Rabbis Without Borders
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I recall standing once in a communal sukkah teaching a group of children about Sukkot. It was a sunny day in a sukkah beautifully decorated with samples of the earth’s bounty. To the children’s delight, a soft, overripe red pepper fell directly onto my head. We all laughed.
Sukkot is the ultimate communal celebration, but it’s timing in North America’s changing seasons can bring surprises. Sukkot signals the entrance of Autumn, often windy and wet in my region. I am reminded of a conversation of Talmudic sages (Talmud Ta’anit 2A.) Rabbi Joshua said, “We pray for rain only close to the rainy season.” The sages feared their prayers would invite rain during Sukkot, ruining the outdoor celebration. “R. Joshua said…’seeing that rain on the feast is a sign of [God’s] anger.’” (Talmud Sukkot 28b.) They decided that we should withhold our prayers for rain until the end of the festival, on Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Assembly. Since then, from Shemini Azteret to Pesach, we say, “You cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”
Yet, Sukkot celebrations depend on more than the weather. Enjoying friendship over shared meals, we invite historical Jewish heroes to be our imaginary sukkah guests. It’s the mystical custom of Ushpizin. Their inspiration renews our sense of what is important and possible.
So here we are, Sukkot 5776. In the northeast U.S., we are feeling the effects of stormy weather. Some sukkot (sukkahs), intentionally fragile, toppled in the rain and wind, while others were dismantled in anticipation of the storm. Some areas were pounded by Hurricane Joaquin, while many of us are relieved that it was only a close call for us.
In my area, just the mention of hurricanes prompts recollections of the traumatic Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. We ask each other, “How long were you out of power?” “Did you see the destroyed houses?” Then we get down to the real stuff – how we cared for each other in many ways. Fearful as we might be for the next hurricane, there is reassurance in those memories. We can’t control the weather, but we can control how we react to it.
But something else seems evident anticipating Shemini Atzeret and the prayers for rain. Joaquin was the uninvited Ushpizin guest. Like the fragile sukkah, it is also a reminder of the fragility of nature, highlighting our responsibility to care for the earth. Will we fight to reverse climate change, or simply cope with its effects in the moment? Will our grandchildren and their progeny be able to sit in sukkot, enjoying friendship and Ushpizin guests?
We can’t leave that up to prayer. We must activate our communities and governments to work together to fix the mess that humanity has created. “R. Joshua said…’seeing that rain on the feast is a sign of [God’s] anger.’” Did we see the rain and do we get the point?
Pronounced: SOO-kah (oo as in book) or sue-KAH, Origin: Hebrew, the temporary hut built during the Harvest holiday of Sukkot.