Sukkot and Hurricanes
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
The year my friend Toby was dying of lung cancer, she told me that she did not want to say the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. She said that she was living every day that message of Who shall live and who shall die? Who in their time and who before their time? She just didn’t think she needed to pray those words. I totally understood where she was coming from and gave her my rabbinic authorization, for whatever that was worth, to be excused from Unetaneh Tokef. Toby did not make it to the next high holidays.
I kind of feel that way this year about Sukkot in certain parts of the world. For most of us, Sukkot is a fun time to be outdoors, to huddle in our very fragile, transient, temporary shelters and experience, for just a moment, what it might be like to simplify our lives and live in the most basic of shelters. After Harvey, Irma, Jose, Maria, homelessness is all too real for all too many. For too many people, their home has become their sukkah. It feels ridiculous, almost sacrilegious, to imagine a sukkah sitting outside a home that has been devastated by hurricane storms. Not that they’ve asked me, but I’m giving a pass on Sukkot to the Jewish communities in Houston, Miami, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Cuba, and everywhere else that has been impacted. Who by water, indeed. . . Unetaneh tokef is always powerful; this year it is entirely too real.
We read in Leviticus 23:42-43, “You shall dwell in booths seven days; all members of Israel shall dwell in booths; So that you may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Adonai your God.”
The Menorat HaMaor teaches us that, “The Sukkah is designed to warn us that we ought not to put our trust in the size or strength or beauty of our homes, though they be filled with all precious things. . . but, rather, we should put our trust in God who called the universe into being.” Through our observance of Sukkot we get a taste of what it would be like not to have a home. Whether we are hot or cold in the sukkah is not the issue. The point is that we are not in a climate controlled physical setting where we are disconnected from the weather outside.
Just as our Sukkot are open to the world, so must we not return to our homes, closed off from the needs of others. We must continue to be open to others. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
May we be inspired through our symbolic homelessness to renew our commitment to work for a time when no one will be compelled to live outdoors for lack of a home. We at Temple Chai have the opportunity to participate in supporting Family Promise as we open the doors of our synagogue to homeless families. And we are especially proud of those who will journey to Houston with Cantor Wolman to be our hands and our hearts, voices of love and caring to those who are rebuilding after the devastation.
Sukkot is a holiday of universalism- in ancient ritual we offered prayers for each of the 70 nations of the world. It is not enough to pray for peace for ourselves alone. Our celebration is incomplete if we do not include prayers for peace for our troubled world. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan wrote of, “The sukkah as the symbol of protest against the injustices and inequities of current civilization, and the need for upholding standards of righteousness which our civilization should seek to achieve.”
As the holiday of Sukkot draws to a close, we will offer public prayers for rain. We implore God- Hoshanna- Save us! Don’t hold back the life-giving waters. This year, these prayers take on new meaning. “For blessing and not for curse; for life and not for death; for plenty and not for scarcity.”
I’ll conclude with the beautiful prayer “For Rain” written by Alden Solovy- you can find it in your Shabbat bulletin.
For Rain- Alden Solovy
Source of life and blessings,
The rains come in their season
To feed the land, the crops, the gardens.
The earth abundant, food plentiful, gardens lush.
Sweet, clean water, feeding rivers, filling the sea.
Sometimes too much,
Sometimes too little,
Sometimes not at all.
Fountain of blessing,
Remember us with life,
With prosperity and bounty.
Remember us with the gift of rain,
The gifts of earth and sky,
Blessings upon the land,
Each in its time,
Each in its season,
Each in its proper measure.