Sukkot and Simchat Torah Social Justice Guide
As a people with agricultural roots, Jews have found many ways to mark the seasonal and environmental changes that occur throughout the year. Sukkot has numerous other themes and areas of focus that encompass seasonal, historical, and theological perspectives. It is among the festivals that fall in the month of Tishrei, emphasizing not only the cycles of the earth, but also the cycles of Jewish life. (The other holidays in Tishrei are Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Simchat Torah.)
Sukkot concludes with the celebration of Simchat Torah, when Jews mark the cycle of Torah readings by finishing the book of Deuteronomy and immediately beginning the book of Genesis. This practice reminds us of the constant need to study all that Torah has to offer, including teachings regarding social justice and righteousness.
You can incorporate social action themes into your Sukkot and Simchat Torah celebrations in the following ways.
Focus on Housing Issues
The word sukkah sounds much like sichah, the Hebrew word for conversation. As such, Sukkot can provide an excellent opportunity to converse about housing issues and homelessness. On Sukkot, we are commanded to live in temporary booths for seven days, to remind us of the time when our wandering ancestors had to dwell in sukkot following the exodus from Egypt. This naturally draws to mind those who are homeless, or who must live in temporary housing all year round, unable to procure a permanent home of their own. We have the privilege of returning to our homes following the seven days, but there are many who have no homes to which they can return. Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity or another local housing initiative during the week of Sukkot to help build simple, decent, affordable housing for – and with – people in need.
Make a Recycled Sukkah
The seven days spent in the sukkah allow for closer interaction with the environment in a way that permanent homes do not. Eating and sleeping in sukkot creates a connection with the wind, outside air, sun, moon, and stars. Such an encounter with the natural world during this season can inspire us to pay closer attention to issues that affect the environment daily. Use as many recycled materials as possible in the building of a family or communal sukkah. This project can promote an appreciation of the importance of buying and using environmentally sustainable products.
Honor Farmers and Farm Workers
Sukkot is an excellent opportunity to honor those who provide us with produce and other healthy food throughout the year. Invite a local farmer or farm worker to a home or congregational sukkah, and allow him or her to speak about the challenges of growing healthy food in the local ecosystem. A farm worker might be asked to speak about the difficulties of working around pesticides and the dangers of poor working conditions. Other sukkot guests might be invited to receive honors for their justice work in the community.
Host an Autumn Warm-Up Clothing Drive
Sukkot often signals the end of summer and the beginning of the cooler seasons. A clothing drive held as the weather gets colder is a simple yet very important mitzvah. Help make the winter months warmer for someone in need by collecting new or gently used coats, gloves, hats, mittens, wool socks, etc. during the week of Sukkot. Contact local shelters to see where your donation will be most needed.
Decorate and Donate
While we are commanded to rejoice abundantly at this time of year, we also must assist others who are financially incapable of rejoicing. According to the Jewish scholar Maimonides, proper observance of Sukkot requires that we feed those around us who are in need. Hunger and poverty were facts of life in Maimonides’ time and unfortunately continue to be major concerns in our time. Hold a Sukkot potluck event to celebrate the holiday, help the hungry in your community, and even encourage awareness of the needs of local farmers. Encourage your attendees to support local farmers by using locally grown produce for their potluck dishes and to bring a bag of apples or some other locally grown produce to be collected and donated to those in need through a local organization.
Engage in Interfaith Dialogue
In Temple times in Jerusalem, Jews sacrificed 70 bulls during the week of Sukkot to atone for sins, committed not just by them, but also on behalf of the bible’s “70 nations” of the world. This tradition demonstrates the importance of praying and acting for the well-being of all nations, not just Israel. Sukkot is an excellent time to welcome representatives from the local Arab-American community to engage in dialogue, debate, and learning about the current situation in the Middle East. Words of peace and sharing between the two groups, particularly at a time of strife in the Middle East, can be most meaningful for all.
Adopt a Park
As Sukkot inspires us to appreciate the natural world around us, we become more aware of our responsibility to keep nature beautiful and clean. With friends, family, or fellow synagogue members, “adopt” a local park, street, beach, lake, river, etc., and be responsible for cleaning up that particular area. The project can be started during the week of Sukkot and extended throughout the year.