen publicly as a Jew. In these countries our communal sukkahs are hidden away. There is no way a passer-by can see the communal sukkah, and there is little public indication that a synagogue is present.
In other communities we don’t place our sukkahs in public so as not to advertise our Jewishness. This is not about fear, but out of a sense of privacy. We are people just like all others in our work places, and our religious and cultural affiliation is not something that we wear on our sleeves.
Some of our communal sukkahs are placed in public. Because of construction my community in Toronto is, for the second year in a row, placing our sukkah along the main road. In Toronto the sukkah will not be out of place – it is along a road full of other sukkahs and signs advertising schach.
When your community chooses its location for next year, keep in mind the words of the early Reform rabbi, Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler z”l (1843-1926). A student of biblical criticism, he imagines that the custom of the sukkah started when space ran out for lodging during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem:
“Large gatherings brought also a large number of strangers to the city, partly as visitors, partly as merchants, and so Jerusalem offered a glorious spectacle of humans, Jews and Gentiles, resting under the shadow of the temple. Such a sight, however, could not fail to impress the great leaders of Jewish thought with grander truths and loftier hopes. The Sukkoth festival shall one day become the means of uniting all the nations, and not only Israel but all the people of far-off lands shall come to Jerusalem to pray…Thus in the connection of the prophets, Sukkoth was to be a token and pledge of a time when all the nations will wander to the house of God and take refuge under the wings of God’s all encompassing love and protecting kindness.” (A Living Faith: Selected Sermons and Addresses From the Literary Remains of Dr. Kaufmann Kohler, Samuel S. Cohon (ed.), Hebrew Union College Press, New York: 1948. Edited for gender inclusivity.)
When individuals could not find a place to lodge they were able to construct and find sukkahs in the city to lodge in. The mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim – welcoming the guests – is a part of Sukkot, as we invite many guests, Jewish and non-Jewish, into our temporary dwellings.
Sukkot at the time of the Temple entailed the most sacrifices of any of the Holy Days, making it one of the most expensive for the People of Israel to observe. In the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkot 55b, the number of animals sacrificed on Sukkot at the Temple in Jerusalem is tied to the many nations of the world, and the sacrifices are therefore not just about our own wellbeing, but as offerings for the welfare of all of the nations of the world.
On the border of Texas and Arkansas, the community decided to place the sleeping bag and the clothing bag a few feet from the sukkah with a note explaining that the community was afraid of break-ins, which were common in the area. I think this was the right choice – to keep the dignity of the guest, but also to respect the feeling of security of the community.
Our communities make these small decisions as to how open our sukkahs are to the public, what guests do we invite in, and how do we deal with uninvited guests. And, we know, at the same time our countries are dealing with similar questions when it comes to economic and political migrants. And so I challenge us to think about these small decisions as a microcosm for the world we want to live in, remembering the times those in our family have needed a sukkah of shelter from the storms of life.
Our sukkahs are closed in three sides, and the top does offer some protection from the elements. Security is important. But what makes a shelter a Jewish sukkah are the open side and the holy roof. When we place our sukkahs in a way which invites all of our neighbors in while maintaining our security, they provide a meeting place and can start a conversation on Judaism’s place in our lives.
We end with a Sukkot prayer from Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch z”l (1851-1923), “Come then, peace to all; be Thou the Sukkoth of plenty and of joy for all on earth. Teach us through the smallness of thy fruit of Etrog that not the large things are valuable but that by the small things we are judged and society is built. Come, Peace! Tarry not. Bless us” (The Jewish Preacher: Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Myron A. Hirsch (ed.), Collage Books Inc., Naples, Florida: 2003. Edited for gender inclusivity).
May the values we celebrate this season of Sukkot be amplified into every part of our lives, bringing Judaism out of the doors of our synagogues so that wellbeing and peace may extend to all humanity.
We are sharing the sermon through the courtesy of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. We are immensely grateful to the WUPJ.