Wandering 40 years through the hot desert Sinai and up the mountainous regions of the Jordan’s eastern bank must have been harrowing. The thirst. The hot sun. Plagues. War and more. We saw it all. Yet every year we recall the journey positively. Indeed, Sukkot is quite quizzical. We build booths to remind us of our wanderings and are commanded to rejoice in this memory. But what is the essence of this joy that has become so connected to this particular holiday?
Are we simply happy that we survived it and now it is over or is there more?
In typical Torah fashion, history insinuates morality. An endeavor such as sojourning large swathes of empty desert for 40 years is impossible under regular circumstances. Indeed the Torah, time after time, recalls how were it not for one crucial fact we would not have survived the trip: We had help. Our clothes did not fray in the heat. We found water wherever we went. Food came to us from the unlikeliest of places. And a Cloud of Glory guided and protected us. Were it not from outside help our little Sukka booths in the desert would have done little and our nation’s great Exodus would be nothing but another death march.
Precisely this memory is what conjures our national joy. But we require something else to help materialize it. The Torah in many places employs a ‘pay-it-forward’ type of reasoning. It demands a level of empathy based on our personal and national pasts. “And you shall love the sojourner for you were sojourners in the Land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) The same reasoning applies here as well. We received help to survive our trials and so we must provide for those who are in need; especially for those in desperate straits. It is only through helping others that we can attain our own joy in the memory of surviving the desert in our poor Sukkot. “For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers,” Maimonides codified. He then goes on to equate such people with the Divine Presence, certainly hearkening back to our own time of need when we received assistance, “He who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of Whom Scripture says: ‘To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.’ (Maimonides Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Megilla 2:16-17) This is what Jewish Law dictates as the requirement of holiday joy.
Especially during the coronavirus this is true. We respect the Ministry of Health guidelines and do not invite guests to our Sukkot like we would normally do. But we need to find other ways to help one another during this time.
I specifically want to focus on one group who are strangers in our land. They live among us yet are largely marginalized either unintentionally or not by our institutions or by us as individuals. These are the Asylum Seekers from Africa. They have run from persecution and genocide in their home, their families have fallen to ruin, they largely do not speak our languages and they do not have the rights of Israeli citizens. All this coupled with the fact that there is very little the Israeli government does to help these people makes their lives a confusing and frustrating mess. Those unable to rise above it fall.
This makes individual volunteers and NGOs invaluable in addressing this community’s most basic needs. Who can explain healthcare to them in a time when health guidelines constantly shift? Who will help them when Corona devastates all jobs that they hold? Many want to reunite with family in other countries and exit Israel. Who will help them navigate the apathetic bureaucracy we struggle with even as citizens? Some want to integrate but cannot speak either Hebrew or English. Who will teach them? The list goes on.
While living in Jerusalem I began volunteering for a wonderful organization called the Jerusalem African Community Center (JACC). What I learned from this center was eye-opening. Throughout my volunteering there I came into contact with a community in Jerusalem that has become central but not oft engaged with. I have seen the frustration and anger of a man be lifted by a smile and an offer to help with his finances. I have guided young couples to medical appointments for complications in pregnancies knowing that without my help they would not know what to do. And we struggle with the Bituach Leumi for the most basic coverages afforded to every working person.
I had been volunteering with the volunteer group in JACC responsible for medical issues. And I can say confidently that we helped many people. But in the Corona crisis we need more. We cannot forget these people.
If our flimsy Sukkot have taught us anything it’s that we cannot hold ourselves up without help. Do not forget those that have less. Help them. There is no joy more beautiful than that. That is Sukkot joy.