Sukkot is for All
The Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot is a perfect time to prepare ourselves for the Festival of Ingathering, a holiday on which we work hard to welcome everyone to our table.
Sukkot is for All of Everyone
Tonight we sit together on the quiet Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Flanked by major holidays, a Shabbat like this one is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the season in which we find ourselves, a season a renewal and hope at the turn of the year.
The Torah knows many new years. Passover is a big one but arguably even bigger was Sukkot (not Rosh Hashanah, which came later in our religion’s growth). The Torah says Sukkot took place בְּצֵאת הַשָּׁנָה, “at the coming forth of the year” (Ex. 23:16) or תְּקוּפַת הַשָּׁנָה, “at the turn of the year” (Ex. 34:22).
It was on this new year holiday, the Festival of Ingathering, that every Jew in the land was urged to go on pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Though in that age only men were commanded to appear, all were welcome, and each person יֵרָאֶה, “would be seen” (Deut. 16:16) in the presence of God.
There is a beautiful teaching from the Mishnah about what it means to be seen:
כָּל הַנִּכְנָסִין לְהַר הַבַּיִת נִכְנָסִין דֶּרֶךְ יָמִין וּמַקִּיפִין וְיוֹצְאִין דֶּרֶךְ שְׂמֹאל, חוּץ מִמִּי שֶׁאֵרְעוֹ דָבָר.
All who entered the Temple Mount…circled [the altar to the right] and went out by the left, save for “the one to whom something had happened,” who circled to the left and went out to the right. [The one to whom something had happened was asked]: “Why do you go round to the left?” [If they answered] “Because I am a mourner,” [the questioner said], “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.” [If they answered] “Because I am excommunicated” [the questioner said]: “May the One who dwells in this house inspire them to draw you near again.” (Mishnah Middot 2:2).
Rabbi Shira Stutman writes that this text:
teaches that in the midst of the joy of pilgrimage, sadness and pain was not only permitted to exist, but it was spotlighted. The one who is hurting—the one to whom something has happened—cannot hide. They must literally walk in the opposite direction from everyone else, to show how outside the typical frame of reference they are.
In other words, Sukkot is a time for everyone—and not a bland “everybody blend in so we can do this together” kind of everyone. Each person in their own unique situation, sometimes an outsider and sometimes a welcomer-in, appears together during this holy moment.
After the fall of the Temple and the end of the pilgrimage festival, Sukkot continued to evolve. Rabbinic laws accumulated to address what constitutes a kosher sukkah, and they end up being rather lenient and broad. You can build sukkah walls out of nearly anything, even human beings (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 630:12), and they can sit upon nearly anything, including the top of a tree or even the back of a camel (Mishnah Sukkah 2:3). The overarching theme of the holiday is inclusion – everyone has a place at the sukkah-table.
This is the teaching of a midrash from a collection known as Leviticus Rabbah (30:12), which describes each of Sukkot’s ritual items as a symbol for a member of the community:
The etrog symbolizes Israel: just as the etrog has taste as well as fragrance, so Israel have among them people who possess learning and good deeds.
The palm branch also symbolizes Israel; as the palm-tree has taste but not fragrance, so Israel have among them people who possess learning but not good deeds.
The myrtle branch likewise symbolizes Israel; just as the myrtle has fragrance but no taste, so Israel have among them people who possess good deeds but not learning.
And the willow branch also symbolizes Israel; just as the willow has no taste and no fragrance, so Israel have among them people who possess neither learning nor good deeds.
To summarize: Our community includes those with good deeds and learning, those who have one or the other, and those who have neither. And the midrash concludes:
אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא יֻקְשְׁרוּ כֻלָּם אֲגֻדָּה אַחַת וְהֵן מְכַפְּרִין אֵלּוּ עַל אֵלּוּ.
God says: Let all of them be bound into a single bundle that they may atone for one another.
Or, literally, “so that they may cover for one another.”
In other words, our people can’t make it unless we all band together: the sages and saints along with the novices and the average folks. That’s why the patrons of Sukkot are Abraham and Sarah, whose tent was open on all sides and who would welcome and receive not only העוברים, those who passed by, but also השבים, literally “those who returned” or perhaps even “those who did teshuvah.” Abraham and Sarah’s home was open to all, even—and most especially—to those who might not otherwise be welcome, that is to say, the “willow-branches” among us who wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of most people’s guest list.
Our children learn in Hebrew School that Sukkot is a holiday of hospitality. And that’s correct. We teach our kids and remind ourselves of the ushpizin, the spiritual guests that are invited into the sukkah each year. Traditionally, these seven guests include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David—one for each of the seven days of Sukkot—and modern practice extends the invitation to women as well—to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Hannah, and Deborah, for example. But an urgent text from the Zohar, the primary text of Kabbalah and much of Jewish mysticism, insists that inviting only these august personages is indulgent, not hospitable. The Zohar teaches: 
If you sit in the sukkah and invite the ushpizin but do not give the vulnerable their portion, our ancestors will hold aloof from you. … Do not say, “I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and only what is left over shall I give to the needy.” Rather, the first of everything must be for the needy. If you gladden these guests and satisfy them, God will rejoice over you, and the ushpizin will shower you with blessings.
In other words, our obligation to invite others into our home is met only when we first make room for the needy among us. In our own lives, the “needy” may fall into any number of categories, including those who are in spiritual, physical, or emotional need. Though the Days of Awe are behind us, Sukkot nevertheless calls us to account: who in our community is in need of companionship at this time? Who needs sustenance? Who needs support? And even if I wouldn’t ordinarily be inclined to reach out to these people, perhaps especially so, how can I extend a welcoming and inviting hand?
