Sukkot and the Challenge of Refugees

"Instead of investing in walls, look toward people with tenderness."
October 2, 2015Rabbi Michel Schlesinger

A young man came to a rabbi for a chat.

“I’ve bought a new car” said the young man to the rabbi.

“Congratulations,” he replied.

And the young man went on, “It has been a while since I have been saving to achieve this dream. Some months ago, I finally got all the money and bought the car. I was very happy when I could finally drive it for the first time. Such happiness endured for the first weeks with the new car. However, after a couple of months, I don’t enjoy my new car with the same thrill. I ask you, rabbi, is there any way to keep the newness of the car every day?”

The rabbi thought for a moment and answered, “Yes, there is. If you give a lift to a new person every day, your car will be new every new day.”

The Sukkot feast was blessed with special laws and traditions: we recite the Halel, we read Ecclesiasts (Kohelet), we make the hoshanot (prayers recited while holding the lulav and Etrog), we bless and shake the four species (arbaat haminim), we eat under the Sukkah and we also receive the ushpizin.

Ushpizin are biblical characters who, according to tradition, come to visit during Sukkoth days. The lesson taught by these memorable characters, it that our houses should be always open and that hachnassat orchim, the reception of guests, is one of the most important commandments to be fulfilled.

In the Torah there are many examples of hachnassat orchim. Abraham and Sarah are considered models of good hosts. Our rabbis teach us that their tent had four entrances, one on each side, so that no visitor would have to encircle the tent to enter it. Rebecca received Abraham’s servant and took care of his camels. Ytro, Moshe’s father-in-law, was disappointed for not being able to receive him in his tent. In the Yom Kippur haftarah, the prophet Isaiah (58:7) says: “shelter in your house the poor errants.” And in the Book of Job (31:32), he declares: “I have opened my doors to the traveler.”

In the rabbinical literature, this commandment took a prominent role. Rav Huna (Taanit 20b) used to invite people to eat in his place in the following manner: “Kol Dichfin letei Veiechol” (May all those hungry come in and eat). These words became part of our Passover seder. In Jerusalem, it was tradition to halt a flag outside the houses to warn that a meal was being offered (BB 93b). 

The Jewish law determines a maximum height to the Sukkah, but does not establish a limit to its width. Our Sukkah can be as wide as necessary, so that we could fit inside it the highest number of people.

The achnassat orchim mitzvah must be followed in a literal way. We should, effectively, place more people in our Shabbat tables, give more lifts in our cars, fill our Sukkot with guests. Besides all this, such special commandment help us to better organize our values scale and to understand that our houses, cars and sukkot are much less important than the people that we place inwards.

If we want our material conquests to always have a flavor of novelty, we need to allow new people to benefit of what belongs to us. The sukkat teach us to look less to the buildings and more to relationships. Instead of investing in walls, look toward people with tenderness.

Two tourists visited the city of Rome. When they were asked what they liked most, one answered, “The Trevi Fountain has an impressive beauty,” and the other said: “I met a lady called Giovanna who was sitting by a fountain, and we talked for hours, and those were the most important moments of my trip.”

I truly believe that we are the ones who decide what kind of tourist we will be in this great travel called life. 

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