Sukkot and Homelessness

Why do we dwell in a Sukkah? From the Torah the answer appears to be self-explanatory. This morning’s reading teaches us that we dwell in Sukkot as a reminder that our ancestors dwelt in Sukkot when they were brought out of the Land of Egypt. This by itself is compelling-it completes the linkage of the three pilgrimage holidays to our exodus from Egypt. Passover commemorates the Exodus itself, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai 50 days after the exodus, and Sukkot commemorates the temporary structures that our ancestors dwelt in for the 40 years that they journeyed from Egypt to the Holy Land.

However there is more to Sukkot then just the booths themselves. The sukkah is connected to the Tabernacle that traveled with our ancestors, as well as to the Temple. In describing the Tabernacle, the cherubim angels are mentioned as סוככים בכנפיהם על הכפורת, protecting the ark’s covering with their wings. The same terminology is utilized in describing the cherubs’ role in protecting the Temple ark. Similarly, Moses is told וסכות על הארון את הפרוכת, that the curtain is meant to shield the ark. It is apparent that the word Sukkot has to do with protection. This is evident every evening when we pray in the Hashkivenu ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך, spread over us the protection of your peace, and in the penitential prayer of this time of year כי יצפנני בסכוה ביום רעה, for God will protect me in his Sukkah on the evil day. There is also a prayer said upon entering the Sukkah in which we request that God spread God’s sukkah of peace over us.

The purpose of these booths, although temporary, is as a source of protection. There’s yet another purpose of a Sukkah, and that has to do with the סכך, the covering over the Sukkah. In Exodus 33, Moses asks to see God’s face. God will not allow it, as no one can see God’s face and live. Rather, God puts Moses in a cleft of a rock and covers him with his hand as he passes by. The verb for cover is שכותי, and while it is with a “sin” instead of a “samech,” the roots are related. The Sukkah, and in particular the סכך, also cover us from the warm sun. As Isaiah says, by day it will be a shelter to provide shade from the heat, as well as safety and protection from storms and rain.

There’s a greater purpose to the Sukkah than just protection and covering, however-it can be used to represent the coming of the Messiah. The prophet Amos foresaw the Messianic Age, proclaiming ביום ההוא אקים את סוכת דוד הנופלת; on that day I will resurrect the fallen booth of David. This is often taken as restoring the Temple of David, though some view it as restoring the Davidic Monarchy. In either case, the Sukkah referenced here foreshadows the Messianic era. This is connected to the prayer that it said upon leaving the Sukkah for the last time each year: May it be your will Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that just as I have built this sukkah and dwelt in it, so may I merit next year to dwell in the sukkah made of the Leviathan’s skin. The Leviathan is a sea creature that fought with God, and tradition has it that it will be eaten at the time of the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps this is why Sukkot is known as זמן שמחתנו, the time of our joy, as it is a sign of the coming of the Messiah.

How do we relate to these texts? It can be difficult for us to view the Sukkah as a source of protection, as we live secure in nice homes. It can also be challenging to relate to the Sukkah as a covering, as the rays of the sun somehow still get through, and the rain definitely penetrates our Sukkot. However, I think each of us can relate to the desire for a Messianic era, a day when all are living side-by-side with one another in peace. Even if we don’t believe this is realistic, or isn’t coming anytime soon, it is a good idea to strive towards. In 7 days we will be back enjoying meals in the safety and security of our suburban homes. In contrast, 60,000 people in New York City will still be dwelling in homeless shelters, and many more on the streets. In that number is over 23,000 children. On Long Island it is 1,879 adults and 1,864 children.[1]

What can we do about our epidemic? Of course we can and should continue to give to the Coat Drive that we do so well each year to ensure that people have adequate clothing, or to Sandwich Sunday to ensure that they have food. Of course we should increase our personal Tzedakah contributions, and our tradition teaches it is especially important to do so during the High Holiday season. However, we can also volunteer by donating food or spending an evening at various homeless shelters in the area, such as Bethany House, Operation Homeless and the Farmingdale Shelter. When I was at JTS, I regularly volunteered at the Anshe Chesed Homeless Shelter, which had at least 10 guests each night, and others did at the B’nai Jeshurun Shelter. Unfortunately there is not yet a Jewish homeless shelter on the Island, yet we should do our part by helping the shelters that are in our vicinity.
As we joyously celebrate Sukkot by inviting others into our Sukkah, let us also consider those who do not have a home to go to, and let us do our small but significant part to combat this epidemic. May we realize how fortunate we are and that we have the means to make a difference, to change the world one life at a time. In so doing our Sukkah will truly be a Sukkah of peace and well-being. Hag Sukkot Sameach.

[1] From www.coalitionforthehomeless.org

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