Journey through Jerusalem these days and you will find a changed landscape. Residents have enclosed virtually every balcony, courtyard or free space with walls of wood, fabric, and all sorts of creative alternatives. They’re not gearing up for civil unrest or war, but rather a festival. The festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) is upon us and these enclosures will be the focal point of the holiday. And what takes place on the other side of these walls will likely define our future.
Our people today are threatened by two opposing trends: an insular intensity of many who choose a religious lifestyle on the one hand, and a mass distancing from Jewish living on the other. These two trends pull at the fabric and future of the Jewish world and the enclosures springing up across Jerusalem, Israel and the entire globe represent exactly this challenge, but also provide a paradigm for navigating it.
Sukkahs shape us in ways that are profound. Not only with their aesthetic, but, more importantly, how we use them. While a trained eye will discern which sukkah demarcates a Chassidic community and which the home of a cultural Jew, which an artist’s colony or ramshackle shed, one only knows what’s taking place on the inside by paying a visit, and here are two sukkahs, or more accurately two types of sukkahs, worth visiting.
Thousands of miles from Jerusalem, at a young age, I was taught about the first sukkah. Taught of the sukkah that is open. Each year, the festival served as an opportunity to host guests who didn’t frequent us inside the home. From Russian immigrants to elderly Holocaust survivors. Friends, family, and even strangers who turned up to synagogue would receive the welcome invitation to join us in the sukkah for a warm meal in the frigid fall of Detroit. The lesson was profound: opening the sukkah opens the enclosures of our heart. And several years later I re-encountered it in Jerusalem.
Winding our way through the crowded roads of Mea Shearim a few years ago, we stood out like a sore thumb in this tight-knit ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. But, once arriving at our relative’s sukkah there, it felt different. Simply at home and at one. Not only because the house had literally moved out into the sukkah for the week but also because of the warm hospitality. This was a sukkah of love, bringing to life the words from Friday night prayers: “And spread upon us Your sukkah of peace.”
But in order to have that rich diversity in the sukkah, you also need to know a different type of sukkah. A closed one. A sukkah that allows us to be alone and invest in strengthening ourselves and our unique communities. This is not a contradiction to diversity or openness, but rather a precondition. One person’s style, approach and strengths will always be different from another’s. And diversity in richness is always better than many shallow shades of a same color. This is the second type of sukkah. Enclosures that are focused inwards. Spaces for deep personal meditation and spiritual solitude. As Rabbi Akiva envisioned the sukkah as a symbol for the Cloud of Glory (Talmud Sukkah 11b), it is a space for connecting in nature with our inner calling and making personal spiritual advances.
However, if this insularity is taken too far, its inward-looking, introspective stance can also be distancing. We must be careful not to build sukkot of fear or spite. This is a misconstrued approach to the sort of insularity that is often required to make spiritual advances. It can poison our souls, spoil the symbolism for others and harden our hearts in the warmth of what should be our most joyous festival of the year. And this is the challenge we face today.
The two sukkahs, one of open doors to diversity and the other to insular personal development, represent exactly this tension we face today. Will we open our hearts to others who are different and build a shared future? And will we also carve out time and space to strengthen our search for meaning and Jewish living? Can we strike that balance of spiritual solitude without growing in spite of others? Each of us faces this challenge and it will shape the future of Israel, the Jewish People, and Jerusalem as our capital.
This week I have also built my sukkah. It is an enclosure that occupies virtually all of our free outdoor space. But as my family prepares to celebrate in it, I am reminded to open our doors to those who are different. Those who don’t normally sit around the table with us. To plan a holiday shared with guests who will challenge us to open our hearts and broaden our minds. And also to set aside times during which our sukkah will be a meditative space to build on the growth we achieved this Yom Kippur. By fusing the two, we can continue creating a future in this precious homeland that our ancestors only dreamed of. And if we fail, we will bring the dark days of divisiveness that brought their suffering in exile for so many generations.
Now is the time to decide what to do with your sukkah.