Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot: the fragile sukkah can only be protected with ethics

Our Sukkah is up, and swaying a bit, as it does every year. It’s a stark reminder that it is so very difficult for human beings to really be safe and secure from the storms that threaten our lives.

Curiously, our parashah for the Shabbat of hol hamo’ed (intermediate days of) Sukkot doesn’t mention the sukkah. Rather, it includes two readings: the major one from Exodus, and a maftir taken from a Deuteronomy. The two readings taken together present a fascinating picture of what our ancestors considered most significant at the time of the fall harvest: caring for each other and the earth.

In the larger, main reading from Exodus, we are not told of how many sacrifices one is to bring on this day, nor are we given a story with moral import. Instead, in Exodus 22.24-23.17 we read Jewish laws of sharing one’s harvest with others; not only specifically what one reaps agriculturally, but in the wider context of sharing one’s capacity for honestly and ethics. We are urged to show up and be seen both in this reading and in the maftir:

 Three times in a year shall all your males appear before ה your G-d in the place which G-d shall choose; on the Feast of Matzah, and on the Feast of Shavuot, and on the Feast of Sukkot; and they shall not appear before ה empty. (Deut. 16.16)

When we look at the Hebrew we learn that there’s a fascinating way to understand the phrase “all your males”. The word translated here as “males” can also be translated as “memory”, leading to the possible interpretation that we are all meant to show up mindfully, remembering who we are and where we come from, and what our responsibilities are. We are not to show up empty: we must bring our ethics with us.

This brings us to some very specific opportunities to consider how our fragile sukkah speaks to us of larger circles of vulnerability in our lives which we must face, with great care and a copy of Jewish ethics in hand – and in mind – at all times.

* A sukkah is a dwelling place; we are commanded to live in it, have meals in it, sleep in it, in order to remind ourselves of the fragility of human shelter. For those of us for whom living in a sukkah is not an option, we should nevertheless take time during this week to stand in one and meditate upon our responsibility to those among us who are in need of shelter: the homeless, the nearly homeless, the vulnerable in their homes.

* The State of Israel is the Jewish home, and it is similarly vulnerable. When Jews were homeless we experienced horrifying vulnerability; today, our state is fragile both within and without. It needs our support to develop into the peaceful and inspirational light unto the nations that Israel’s declaration of independence aspires to be.

* our kehillah, our own congregational community and that of the larger circles of Jewish community regionally, nationally and world-wide, are challenged with stresses, about Israel as well as other issues. The way in which we respond will either strengthen us and our sacred dwelling places, or weaken them.

It is very human to lash out in self-defense when one feels vulnerable; at such times it is, as one Arab child said when she returned to her bilingual and binational Israeli Arab and Jewish school, “easier to hate, to become extreme”. But that way lies only sacrifices and death – and our parashah for this Shabbat indicates that this is not the way for us to respond to our sense of fragility. When the wind makes your sukkah sway, and storms of anger, hate and accusation break over the places where you dwell, remember who you are, where you come from, and fill your hands and your heart with what your tradition requires of you, as the Prophet Micah declared:

to do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility, aware of and focused upon your place in the world.

מועדים לשמחה – may the intermediate days of our Harvest Festival of Sukkot bring you joy

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