Whom shall we invite into our sukkah

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Something unique about the holiday of Sukkot is the custom of ushpizin (guests). Traditionally, each night, we invite a different biblical personality to join us in our sukkah. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggests that “this mitzvah is especially important in contemporary society; since bureaucracies and institutions take care of welfare and medical coverage, people often forget the importance of acts of gemilut chasadim (loving-kindness).”

Sitting in our fragile sukkah, we’re reminded that life for too many is much too fragile. Inviting ushpizin into our sukkah is a way to remember the work that each of us needs to do.

Sadly, all too many members of our society are hungry or homeless; all too many have become accidental victims of a society that sometimes seems to have lost its conscience. The holiday of Sukkot, and the sukkah itself, is a chance for us as Jews to remember the lessons of our past and to act boldly so that others are not victimized as we have been.

In Exodus 23:9, the Torah teaches, “No sojourner (stranger) shall you oppress. For you know the sojourner’s heart, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” In Egypt we were visitors; in Egypt we were strangers; in Egypt we were victimized and we became outcast slaves in a society that treated us as “the other.” Over and over again the Torah reminds us to remember how we were treated as sojourners, so that we never allow others to be treated this way.

Today, many of the sojourners in our community bear the label of “illegal immigrants.” The national debate about immigration is a political minefield, and frankly quite confusing. Unfortunately, like too many debates that go on in our world, many attempt to frame it as an absolute, black and white issue. This debate is certainly not that simple.

The national immigration debate has become an overwhelming issue for our nation. Drastic measures, such as raids at workplaces, homes and schools, may seem to be a necessary mechanism. But increased local enforcement measures often turn out to be Band-Aid solutions that fail to solve the wider problem. These raids have also created a climate of fear in immigrant communities, felt among documented and undocumented alike. When citizen children are left alone as their parents are detained or deported, we must take a hard look at the societal toll of our policies.

It may seem reasonable to start with the “problem” — the population of immigrants living and working without documentation. But to blame the negative consequences of an outdated and wrecked immigration policy on the immigrant who may be working at a neighborhood restaurant, or as our neighbor’s nanny, is as ridiculous as blaming the national mortgage crisis on the family who gave everything they had to finally own a home.

Sadly, the consequences of this outdated and broken national immigration policy have created a group of sojourners in our land. These same sojourners have become the scapegoats for a society that seems to need to blame others for the difficult problems that exist rather than working together to find authentic solutions.

All too often during our history, Jews have been scapegoats. As scapegoats we were powerless to do anything about our fate. And as a result of our powerlessness, our people suffered terribly.

We were powerless then, but we are not powerless now. With the power we possess and the imperative (mitzvah) we have been given to “not oppress the sojourner,” it is clear that we must act. As Jews, we are obligated for the welfare of others.

We must use the power that we possess to stand with immigrant communities and work for the reform of our current immigration policies and to demonstrate to our fellow citizens the vision we have for a just and compassionate America. If we fail to act, if we allow the scapegoating to continue, history will say that we missed an opportunity to act as God has commanded us to act. This is not a legacy that we can allow.

During the next week as you enter a sukkah, be reminded of the lessons of our past. Remember those lessons and then act so that no others are victimized as we were. Remember those lessons and then act so that the stranger in our communities is no longer oppressed.

Rabbi Marvin Goodman is the executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and the rabbi-in-residence at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.