So often in Jewish tradition, we are asked to recall human suffering in times of great joy. At a wedding ceremony, when the glass is smashed, we are reminded of the destruction of the Temple. We also pour wine from our cups in remembrance of the suffering of the Egyptians during the Pessach service. The Talmud teaches that if a wedding party meets a funeral procession, the funeral procession must step aside to allow the wedding pass. This tradition — to carry pain in times of joy — teaches us a lesson about the multifaceted nature of the emotions and how we can bring to any moment or experience.
Sukkot is no stranger to this balance. As we build, decorate and dwell in temporary structures for Sukkot during ‘zman simchateinu’ – the time of our happiness — we are reminded of our nomadic ancestors and asked to be mindful of how temporary all living structures can be. During the time of Sukkot, I think of those people who are homeless, particularly as the days get darker and colder. Accommodation was found for those in need during lockdown, but now many people find themselves back on the streets with little or no support. I also think of the tens of thousands of refugees who have been forced from their homes, to take terrifying journeys in search of safety often to find themselves turned away or left to survive in camps.
The incredible West End Musical, Come From Away, tells the story of how a small Canadian Province, Newfoundland, welcomed thousands of stranded travellers whose planes were redirected during 9/11. With no questions and very few resources, the people of Newfoundland opened their homes, schools, pubs and hearts to those travellers.
They not only gave them a place to sleep and food to eat but comfort and community during their traumatic experience. As much as we may want to, it is not up to us to solve the refugee and homelessness crisis by opening our homes (although there are charities that allow us to do that). The mitzvah of hospitality during Sukkot is a further reminder of the value of welcoming people in, rather than putting up barriers and pushing them away. Sukkot can move us to be part of the solution in any way we can.
This year, more than ever, we feel the impact of not being able to host in our Sukkot. With the law limiting social gathering to a maximum of six people, and the wind and rain compromising the structures of most Sukkot that were built, the mitzvah of hosting and gathering was hard to achieve. However, despite the reminders of suffering that surround us, and while we miss being together as a community, we can still experience ‘zman simchateinu’ — times of happiness.
During our service last week it was wonderful to hear how NLJC have enjoyed multicultural Sukkot services in years gone by. We also shared thoughts on who we would invite to our Sukkah if we ignored all laws of nature, science and society. It was lovely to hear of the people each of you would invite and to learn a little more about who is important to you.
This Sukkot and Simchat Torah, we tread that line between joy and happiness as we celebrate the changing of the seasons and the re-rolling of Torah. From death to creation, Deuteronomy to Genesis, great sadness and great joy
Rabbi Anna Posner