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Rabbi Aaron Alexander

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Huts of Joy, Homes of Shelter

Posted: 10/12/11 01:23 PM ET

Editor's note: This post was co-authored by Rabbi Penina Podwol Alexander.

There is a palpable tension we are feeling as the holiday of Sukkot quickly approaches. For eight days Jews are enjoined to build transient huts, a sukkah ("sukkot" is the plural), and live in them as we do our homes. A sukkah is a solid but temporary walled and naturally roofed structure that provides us with shade. It is open to the elements yet fully emanates God's protection, precarious as it may feel. But it is temporary, exposed and fleeting. And herein lies the tension.

One can hardly enter a sukkah without experiencing pangs of sadness for the state of the developed and undeveloped world. The past few years have brought unprecedented devastation to millions of people's shelter. Natural disasters have destroyed homes, tens of thousands have been foreclosed upon, and our society is is as close as it has ever been to fully treating people like nothing more consumers and commodities. If anything, a sukkah should serve as a sobering reminder of how lucky the gift of a permanent shelter is.

On the other hand, the Jewish legal tradition has a very specific purpose for our dwelling in a sukkah for eight days (or seven if you are in Israel). The Torah instructs us concerning the holiday of Sukkot: "You must rejoice in your holiday, together with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, and also the Levite, the alien, the orphan and the widow who belong to your community" (Deuteronomy. 16:13-14).

Legislating emotions is difficult, so Jewish Law provides us with a tangible application: Build and live in a sukkah! Its intention is to be a well-deserved joyous space, a beautifully decorated and furnished respite from the grueling day-to-day life we lead.

In fact, the sukkah becomes, so to speak, a little Jewish Disneyland. No unhappiness permitted.

The rabbis codified this misery-free zone called the sukkah using a specific category of person, the mitzta'er, or, someone who is suffering some unease or discomfort. As the medieval luminary Rabbi Moses Maimonides taught: "Someone who might suffer is exempt from [dwelling in the] sukkah. ... And what is considered suffering? One who can't sleep in the sukkah because of the wind, or flies, or fleas, or [a bad] smell" (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Sukkah, 6:2). "Exempt" meaning: feel free to not sleep in your sukkah (otherwise, commanded) if you are a little uncomfortable.

The 16th century Ashkenazic authority Rabbi Moses Isserles takes this concept one step further: "Anyone who is exempt from the sukkah and doesn't leave it will not receive a reward [for staying in it], and is considered quite average" (Shulhan Arukh, Orach Hayyim, 639:7).

This is a remarkable legal statement. Often Jewish tradition is perceived to reward those who choose to be extra scrupulous in fulfilling their obligations. Not so for the Sukkah, claims Rabbi Isserles. While many practices welcome going beyond the letter of the law, the holy space of the sukkah must remain void of unease, discontent and possible pain. Pain, no gain.

Two seemingly opposing emotions. Sadness for those who are destitute and deserve more; happiness for life, freedom and God's eternal shelter. How should we navigate this tension? How do we incorporate it into our religious lives?

Recently, we have witnessed a powerful custom to adorn one's sukkah with images of tragic dwelling places throughout our country and in the developing world: FEMA trailers, African huts of wood and thatching, flimsy tents, dilapidated shacks and even small cars that have become makeshift homes.

However, as praiseworthy as this practice seems to be, we think it ever-so-slightly misses the mark. Our sukkah is meant to be our religious happy place. And we need this space once in a while. To laugh, dream and imagine the world as it could be. To unapologetically experience community, family, friends, great food and nature.

But these pictures do belong close by. Very close by.

When the rain falls or bugs swarm or, as can happen in L.A., the Santa Ana winds blow, we may choose to leave our sukkah and head back indoors to escape such discomfort. Suddenly, our sukkah is no longer secure and cheery, and we are able to abandon it for the refuge of our permanent homes. This is an option, a gift, that the residents of the more precarious dwelling places simply do not have. They do not have the luxury of picking up their dinner dishes and making their way into drier, nicer or insect-free housing. They can't just walk upstairs and sleep in their warm, safe bedrooms.

It is precisely when we are able to choose to leave the sukkah and enter the safety of our homes that we ought to be reminded how lucky we are and how many aren't so fortunate. This year, each of us might want to spend time on the Internet gathering pictures, stories and testimonies of those who have lost more than we can imagine. And the place for these pictures and stories is not inside of our sukkot, but just outside of our permanent homes.

The sukkah should remind us how blessed we are with God's sheltering presence in our lives. Our sturdy homes should remind us of how many others are in need of such blessings. And both should compel us to make sure those who don't have, could have, in the year to come.