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The Sukkah is the Fall Bitter Herbs

by Rabbi Evan Schultz, October 2017/Tishrei-Cheshvan 5778            

Every year when I turn to build our family sukkah, I try think about our ancestors who wandered in the desert and lived in these very booths.  Our ancestors, who, without the aid of modern day tools, were sometimes required to set up and take down their sukkot regularly as they wandered through the desert.

Sukkot, like the festival of Passover, is designed to have us not only learn about the narrative of our ancestors, but experience it as well.  Thus, when I take out the frame of the sukkah and the lattice roof, the lights and the table that we gather around for our meals, I want to experience just a little bit of what our ancestors experienced when they set up their sukkot in the desert.  As I attach the bolts that connect the walls, I too am pushed to think about the moral imperatives associated with the building of the sukkah:  that all do not live in the comfort of a permanent home, that there are those around the world forced to move from place to place for safety, in hopes of finding their modern day Promised Land, that each of us with our hands has the ability to build and create anew for the most vulnerable.

The reason for building and dwelling in booths is similar to the reason we eat bitter herbs, matzah, and salt water during the festival of Passover.  The 12th century scholar Maimonides writes in his “Guide for the Perplexed” that “the two festivals, Passover ant the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), imply also the teaching of certain truths and moral lessons.  Passover teaches us to remember the miracles which God wrought in Egypt, and to perpetuate their memory; the Feast of Tabernacles reminds us of the miracles wrought in the wilderness…We eat, therefore, unleavened bread and bitters herbs on Passover in memory of what has happened to us, and leave [on Sukkot] our houses in order to dwell in tabernacles, as inhabitants of deserts do that are in want of comfort.  We shall thereby remember that this has been our condition…”

Just as we eat the bitter herbs and matzah, Sukkot is our means of experiencing the lives of our ancestors and gleaning from that our moral obligation to act in the world.  If the bitter herbs and matzah prompt us to work to free those who are still enslaved, the building and dwelling in our sukkot prompts us to welcome in those who wander, those who seek shelter, and those who seek refuge.  I hope you’ll join us at the synagogue or build a sukkah in your yard to engage in this powerful mitzvah.