On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Within These Three Walls - Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot

This week is Chol HaMo-eid Sukkot, the six days between the festival of Sukkot and Simchat Torah. Join us as Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses the importance of recognizing how the vulnerability of the temporary structure we create each year connects with our greater obligations to the world around us.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches a little bit about where we are in the Jewish year. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Sukkot talking about how and when we can provide real shelter and support.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. We've just begun the new year. We had Rosh Hashanah on Yom Kippur. And five days into the post-Yom Kippur world, we're ready for another Jewish holiday. Yom Kippur takes us all inside in terms of the introspection, really assessing who we are in our deepest convictions. And for Sukkot, we go outside and we take tools and we build. We build a temporary dwelling called a sukkah, and we shake the four species, and give thanks to God for all of our blessings.

It is a holiday. Frankly, the biblical text has a kind of duality. On one level, we know that these are harvest booths. We imagine as we're taught when we're little and potentially if we've gone to a religious school that this is where our ancestors when they were harvesting the fields, they would go and maybe take arrest in the shade of the sukkah. But it really much had this kind of autumn harvest feel to it. But the text in Leviticus chapter 23 tells us that we shall live in booths seven days. All citizens in Israel shall live in booths. Why? It says, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt. Now, on one level you think this just doesn't look like what a people who are wandering as nomads, as migrants, maybe even as asylum seekers-- you can't build little harvest booths. But I have to say I came for the first time to awareness when I was in Chad, which is in sub-Saharan Africa, during the genocide in Darfur. And I happened to be there with a group of leaders of the Jewish community led by Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Service, Rabbi Lee Bycel, Rabbi David Saperstein, Rabbi David Stern, and myself. And here we were on Sukkot spending time in refugee camps. And what was amazing is all we saw as far as the eye could see in these camps were Sukkot, little harvest booths, and these were refugees from the genocide.

So the Torah text is, I think, quite accurate. And it reminds us that our journey as a Jewish people from slavery to freedom was a journey of refugees. This year in particular it's hard not to think about refugees and finding shelter. Earlier this summer, I was in El Paso, Texas, and in Juarez, Mexico, spending time with refugees, migrants, asylum seekers who were in camps outside the US just across the border in Mexico. Heartbreaking stories, and we have as a reform movement, an initiative this particular Sukkot, to welcome refugees into our Sukkot. And as we do, to say the prayer, ufros aleinu sukat sh'lomecha-- spread over us the shelter of your peace. We don't simply want to act hospitably, which of course, is a good thing in and of itself. We want to invite in refugees who have come from a host of countries and have found some of them temporary and some permanent homes here in the United States. And for them to tell us their stories, tell us of their journeys, tell us of their challenges. And for us to connect the experience of Sukkot, building temporary dwellings, reminding us of the fragility of life and the fragility of many of our journeys, and allow us to open our hearts as a Jewish community and to do even more to help those who are in need of that shelter.

At the reform movement, we have something we call the Krauss Initiative for Immigrant and Refugee Justice, which is an initiative of our movement based at the Religious Action Center, in Washington DC. In congregations all across North America, our reform movement is leading the way to care for the gerim, those who are seeking shelter.

I also have to say that our Torah text reminds us that we can't build this sukkah in a permanent fashion. On one level, as a builder I'm pretty inexperienced. Everything I've ever built has collapsed. So when I build our sukkah, it's always an authentic one. Meaning when the wind blows and the rain comes down, our sukkah ends up on the ground. But that's actually the reminder that we're all, in a sense, sojourners. We're all, in a sense, making journeys in a fragile world, and to open ourselves to those who are especially on the vulnerable side of these issues today. I also want to remember going back to my time in Chad, it was just heart numbing to hear the stories of refugees. And I remember there was this one little refugee boy. We were in Kounongou refugee camp in eastern Chad, which was on the border of Darfour. And as we were walking through on a brutally hot day, a little boy I just noticed had taken my hand. There were just lots and lots of young people. So at first, I didn't notice. And then of course, I noticed. I looked down and he couldn't have been more than three, maybe four years old. And for the next hour and a half, he wouldn't let go. So here was this refugee from genocide. We didn't have a common language. He just held on for dear life.

