Sukkot and Housing Insecurity: Texts and Art

(א) סֻכָּה שֶׁהִיא גְבוֹהָה לְמַעְלָה מֵעֶשְׂרִים אַמָּה, פְּסוּלָה. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה מַכְשִׁיר. וְשֶׁאֵינָהּ גְּבוֹהָה עֲשָׂרָה טְפָחִים, וְשֶׁאֵין לָהּ שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּפָנוֹת, וְשֶׁחַמָּתָהּ מְרֻבָּה מִצִּלָּתָהּ, פְּסוּלָה...

(1) A sukkah which is more than twenty cubits high is not valid. Rabbi Judah validates it. One which is not ten handbreadths high, or which does not have three walls, or which has more sun than shade, is not valid....

Matthew McDermott, Sukkah of the Signs, CC BY 2.0

The Sukkah of the Signs, also known as The Homeless House project, was constructed in New York City’s Union Square, as part of Sukkah City. For two days the structure, made of nearly 300 signs collected from indigent across the U.S., was visited by over 150,000 people.

Like traditional sukkahs, which recall the 40 years of wandering after exodus in the biblical story, The Sukkah of the Signs calls attention to the contemporary state of homelessness. By purchasing homeless signs from the individuals who made them, we also contributed to the short term needs of people living on the street and a meal for someone who might not otherwise be able to eat today in honor of the primary and traditional role of sukkah, which is a feast of bounty, of hospitality, and of welcoming strangers.

The frame of our sukkah tapers as it moves up toward the sky to draw the eye up and also to provide a smaller framework for the shingles that are less than 4 handbreadths—relating directly to the presence and scale of the hand in each of the handmade signs.

Like the signs, the schach used to cover the roof was also collected from the street. Clippings from plants in Union Square Park and from the studio where the sukkah was constructed in Brooklyn create a dappling of light on the interior of the sukkah.

The Ushpizin are the Homeless

MyJewishLearning

In addition to serving as a reminder of our duty to the poor (it is said that the ushpizin would refuse to enter a sukkah where the poor are not welcome), each of these exalted personages represents uprootedness. (Abraham left his father’s home for the land God promised to show him [Genesis 12:1], Isaac went to Gerar during a famine [Genesis 26:1], Jacob fled from his brother Esau to the habitat of Laban [Genesis 28:2], Joseph was sold to merchants and taken to Egypt [Genesis 37:23-36], Moses fled to Midian after inadvertently killing an Egyptian [Exodus 2:11-15] and he and Aaron wandered the Sinai for forty years [beginning with Exodus 13], and David hid from Saul in the wilderness [I Samuel 20, 21].)

Eliyahu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage

All year, the poor person sees others working in their fields and deriving blessing from their activities, while the poor have nothing., and are dependent completely on the gifts and leftovers of the rich. The joyous season for gathering in the harvest has now home; all bring their blessings home, while the poor has nothing to bring to his desolate home. With what shall he rejoice? God said therefore: In Sukkot you shall dwell seven days; when you gather in the produce of the earth, let all of you leave your homes and let all of you become guests in My sukkah, and the wealthy not be recognized before the poor. Three walls and above them schach of straw and twigs - that is the Sukkah of every Jew, whether poor or rich...When the Sephardim provide a poor person with the needs for festival, it is their custom to say: This is the portion of the exalted guests.

Housing Insecurity "is not in the heavens nor or beyond the sea or beyond your reach"

הניחא למאן דאמר ענני כבוד היו אלא למאן דאמר סוכות ממש עשו להם מאי איכא למימר דתניא כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל ענני כבוד היו דברי רבי אליעזר רבי עקיבא אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם הניחא לרבי אליעזר אלא לרבי עקיבא מאי איכא למימר
The Gemara asks: This works out well according to the one who said that the sukkot mentioned in the verse: “I made the children of Israel to reside in sukkot” (Leviticus 23:43), were clouds of glory, as it is reasonable that the roofing of the sukka is modeled after clouds. However, according to the one who said that the children of Israel established for themselves actual sukkot in the desert, and the sukkot of today commemorate those, what can be said? According to that opinion, there is no connection between a sukka and a cloud. As it is taught in a baraita that the verse states: “I made the children of Israel to reside in sukkot”; these booths were clouds of glory, this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They established for themselves actual sukkot. This works out well according to Rabbi Eliezer; however, according to Rabbi Akiva what can be said?

Rabbi Aaron Potek

Sukkot is a holiday known as a zman simchateinu, the time of our joy. Something that brings me immense joy on an almost weekly basis is learning with my soul chavrutah, Rabbi Avram ("almost weekly" because my soul chavrutah hasn't yet mastered the art of using a calendar). During our learning today, I realized that Sukkot without a sukkah is sort of like Valentine's Day without a partner...But then Avram reminded me of our conversation last week about the classic Talmudic machloket between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer: were the original sukkot human-made huts or God-made clouds of glory? On the surface, this seems like a pointless debate. I wonder if Rabbi Eliezer, by claiming the sukkot were not physical but "spiritual," was comforting those who, for a variety of reasons, aren't able to build a sukkah. It's as if Rabbi Eliezer is saying: you may not have the physical thing, but you can still tap into the spirit of the holiday, the feelings that a sukkah is meant to evoke. Maybe Rabbi Eliezer is teaching us a broader lesson, too. Even when you don't have exactly what you want, when life hasn't turned out exactly the way you had hoped or planned, there are still ways to access those same desired feelings. And a soul chavrutah can certainly help get you there.

Rav Kook, Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah p. 97)

The Sabbath evening prayers use a peculiar metaphor for peace:

“May You spread over us a sukkah of Your peace.”

Why pray for a sukkah, a makeshift booth, of peace? Would it not be better to have a “fortress of peace” — strong, secure, and lasting?

Jewish law validates a sukkah even when it has gaping holes, when it is built from little more than two walls, or has large spaces between the walls and the roof. Even such a fragile structure still qualifies as a kosher sukkah. The same is true regarding peace. Peace is so precious, so vital, that even if we are unable to attain complete peace, we should still pursue a partial measure of peace. Even an imperfect peace between neighbors, or between an individual and the community, is worthwhile.

How great is peace!” proclaimed the Sages (VaYikra Rabbah 9:9). The value of peace is so great that we pray for it even if it will be like a sukkah— flimsy and temporary, rendered fit only by special laws.

Sukkot are oftentimes, either by chance or definition, incomplete and imperfect. We’re always lacking something or someone in our lives, and that’s okay (it’s human). Despite, or because of those, we can still find shalom

There is no Simcha while people are homeless and hungry

וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֖ בְּחַגֶּ֑ךָ אַתָּ֨ה וּבִנְךָ֤ וּבִתֶּ֙ךָ֙ וְעַבְדְּךָ֣ וַאֲמָתֶ֔ךָ וְהַלֵּוִ֗י וְהַגֵּ֛ר וְהַיָּת֥וֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר בִּשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֗ים תָּחֹג֙ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בַּמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֣ר יְהוָ֑ה כִּ֣י יְבָרֶכְךָ֞ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בְּכֹ֤ל תְּבוּאָֽתְךָ֙ וּבְכֹל֙ מַעֲשֵׂ֣ה יָדֶ֔יךָ וְהָיִ֖יתָ אַ֥ךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ׃

You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the LORD your God seven days, in the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.

השיר "ושמחת בחגך והיית אך שמח" על שלל ניגוניו הוא אחת התופעות המוזרות ביותר בפולקלור היהודי לדורותיו. לא זו בלבד שאין ביטוי כזה בתורה, אלא שכל משמעותו של השיר סותרת חזיתית את מה שביקשה התורה לומר. השיר לוקח את ההתחלה ואת הסוף של שני פסוקים, שהעיקר בהם הוא דווקא מה שהשיר מדלג: "וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ אַתָּה וּבִנְךָ וּבִתֶּךָ וְעַבְדְּךָ וַאֲמָתֶךָ וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ... כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכֹל תְּבוּאָתְךָ וּבְכֹל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדֶיךָ וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵחַ". לאורך כל נאום המצוות בספר דברים משה מדגיש את הצורך לדאוג לשכבות החלשות, ולכך יש חשיבות מיוחדת בתקופת האסיף, שהאדם לא יתרכז בשמחתו הפרטית על היבול שאסף, אלא ישתף בשמחתו את מי שלא זכה לשמוח בעצמו בעת הזאת, וכדברי הרמב"ם: "וכשהוא אוכל ושותה חייב להאכיל לגר ליתום ולאלמנה עם שאר העניים האומללים, אבל מי שנועל דלתות חצרו ואוכל ושותה הוא ובניו ואשתו ואינו מאכיל ומשקה לעניים ולמרי נפש – אין זו שמחת מצוה אלא שמחת כריסו... ושמחה כזו קלון היא להם".

על כן, יותר מבכל מועד אחר, יש מקום להדגיש לקראת סוכות את חובת הרגישות לחלשים בחברה - אם על ידי נתינת צדקה, אם על ידי הזמנה לסעודות החג, אם בדרכים נוספות, כדי שהשמחה הפרטית תשתלב עם השמחה שבנתינה.

ואגב כך, זה המקום לעודד יוצרים לחבר ניגון חדש, שישלב בתוכו את מילות הפסוק המלאות, וממילא יחזיר את הרעיון בפסוק למקורו.

Rabbi Amnon Bazak

This song "ve-samachta be-chagecha ve-hayita ach sameach" (you shall rejoice in your festival...and you shall have nothing by joy) with its catchy jingles is one of the weirder phenomena in Jewish folklore. Not only because there is no expression like this in the Torah, but rather because the whole meaning of the song hides what the Torah is trying to say.

The song takes the beginning of one verse and the end of the next, and the the verses essence is precisely what the song skips over: "You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for the LORD your God seven days, in the place that the LORD will choose; for the LORD your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy."

Throughout the whole address of the mitzvot in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses emphasizes the need to worry about the weaker classes, and therefore, there is a unique significance during the period of gathering (asif), where one does not focus on their private joy on the abundance of their yield, but rather shares that joy with those who were not able to merit such joy on their own during this time.

And as Maimonides wrote: "And when one eats and drinks, one must feed the stranger, orphan, and widow along with the rest of the poor, but one who locks their doors and eats and drinks with their children and partner and does not feed or give drink to the poor and downtrodden, this is not the joy of fulfilling of mitzvah, but rather the joy of one's stomach...and this type of joy is disgraceful.

Therefore, more than any other festival, on Sukkot we should emphasize to recall our obligations to be sensitive towards the weak in the community - whether through tzedakah, or inviting them to a holiday meal, or in other ways - in order that the privately celebrated joy become integrated with the joy of giving.

And related to this, there's room to encourage creating a new melody for this song, that will include all the words of the verses in their entirety, and this will thereby bring back the original message of verse.