Be Freilach; It’s Sukkot! – 20 September 2013 – Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot. This evening we began our services with a topical ditty called “Be Happy! It’s Sukkot! “—-in Yiddish, we’d say zei Freilich, est Sukkos; and in Hebrew we’d say “Tis’mach b’Sukkot”. Any way you say it, it is totally appropriate, because Sukkot is also known as “Z’man Simchateinu”, the season of our joy! After all, no sooner do we wipe the slate clean for the new year with Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, and we’re totally depleted, we immediately set about building a Sukkah….physically and spiritually we build and decorate, participating in the mitzvah, embellishing the mitzvah…and then we realize that the first mark on the bare tablet of the new year is an artistic/architectural etching of great joy!
The great 16th century Kabbalist, the Ari, Isaac Luria, taught that one of the prerequisites for reaching mystical illumination is the cultivation of joy. The Chassidic master known as the Baal Shem Tov used to say “One who lives in happiness fulfills the will of G-d.”
Of course, there’s more to Sukkot than the mitzvah of being joyous, but I would venture to say that this is the foundational mitzvah.
One of the mitzvot of Sukkot, Chag HaAssif (the holiday of the ingathering) is to decorate the Sukkah with vegetation and to shake the lulav, constituted by the arba minim, the fours species: a palm branch, two willow branches, three myrtle branches, and the lulav, the fragrant citron. All this is, a nod to our agrarian roots….and an acknowledgment of the first fall harvest. But what fun it is to shake the lulav….Shake it to the east, shake it to the south, shake it to the west, to the north, to the One that you love best….with one last shake to those who have come before us. It’s fun! It’s spiritual! It’s freilich!!
Another mitzvah is leisheiv ba-Sukkah, to “dwell” in the Sukkah. What a kick it is to spend time in the Sukkah, to eat in it, and for many to even sleep in it. We lie down and can see the stars through the cracks in the schach, the roof of leaves, palm fronds, corn stalks, or bamboo mats. Ironic that this is the weekend where the parshah says “proclaim liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10). We know that that classic statement is etched on the Liberty Bell; we also know that the Liberty Bell cracked when it was first delivered to Philadelphia, and, although it was recast several times, it continued to crack each time. It is as if G-d reminds us in the bell and in the Sukkah, that life is not perfect, that we must make room for imperfections, must crack open our hearts, must look to the stars, must allow light into our lives.
Speaking of making room, another mitzvah is that of hospitality. We have the wonderful tradition of inviting Ushpizin (Aramaic for guests), and, while traditionally, that would mean symbolically inviting one of seven classic guests (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David) and more recently adding the matriarchs and other important women of Isarel: Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther….and even heroes of our day from across the interfaith spectrum, the underlying concept is to increase our joy by being hospitable to others. And you never know who might just drop in…for they say Elijah the Prophet, who is supposed to escort the Messiah, comes disguised as just about anyone.
Allow me to share two stories about welcoming the stranger, being hospitable to others:
This happened to my grandfather, Rabbi Israel Porath, z”l, the beloved spiritual leader of the Heights Jewish Center, in Cleveland—an orthodox shul. One Thursday morning in January sometime in the mid-50’s , only eight men had arrived for morning services during a blizzard. The snow was already about a foot deep, and the chill could be felt throughout the shul. Concerned that there might not be the required minyan for that morning, my Zeyde/grandfather suddenly heard the outside door bang shut, so he went to greet the worshipper. The man in the doorway was a stranger, rather short, dark, but impeccably dressed and with an air of quiet confidence…and a man who seemed at once at home in the shul. My grandfather thought to himself that the stranger was probably there to say kaddish for a yahrzeit, and was either new to the neighborhood or a traveler coming through Cleveland. Zayde introduced himself, and, as was the custom in such small Orthodox synagogues, he asked the stranger: “Would you like to conduct services this morning?” Although this was a polite custom, rarely did anyone accept the invitation, but this gentleman responded humbly, “I would be honored.” Well, never before and never since, has the Heights Jewish Center resounded with such beautiful davenning. The entire shul came alive as the stranger’s glorious, powerful voice filled the synagogue. The range of profound feeling expressed through such fervent davvening reverberated through the nearly empty synagogue. It was a Shacharit that would never be forgotten. By the way, it turns out that the stranger who had indeed come to recite yahrzeit kaddish was the renowned Metropolitan Opera tenor, Jan Peerce (z”l).
Another story about welcoming strangers…this one you may be familiar with. Those of us who remember the frightening days immediately post 9/11 may have heard about Delta Flight 15, may also remember how thousands of air travelers were inconvenienced by a total cessation of air flights, sometimes stranding them in places far from home. Delta Flight 15 was one of the 20 airplanes that were grounded in Gander, New Foundland, for nearly three days, spending the first night confined to the plane itself. The next morning, a convoy of school buses pulled up the airplanes, and the nearly 10, 500 tired passengers from all the 20 stranded airplanes deplaned , were processed by the Red Cross, and soon realized what we call hachnassat orchim, welcoming the stranger, really is. The entire town on Gander, New Foundland, and nearby towns, whose total population was more than doubled when the strangers on the planes were forced to land there, had closed all the high schools, meeting halls, lodges and large gathering spaces. They had converted these facilities to mass lodging areas, bringing in mats, cots, sleeping bags, pillows; families were kept intact and taken in by individual townspeople: all the high school students were organized into a volunteer squad to take care of their “guests.” The passengers of Delta Flight 15 were shuttled to the little town of Lewisporte. During the days the strangers were stranded, they were befriended by the townspeople, fed, cared for, even taken on excursions, as everyone tried to come to grips with the situation and news coming out of New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. As the passengers related, every single need of theirs was met.
When they finally reboarded Delta Flight 15, those 218 passengers, reunited like long-lost family who had been on a cruise. Before departing for their long-delayed flight to Altanta, a passenger was given permission to speak on the PA, and he proceeded to remind everyone about what they had just experienced and about the incredible hospitality extended to them, and suggested that they should take up a collection, perhaps to help the high school students of Lewisporte go to college. That day they collected about $14,500, which the gentleman who had spoken on the PA, who turned out to be an MD from Virginia, matched the funds. And, yes, that Gander Flight 15 college scholarship fund was indeed established.
Sukkot is our reminder that welcoming guests into our homes is not just a nice thing to do, it is a mitzvah. Along with the mitzvot of n’tilat lulav, and leishev ba-Sukkah, and building a Sukkah itself, remembering the underlying mega-mitzvah of this special Chag—to be joyous.
One final brief story: Last week, Boulder, Colorado suffered a 1000-year-rainfall bringing about a devastating flood. I have a number of friends, colleagues, and relatives who live in that part of the country, including Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi (Reb Zalman as he is affectionately known to members of the Jewish Renewal movement he started). So, although I knew that he and his wife, Eve Ilsen, had been safe in LA for Yom Kippur, I called him, on his return to Boulder, to find out how he was doing. “Reb Yocheved, leben,” he calls me…I always melt when he addresses me with that term of endearment….and he started out the conversation with that sweet greeting, but I could hear an urgency in his voice, and kept the call short, as it soon became clear that he needed to put all his efforts into the massive rescue mission going on in his very own house. It turned out that the basement of his home, the “command center” of his work was flooded with almost a foot of water, threatening his computers and books and much of his library and the number of new writings on which this amazing 89-year-old sage of our time is currently working. But with all the challenges facing him, Reb Zalman wanted me to deliver a message to my colleagues and to those I lead….and his message was this. “Most of all,” he said, “tell them to remember to be freilich on Sukkot.” So, my friends, be freilich/be happy, it’s Sukkot.
Moadim l’simcha! Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Yocheved Mintz
Congregation P’nai Tikvah