By Michael Lawrence
My son planned to hold me to my word. This year we would build a larger Succah so that we could host more families and friends during those seven days. He had drafted plans, taken measurements and was all set.
This year we will be alone in our Succah, abiding by Israel Ministry of Health guidelines as the country navigates (not always calmly) through its second lockdown.
Like 2020’s Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur before it, the Festival of Succot will be very different this year.
Succah expansion and renovations are on hold.
“The time of our joy” is how this festival is described. Succot but no other holiday described in this way. Happiness because Succot represents the end of various journeys – from Pesach (redemption and rescue), to Shavuot (receiving the Torah and tradition) to Succot when we observe so many mitzvot and celebrate the gathering of the summer’s produce.
More than that, Succot‘s proximity to Yom Kippur is critical. We have just concluded a long period (a total of forty days) of self-evaluation, reflection, taking stock of ourselves, our communities, the way we relate to our families, friends, colleagues. We have taken a good look at our place in the world.
Now, having done the hard work – agriculturally as per the tradition and spiritually through the High Holydays, this is a time to celebrate.
For all of us however, it should also be a moment in time to recall that not everyone has reached the same place during these journeys and the happiness we are commanded to celebrate this Succot should be done so inclusively and generously.
We will read this coming Shabbat, the first day of Succot: “You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period… So that your generations will know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:42)
These are the booths that protected the nation during their forty years in the desert. Some say they represent the Clouds of Glory that also accompanied and protected the people during that long period.
Arrives the moment we have finished that period of Teshuvah (return and repentance) and we are immediately commanded to step out of our lovely homes, out of our comforts and our comfort zone and spend our waking hours and in fact our sleeping hours in a temporary dwelling, screwed, nailed and tied together with regularly rudimentary wooden boards and cloth.
We are being reminded, as we were in the Yom Kippur liturgy, that life is delicate, temporary, “a passing shadow, a passing cloud, a withering grass, a fleeting dream” as per the prayers of the Day of Atonement. Like then in the desert, like now in 2020, we should recognize the delicate nature of our existence, reliant on the mercy of the elements during Succot in our succah, and at the mercy of the Creator year-round.
Those of us who involve ourselves in philanthropy – as givers, funders, partners in good and in change or as agents for the charitable leaders and pioneers in our communities – we know too well that every year, but especially this year, many among us will find this joyous festival quite painful and challenging.
The Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch) sets out that all segments of our daily life should be shifted to the succah for the seven-day period – particularly eating, learning Torah and sleeping.
Friends – this year, like no other, these simple tasks may represent major struggles for families in our communities in Israel, North America and around the world. Families who have had their livelihoods taken away. Living hand to mouth has transitioned drastically into hand to hand – relying on the generous hand of others.
With unemployment skyrocketing in many countries and businesses shuttered, mortgages and rent weighing heavily on the shoulders of many, sleepless nights plague us as thankfulness for the “roof over our heads” is now challenged.
We have shown our hand – nonprofit organizations and people of generous hand, heart and mind have recognized new needs and taken bold steps to ensure the elderly, immigrants, children, the abused, the poverty-stricken and the poor (new poor included) are not left to keep their heads above water alone.
Our move from the warm and air-conditioned comfort of our homes to the relative simplicity of a succah is a message of solidarity with everyone around us and a recognition that we understand too well that our lives are as temporary and fragile as the thin and flimsy walls and roof of the booths in which we are commanded to dwell.
Dwelling in the succah is a mitzvah we do with our whole body – one of the very few! This year let it be a mitzvah we do with the whole community and a whole troubled world in mind.
Michael Lawrence has been Financial Resource Development Unit Head and Chief Development Officer at The Jewish Agency for Israel since 2016. He is a qualified lawyer in Israel and in his native New Zealand and has lived in Israel since 2000.
He is the author of “Nonprofit Parasha” a weekly look at Philanthropy, Leadership and Community in the Torah portion.