Perspectives: The succa as a big tent

The succa is also not a tent, yet the meaning, I think, ideally embodies the spirit of that to which American politicians refer as a “big tent.”

October 12, 2014 22:38
3 minute read.
sukkat british

Ambassador Matthew Gould, his wife Celia and their daughters, with young people from AKIM Givatayim who came to help decorate their succa.. (photo credit: COURTESY BRITISH EMBASSY)

I’ve just finished reading Edward Abbey’s homage to the American West, Desert Solitaire. Exploring Utah’s wilderness in the 1960s, Abbey spent much of his time in his “ramada,” which he characterized as a makeshift structure with a branched roof. To me, that description sounds like a working definition of a succa, that temporary dwelling at the center of Succot.

The term “succa” always seems to me to defy translation.

The structure to which the word refers is by no means a hut or booth. The succa is also not a tent, yet the meaning, I think, ideally embodies the spirit of that to which American politicians refer as a “big tent.”

The most commonly cited examples of the big tent in politics include the post-Lincoln Republican Party as well as FDR’s Democratic Party. The post-Lincoln Republican Party attracted members of “big business” as well as, following the abolition of slavery, African Americans. FDR’s Democratic Party stood as a New Deal coalition comprised of not only labor unionists but also progressives. Neither of these groupings were intuitive constructs.

I like the big tent concept because it connotes inclusiveness.

In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Succa, 27b), the Sages advise us that, to fulfill the obligation of sitting in the succa, rather than a model of individual ownership we might do better to erect one large, communal structure to include all Jews. While the logistics of this may be difficult to envision, I find in that advice something appealing.

Who, then, should have access to our communal succa? Our tradition urges us to invite to our succa guests, who are called ushpizin, an Aramaic term derived from the Latin word “hospes,” the root of the words “hospitality” and “hospital.” Indeed, in modern Hebrew, admission to hospital is called ishpuz, and an admitted patient is referred to as one who is me’ushpaz. (Do my colleagues and I act hospitably in the sophisticated medical centers where we work? I wonder sometimes.) Many of us invoke the custom of inviting heroic guests as ushpizin to our succa when we metaphorically host biblical figures Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. I love that ritual because those figures are endowed both with admirable traits that we might emulate and with flaws that keep in mind our frailties and vulnerabilities. I therefore propose that we invite, also, our living sick and our infirm to become guests in our succa.

Scriptural texts document our history of sensitivity to the downtrodden. We can empathize with the stranger for, as the Book of Exodus reminds us, we were strangers in the land of Egypt. On Passover, we beckon to the hungry so that they might join us at our Seder table, although I confess to feeling somewhat disingenuous in extending that particular invitation since it seems unlikely that my chanted “Ha Lachma Anya” prayer will be audible to those who haven’t eaten.

Almost everyone, however, has a friend or a family member who has fallen ill. And not surprisingly, we often lose touch with our ill friends and relatives. It can be off-putting to deal with illness. Many of us recoil at the idea of spending time with someone who is not well. Will we be asked to propose a remedy? Might we say the wrong thing despite our best intentions? Could we become infected? Does the sick person want to be singled out? Above all, might we be compelled, against our will, to contemplate ourselves in the sick person’s role? Admittedly, it’s not always easy to be in the presence of an ill person, but ironically, encounters with illness can offer opportunities to bond and to renew closeness. By definition, when we depart our homes and enter the succa, we are announcing a willingness to leave our comfort zone. Suddenly, opportunity exists for us to express compassion and allay the fears of others.

At times, I find allure in the quiet simplicity described by Abbey in Desert Solitaire or in Henry David Thoreau’s experience near Walden Pond. But rather than leading us to experience solitude, Succot offers an opportunity for us to make use of a natural backdrop as we extend ourselves to others – to the hypothetical ushpizin who occupy our collective memory as well as to those who have been or soon will be me’ushpazim. I suggest that we make all of those special guests welcome in our communal or, perhaps, our solitary succa.

The author is a professor and chairman of the Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center, and the co-founder of the NGO Life’s Door.

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