Sukkots bounty reflects our hope for a better world

Shabbat Hol Ha Mo’ed Sukkot

Exodus 33:12-34:26,

Numbers 29:17-22

Ezekiel 38:18-39:16

In a year when the world has been ravaged by earthquakes in China, reports of chemical attacks on Syrian civilians and bombs at the Boston Marathon, how do we celebrate the most joyous Jewish holiday?

Sukkot, known by the rabbis as “He Chag,” the holiday, the ultimate celebration, follows the solemnity of Yom Kippur. The joy of Sukkot flows from our Yom Kippur observance as we celebrate being forgiven for our sins, given a second chance.

The Torah tells us “v’s’makhta b’hagekha — you shall rejoice in your holidays.” But shouldn’t the reality of so many being unable to celebrate in joy affect our holiday? How do we sit in our bountiful sukkah, knowing there are so many without food, shelter and security?

Here are three possible responses to this challenge:

1. Out of sight, out of mind. At one time or another, when faced with pain, suffering or evil, we put devastation out of our minds. We tell ourselves that most of these catastrophes happened in faraway places. Even the Boston Marathon bombing occurred far enough away that we didn’t fear for our safety here.

Before we condemn this thinking as callous, we can see just how human a response it is. If we were all truly aware of the pain and suffering that resulted from these events, we would be unable to carry on with our daily lives. How many times have we said, “I can’t bear to read the news today”? Or if we do keep abreast of the news, do we develop subconscious mechanisms that allow us to read about yet not fully internalize these events?

2. Act to physically identify with those who suffer. Touched by the plight of the poor, perhaps we should identify with hunger by altering our Sukkot meals to reflect that many people around the world are not able to eat in the same manner we do.

But consider the following Hassidic story. Reb Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, asked a rich man: “What do you eat every day?” The rich man responded, “Bread and salt, like a poor man.” The Maggid rebuked him, telling him that he should eat meat and drink rich beverages every day, as wealthy men do. After he left, the disciples of the Maggid asked him to explain.

“If a rich man eats meat and drinks rich beverages,” reasoned the Maggid, “then he realizes that a poor man needs at least bread and salt. If, however, he himself eats bread and salt, he will think this poor neighbor can make do with a diet of stones.”

3. Let our feasting be a vision for what can be. The Maggid’s answer to the rich man illustrates that when we take on what the poor experience, we remove the possibility of elevating them. By dwelling in our sukkah, we envision a world in which all should enjoy this privilege. When we feast in joy, we tell the world that the hungry in Africa should not make do with a diet of stones. When we enjoy our sukkah in safety, we tell the world that the poor deserve shelter and that those persecuted in Syria deserve physical safety, free from fear.

We can and should rejoice in our holiday and enjoy the foods that grace our sukkah table. We should envision a world in which all human beings enjoy this bounty.

Yet the Maggid’s answer is not enough. Enjoying this holiday and being generous to those in need are not mutually exclusive. While we model how human beings should enjoy the world’s bounty, we should also work to eliminate suffering — with acts of tzedakah that reach out into the world beyond our sukkah.

Sukkot is our quintessential holiday of joy and protection. May you demonstrate joy by dwelling in a bountiful sukkah. And through your action and tzedakah in the world, may you bring protection to others during this season. Then we can sit and rejoice in our sukkah knowing that we made a difference in the world. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected].