There was a creak and a shutter — what walls there were leaned and flapped. My son cried out in his sleep next to me and I pulled him closer against the cold. Somewhere in the distance people were shouting and laughing. A car sped by. And then sirens. Later there was just a huge silence. No wind. Only occasional noises in the street. Stars shone clearly through the branches overhead and I realized I had never heard the city settle into silence. On this night it was beautiful. It was temporary. We could always go in the house.
On Sukkot we are told to leave the comfort of our sturdy homes with their strong walls, insulated windows and security systems and we are directed to live in an impermanent shelter – where the walls may shake in the slightest breeze and roof is made of leaves and twigs and not shingles and tar paper. Where sleeping in the sukkah we can hear the voices or silences on the street late at night. Where we invite friends, strangers and even our ancient ancestors to share a meal at our table in this unstable, ephemeral dwelling place. What Yom Kippur is to our spiritual lives, Sukkot is to our physical being. We are made to feel the fragility of being human — the chill, the warmth, the exposure. And to celebrate it. If we are fortunate it is only temporary.
We are invited to remember once we were homeless refugees. For some that may feel like thousands of years ago, for others we may remember the story of our own family or our own struggles. But once a year as Jews we are asked to remember the immense vulnerability that is still felt by so many in this world and in our own communities. And we are asked to hear the voices and the silences that surround us. And we are asked to do something about it.
Sukkot is also called chag ha’asif — the festival of ingathering — and zman simchatenu — the time of our joy. According to the mystical tradition, when we dwell in the sukkah, the poor are not distinguished from the rich and we are to invite all guests into our temporary homes. We are asked to seek out organizations that support the needy to insure that no matter where they are that they too can celebrate and feel the joy of Sukkot at their own tables and in this way they are like guests in our sukkah.
God willing, one day soon there will be a shelter of peace spread over all of us — there will be an end to homelessness, poverty and exile. But until that day let us hear the voices and the silences of those in need and do something about it. And always, always remember once we too were strangers, widows and orphans. Once we too needed someone to support us. Maybe we still do.