This week’s Torah portion is a beautiful, though haunting, poem that addresses Israel’s inevitable fall into selfishness and greed and God’s ultimate acceptance of us when we turn from away from our narcissism. The poem is spoken by Moses בְּאָזְנֵי כָּל-קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל, in the ears of the entire congregation of Israel” (Deut. 31:30), and this emphasis on everyone being present echoes the introduction to the Kol Nidre prayer:
עַל דַּֽעַת הַמָּקוֹם וְעַל דַּֽעַת הַקָּהָל
בִּישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽעְלָה וּבִישִׁיבָה שֶׁל מַֽטָּה
אָֽנוּ מַתִּירִין לְהִתְפַּלֵּל עִם הָעֲבַרְיָנִים.
With the knowledge of God and of the congregation,
In the heavenly abode and in the earthly realm,
We grant and receive special permission
To pray with those who sinned.
Among us, and within us, are so many broken souls. And we hold on to one another for support as we welcome and are welcomed, one and all. There needs to be somewhere in the world where everyone can come. And that somewhere is our Jewish community, symbolized and celebrated by the upcoming festival of Sukkot.
Sukkot is one of the best gifts our tradition has to offer us, both in terms of pure joy as well as a reminder of our social responsibility. There’s a lot to accomplish – so we’re lucky the holiday lasts an entire week! The ultimate goal of the festival can be summarized in the words we sang a few minutes ago, from the Hashkiveinu prayer: וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶךָ, “Spread over us the sukkah of your peace.”
This Sukkot, let us work to expand what we mean by “us.” Let us resolve to identify new guests in the coming year and to invite them to our table. And let us commit ourselves to the health and wellbeing of כָּל-קְהַל יִשְׂרָאֵל, the entire congregation of Israel, by opening our hearts to all who surround us and welcoming them into our own sukkah of peace.
 See Karel van der Toorn’s “Rosh Hashanah with the Early Israelites” (https://www.thetorah.com/article/rosh-hashanah-with-the-early-israelites).
 Tehillim Rabbah 110:1: וכיצד עשה אברהם עשה לו פונדק ופתח לו פתחים לכל רוח והיה מקבל העוברים והשבים, “And how did Abraham behave? He made his tent and opened it to all the winds [directions] and would receive those who went and those who came back.” See also Bereshit Rabbah 48:9: אָמַר רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ אֹהֶל פְּלָן שֶׁל אָבִינוּ אַבְרָהָם מְפֻלָּשׁ הָיָה, “The tent of the Patriarch Abraham opened at both sides.”
 See Zohar Emor 103b-104a:
Observe that when a man sits in this abode of the shadow of faith [the sukkah], the Shekinah spreads her wings over him from above and Abraham and five other righteous ones make their abode with him. R. Abba said: Abraham and five righteous ones and David with them. Hence it is written, In booths ye shall dwell seven days, as much as to say, Ye seven days shall dwell in booths, and a man should rejoice each day of the festival with these guests who abide with him. R. Abba further pointed out that first it says ye shall dwell and then they shall dwell. The first refers to the guests, and therefore Rab Hamnuna the Elder, when he entered the booth, used to stand at the door inside and say, Let us invite the guests and prepare a table, and he used to stand up and greet them, saying, In booths ye shall dwell, O seven days. Sit, most exalted guests, sit; sit, guests of faith, sit. He would then raise his hands in joy and say, Happy is our portion, happy is the portion of Israel, as it is written, For the portion of the Lord is his people, and then he took his seat. The second dwell refers to human beings; for he
Soncino Zohar, Vayikra, Section 3, Page I04a
who has a portion in the holy land and people sits in the shadow of faith to receive the guests so as to rejoice in this world and the next. He must also gladden the poor, because the portion of those guests whom he invites must go to the poor. And if a man sits in the shadow of faith and invites these guests and does not give them their portion, they all hold aloof from him, saying Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye (Prov. XXIII, 6). That table which he prepares is his own and not God's. Alas for him when those guests leave his table. R. Abba further said: Abraham always used to stand at the cross roads to invite guests to his table. [Tr. note: v. T.B. Sotah, 10b.] Now when a man invites him and all the righteous and King David and does not give them their portion, Abraham rises from the table and exclaims, Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men (Num. XVI, 26), and all rise and follow him. Isaac says, The belly of the wicked shall want (Prov. Xlll, 26). Jacob says, The morsel thou hast eaten thou shalt vomit up (Ibid. XXIII, 8). The other righteous ones say,For all tables are full of vomit and uncleanness (Isa. XXVIII, 8). David says.... [Tr. note: There is here a lacuna in the text.] In those ten days during which David judges the world, that man is judged who has treated him more ungratefully than Nabal. R. Eleazar said: The Torah does not demand of a man more than he can perform, as it says, Each one man shall give as he is able, (Deut. XVI, 7). A man should not say, I will first satisfy myself with food and drink, and what is left I shall give to the poor, but the first of everything must be for the guests. And if he gladdens ihe guests and satisfies them, God rejoices with him and Abraham proclaims over him, Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord, etc. (Isa. LVIII, 14). Isaac proclaims, No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper (Ibid. LIV. 17). R. Simeon said: This verse is said by King David, because all royal weapons of war have been handed to David. What Isaac says is, His seed shall be mighty on the earth (Ps. CXII, 2). Jacob proclaims, Then shall thy light break forth as the morning (Isa. LVIII, 8). The other righteous say, The Lord shall guide thee continually and satisfy thy soul in dry places (Ibid. 11). Happy the lot of the man who attains to all this!
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