By Miriam Brosseau
There’s nothing like a sukkah to bring and hold people together. As my excessively punny friend would say, a sukkah wraps itself around us and gives us a *hug* sameach! For that reason it’s always been one of my favorite holidays; Sukkot the embodiment of Jewish community at its best. So why does it work so well?
Beyond the brilliant halakhic prescriptions that dictate the sukkah’s bizarrely inviting design, the invitation of guests both legendary and contemporary, and the rituals that insist we literally engage with nature, there is another aspect to Sukkot that is instructive in building Jewish community.
The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, at their essence, about being vulnerable with one another. We share our hopes for a sweet new year. We admit our failures and fears. Perhaps most unsettling of all, we rehearse the day of our death.
In my ELI talk (delivered last year in partnership with The iCenter), I posited that ahavat yisrael – a phrase and a concept with which I have always been uncomfortable, but have learned to see as indispensable – can be defined as vulnerability on the scale of an entire people. We give (the root of the word ahavah) our struggles (yisrael). On the High Holidays we share the deepest struggles we encounter as individuals and as a community alike: struggles with mistakes and regret, with time and responsibility and hope, with life and death themselves. The liturgy and ritual invite us to open up and encounter those struggles in the company of others facing the same dilemmas.
And then the gates slam shut and, hooray!, the rugelach comes out. We breathe a sigh of relief and accomplishment. And it seems it’s no time at all until we find ourselves sitting in the not-a-house that is our sukkah.
That sukkah is a vision of Jewish communal life at its best. Yes, it is open, inviting, and joyful. But it is also built on the rawness left by the High Holidays. We have spent the past weeks being more exposed, more vulnerable with one another, than ever before. And it is precisely this which builds the connection among us. Our individual brokenness becomes the foundation of our collective joy.
This, I believe, is what ahavat yisrael is, what it was meant to be, and why it must be the foundation of Jewish community. And it’s why it feels so good when our sukkahs give us that *hug.*
I hope we continue to find moments to be raw, real, and vulnerable with one another, to share our fears and doubts throughout the year. I hope that we listen to one another, and remember that each of us matters. And I hope we can bring the feeling of Sukkot – that open, connected, joyful, who-cares-if-there’s-rain-in-my-kugel attitude – into the rest of the year by using those moments to build a stronger community.
Miriam Brosseau is Program Director of ELI Talks and Director of Engagement at See3 Communications.