Sukkot: A Season of Empathy

For Jews, our communal memory of the challenges experienced by our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents fuels a passion for social justice, a sense of responsibility to have empathy for those whose lives are similarly at risk today.

These ideals are particularly relevant in light of the current administration’s policies relating to immigrants and refugees. Last week, the Trump administration announced that it was slashing the cap on refugees admitted to the United States to a record low of 30,000. This marks a decline from last year’s cap of 45,000 refugees, and continues a sharp decline from the cap of 110,000 in the last year of the Obama administration. Over the weekend, the administration announced a new ‘public charge’ rule that would punish immigrants who use public programs like SNAP (food assistance) Medicaid to help them and their families make ends meet.

As we celebrate the eight days of Sukkot, we recall the temporary, flimsy huts (sukkot) that our ancestors lived in while wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Sukkot reminds us not just about our communal history, but also offering empathy and support to those who are most at risk,  those whose shelter is most precarious. The Torah specifically instructs that Sukkot should be celebrated with “the stranger, the fatherless, and the widows in your community,” (Deuteronomy 16:14) reminding us of our responsibility to care for the voiceless and vulnerable among us. These new policy announcements by the Trump administration, just like its practice of ripping families apart at the border and its Muslim ban, are diametrically opposed to these values.

In an ideal world, our shared experiences would spur us to reach out to others in need even when instinct might convince us that it’s time to close ranks. Recalling our collective history could lead us to fear and mistrust those who are not us, deepening divisions and pushing us to close ourselves off. There’s a sense that perhaps after what we have suffered, we cannot trust others. It can become all too easy to ignore an injustice that doesn’t personally affect us. The choice is ours – does our history compel us to open our arms, or to close ourselves off?

It is this latter path that the current administration has chosen. The “America First” ideology that informs its policies is fundamentally zero-sum and transactional; in order for Americans to win, someone else must lose, in order for Americans not to suffer, others must instead. The “other” varies: immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, African Americans, women, but the philosophy always requires the same fearful, narrowminded approach.

Judaism has a different vision. Rather than act out of fear, our tradition urges us to choose love, and to love the stranger. It is the most repeated mitzvah in the Torah, this call to be empathetic, to love and care and protect those are who are not us, those who are different, those who are vulnerable. This mitzvah of loving the stranger is repeated 36 times – more times than any other commandment, including the commandment to love God.

Loving the stranger means to love the other – the one who is not like you, the one who is not familiar to you, the one who doesn’t need to matter to you at all because their fate is not bound up with yours. That is the challenge of empathy: to care when you don’t have to. We are called to protect the vulnerable among us – not because we like them, not because we think they deserve it, but simply because they need our help and protection.

Despite the challenge it poses and the effort it requires, for the Jewish community, empathy is not a weakness; it is our most fundamental strength. We grow closer as a people and with God by banding together as one people to support those who need our protection. In this moment, that means welcoming those seeking refuge within our borders, demanding lawful and dignified treatment of immigrants, and rejecting all forms of discrimination and hatred against Muslims, people of color or other marginalized communities. As we prepare to leave the temporary shelter of our sukkot, ready to face the challenges of 5779, let us lead the way into the new year with empathy and love.




About the Author
Rabbi Hara Person is the chief strategy officer for the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the publisher of CCAR Press.
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