And finally as we were going to be leaving, I said to the director of the camp, I don't know this boy's story but maybe he should cover him with me. And the director of the camp looked at me and said, Rabbi Jacobs, it's a lovely thought but your job isn't to help save this one boy, this one refugee. Your job is to go back to America and to be a voice to help save thousands, if not millions. And I said, will he be OK? He said, he's here and he'll be well cared for, but you have a job to do when you go back to the States.

And I'll never forget the feeling of his little hand in mine. I'll never forget the words of the director of that camp. And I hope that all of us, wherever those refugees are from-- some are from Central America, some from central Africa, from so many places around this world have tried to come to this country seeking a place of safety. And I know that we have recently a lot of political debates about who's to be in and who's not going to be let in. And I was very distressed really just a couple of weeks ago when the US administration decided that only 18,000 would be able to come in as refugees for resettlement. That's down from many, many more over the last few years.

And so we have not just a ritual to observe on Sukkot, we have a righteous cause to fight for when people say, but those who are trying to come to the United States seeking safety are not like those in the past. And I would just remember in the spring of 1939, the German ocean liner, the St. Louis, sailed with 937 passengers aboard from Hamburg to Cuba and then to the US. That was right on the eve of World War II and the gates of America were locked shut and very few were allowed in. That ship, the St. Louis, was sent back and a good number of those 937 passengers perished during the shoah. That's what it means when the gates close, and we can't allow those gates to close. Not for us, not for any of God's children. Yes, the United States has to have a refugee policy. It has to have immigration standards. But let's have that as an open debate of our core American values because our core Jewish values remind us that all of us at some point have been refugees.

We know that when Abraham identifies himself to the residents of the land of Israel, he says, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. He says, I'm an outsider. I'm a migrant. I'm not one of you. The word [NON-ENGLISH] can mean refugee, it can mean a migrant, it can mean a stranger. And it's just a phenomenon that we as a people have known and we have obviously an awareness of the pain that refugees today endure.

And so on the southern border, it's acute. And in some cases, we have refugees who don't have permanent status, but they're living in our community. Maybe where you're living and listening to the podcast there's a congregation or a sukkah that you could enjoy for part of the holiday. But let's figure out how we could reach out and bring some of our refugee brothers and sisters into our safe place to tell the story to remember what the holiday is all about. It's a holiday of joy and gratitude, and it also is a reminder of vulnerability. Those things might seem at odds, but the holiday has all of these dimensions.

And so just after the days of the high holidays, we're committed now to be in the world and to be not just people who hear sermons but people who live the commitments that many of us were summoned to during the high holy days. And Sukkot is the most beautiful way for us to express it. It doesn't have to be a fancy sukkah, it just has to be an authentic one. A bit of a temporary dwelling.

As we hear the stories of the refugees, let's remember our own family's stories. Let's remember the stories of our people and let's be committed to be those advocates for justice for the more vulnerable among us. Maybe you can feel with me the hand of that little boy in Chad holding on to my hand, looking for that empathy and that love and that acceptance.

Maybe you are in a community in South Florida and you've seen some of the detention facilities. We as a country have been wrestling with the harshness of our treatment of too many of those refugees, those migrants, and those asylum seekers. That's not the best of our Jewish tradition. Sukkot is the best of our Jewish tradition. So let's bring them under the sheltering dwellings of our Sukkot, and more importantly, the dwelling under our wings of love and protection and ultimately [NON-ENGLISH] that somehow under the wings of the Holy One we all find protection.

So I wish each of you a chag sameach, a very happy and joyous and meaningful Sukkot, and may this holiday also awaken us to care for those who are sojourning and maybe even journeying forth on their journey to freedom. We have a stake in their safety. We have a stake in their well-being. We are brought together by this holiday and by this sacred tradition. Chag sameach, a joyous holiday to all.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l''hitraot.