Sukkot and the Homeless
Is there any symbol more central to the American Dream than owning your own home? What is it about a home that makes it so special?
For many, it represents the culmination of dedication and hard work; it means a successful career — and standing on your own two feet.
But for the Jewish people, it wasn’t always that way. Many of our parents and grandparents who immigrated to this country first lived in a basic room in the home of a relative.
Many launched their working lives as my grandfathers did, selling socks and combs farmhouse to farmhouse in northern Quebec, or delivering blocks of ice in Montreal before the advent of the refrigerator.
And from these tiny rooms, most advanced to apartments and homes.
And that, in part, is why the Festival of Sukkot which we are currently observing, is rooted so deeply in our collective Jewish psyche.
Within modern times, the holiday inspires us to remember those in our past who began their lives in America so humbly, with a simple roof, a narrow bed, and dependence on others to sustain them.
This has been the trajectory of our people over thousands of years, from our first liberation in Egypt.
What are the names of our immigrant parents or grandparents, who made it possible for you and me to live in the homes we do?
How fortunate we are. If it’s too hot, we turn on the air conditioner. Too cold, and on comes the heat. We have running water, multiple bathrooms, kitchens, dining rooms, dens, man caves and she — sheds.
Within the walls of our homes, children are raised, guests are invited, laughter is shared, challenges are weathered.
But it wasn’t always like that.
There was a time when we as a people dwelled in small desert huts, moving from oasis to oasis on the road from Egypt to the Promised Land.
It is our common beginning, and our collective ascension that we celebrate this week, during the Festival of Sukkot.
In a word, Sukkot is about humility. We thank God for the gift of shelter. We praise the Creator for the miracle of food. Most importantly, we take note of those who have neither.
In ancient times, Sukkot rituals focused on rain. Without rain, there would be no crops, and the Israelites would be driven from their land.
But things have changed.
The Sukkahs we now build remind us that we are descended from those who never took comforts for granted: it is a time of year to look around and ensure that we ourselves are not too complacent in our own comforts — and perhaps that we don’t take the American Dream for granted.
We are encouraged to invite friends and strangers to our huts, where, under the stars, we inhale the brisk fall air and experience God’s creation.
And we remember those in our streets who do not even have a Sukkah to dwell in.
A few years ago, the Cantor and I were blessed with a bar mitzvah student who inspired us to look at Sukkot in a different way. As his bar mitzvah approached, scheduled for Sukkot, we observed his struggles preparing his Hebrew prayers and reading.
So, rather than engage him in a tortuous regime of Hebrew repetition, we encouraged him to re — examine Sukkot in a more meaningful way.
One afternoon, we walked with him through the forested area which separates the edge of our synagogue from nearby Cottage Row. There we discovered, that overnight, a number of homeless people were using our nearby woods for shelter.
We bagged food wrappers and empty bottles, in order to make the grounds safer. The young man, then turned to us and observed, “We need to be creating more Sukkahs in this world, so that no one has to live this way.”
From there, he dedicated his bar mitzvah preparations to supporting our local men’s shelter, and gathering food for the needy.
The holiday of Sukkot reminds us that it is a great gift to just be alive. We are blessed to live in this country of peace, shelter, and sustenance.
In a few weeks, the Glen Cove Men’s Shelter will open its doors for the winter. Dozens will seek warmth within these simple walls, a shelter of peace supported by a number of faith communities.
We are currently collecting warm coats, thermal socks and gloves for those, especially during the winter months, who will have no Sukkah of their own to live in.
That perhaps is the meaning of today’s Sukkot.
Sukkot reminds us, on the shoulders of our parents and grandparents, how truly lucky we are to be living the American Dream
So may it be for others as we remind ourselves how fragile life can be. Let us therefore, from the depths of our humble beginnings, work to elevate the lives of others.
Each of us is, after all, descended from a group of wanderers who found shelter in huts. And so, on this, the Festival of Sukkot, may we extend the gift of shelter to others — for each of us, under God’s heaven, at minimum, is entitled to a Sukkah.
For each of us is precious and deserving in God’s sight.
Shabbat shalom. Chag Sameach. Happy Sukkot.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman