My sukka is on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava, where my family spends every Sukkot. It is located along the path that Moses, Miriam, Aaron, Serah Bat Asher, all the Israelites and mixed multitudes, as well, walked on their journey from oppression to redemption.
When my husband, our five children and I lived there, before moving to Jerusalem over a decade ago, our daughter’s Kabbalat Tanach ceremony was at nearby Timna. Watching her receive her Bible on location, so to speak, blew my mind. As a new immigrant to Israel, there were many things I missed about the US, but, wow, there was nothing that could compare to standing on the very ground of our people’s story as my child received the holy text that recounted it.
“Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor... how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2). We followed God, after our oppression in Egypt, in that land, then unsown, now in bloom.
From the Kibbutz Ketura sukka, we look across Route 90, to rows and rows of date palms, and beyond those fields to a 4.9 MW solar field spreading out toward the Jordanian border. In that sukka, taking in the beauty, I feel our ancestors in the breeze that, after a long sweltering summer, breaks the desert heat. It was in that heat that Sarah and Abraham welcomed three strangers – fed these unknown men, washed their feet, gave them desperately needed respite.
A respite, like Kibbutz Ketura. The kibbutz is home to Jewish Israelis from around the world – some native born, some from Latin America, North America, Russia, India.
It is also a temporary home to Jewish and Arab Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians who, along with peers from North America, study at its Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, whose logo states: “Nature Knows No Borders.” It has also welcomed, long-term, asylum-seekers from Sudan, who have then gone on to make good lives in Israel, their children grown into devoted Israelis, one of whom is still our youngest’s best friend, whose journey as a three-year-old, from Darfur through Cairo and Sinai, was a radically different one from our daughter’s Nefesh B’Nefesh flight.
Everyone sits together under the huge, beautiful sukka – built by the residents with homegrown s’chach – palm branches – laid across the top, sparse enough to see the stars twinkle above each night.
Rabbi Isaac Luria (16th century) established the custom of reciting the ushpizin prayer to invite exalted guests into the sukka. Many families welcome into their sukkot Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Joseph, Moses, Pharaoh’s daughter, Jochebed, Zipporah, Aaron, Ruth, Naomi and David. Each of them had experienced exile in their lives, from their families, from their people, from their places of birth and homelands.
Three centuries after Luria, a hassidic rabbi, Hayim Halberstam of Sanz, taught his community to welcome those in need into their sukkot. “If the poor are not welcome,” he said, “none of the ushpizin will come into the sukka.”
But why are we commanded precisely to welcome those who need us – the wayfarers, the homeless, the strangers, the orphans – into our sukkot? Why is this a specific command for the time we spend in fragile huts, with sparse, open walls – and not only for when we dwell in our strong houses and apartments, when we have solid walls and roofs, doors with locks, windows that close?
Welcoming the stranger, the orphan, those unlike us – or even those whom we may have assumed to be our enemy – demands vulnerability. To do God’s work, we have to allow ourselves to be exposed to the winds and the rains, to the unknown, to mystery. In our sukkot, we are faced with the elements, we are stripped of our illusion of security.
Just as God provided for our ancestors on their journeys to strange lands, so must we welcome the stranger, the poor, the parentless – those who are vulnerable – into our shared human vulnerability, as exemplified by our sukkot. This is not the only time to welcome those who need us; it is the time to remember that obligation.
It is only by seeing our vulnerability as common humanity that we allow ourselves to love at all – our families, friends and communities. And it is only by accepting our vulnerability that we can fulfill the commandment to care for the stranger and the orphan. It is only in the sukka – or, better, in a sukka mentality – that we will expose ourselves to what we fear for others. We build a shaky hut so that we taste a human truth, and so that more people can come in, the righteous among the nations, people we honor in ceremonies and museums, who risked everything for our people in the darkest of times. We can risk accepting our shared vulnerability as human beings to enact our highest ideals as Jews.
This holiday, my family and I will take in the purposefulness of the mixed multitudes of the Kibbutz Ketura sukka and rededicate ourselves to the spiritual sukkot of our shared, fragile human existence.
This year, let’s all do more than invite our ushpizin. Let’s honor them. Like Sarah and Abraham, let’s welcome those who needs us – asylum-seekers, children who need foster care, isolated elderly, people from within and from outside our familiar circles. They just may turn out to be angels.
Rabbi Susan Silverman is the author of Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World (Da Capo Press, 2016) and the founding director of Second Nurture: Every Child Deserves a Family – and a Community (communityadoption.org). She can be found at rabbisusansilverman.com and @rabbasusan.