Comment: A special holiday for special children

Fulfilling the mitzva of the succa demonstrates solidarity with those in need, and a commitment to bring happiness into their lives.

311_shalva kid (photo credit: Courtesy of David Geffen.)
311_shalva kid
(photo credit: Courtesy of David Geffen.)
“In booths you shall dwell for seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in booths.” (Leviticus 23:42)
Rashi, the Ramban and others have noted that all Jews have an equal part in this commandment. The Rashbam’s commentary says “citizens of Israel” means everyone must “leave his house and become homeless.” It is but a short step to convert this mitzva from an archetypal commandment between man and his creator to a mitzva between people.
Gemilut hesed (loving-kindness) is a two-step command. On the one hand, we are commanded to do all in our power to assist the “needy” and “the forsaken.” This is basic hesed as we know it. At times, however, practical assistance is simply impossible to provide. After all, we cannot provide housing, food and clothing to everyone in need!
When positive hesed is impractical, the Torah calls on us to at least empathize with the plight of the unfortunate. When a “citizen of Israel” cannot provide shelter for a stranger, he must at least show solidarity with the less fortunate. Identifying with those who do not have the same comforts we have creates a bond.
“So that your generations shall know I placed the children of Israel in huts as I took them out of Egypt.”
The mitzva of the succa places the poor stranger and the wealthy citizen on the same continuum. Let neither one forget the road on which they travel, nor the destination they hope to reach.
Ideally, dwelling in a succa for eight days and nights is designed to instill a sensitivity to “walking in another man’s shoes.”
Even so, it is difficult to imagine what this means to the parents of a mentally or physically disabled child. While parenting is rarely a care-free endeavor, the stress of caring for a youngster with special needs is nearly impossible for most of us to envision.
As the rest of the traditional Jewish world ponders succa decorations and whether to serve pumpkin or chicken soup, the aforementioned families don’t get “time-outs” for menu planning; they frequently suffer burn-outs instead. Additional consequences of life with a challenged child are often financial losses, emotional upheaval, and even physical illness.
While parsing the meat-and-meaning of the Days of Awe, practical and ethical questions regarding the disabled and their role in Jewish society have not received much attention. Yet these issues have implications that seem particularly fitting to Succot.
Halacha urges everyone – including those with mental or physical challenges – to achieve their fullest potential as Jews, urging the wider community to assist them by making religious observance possible for all.
Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chasam Sofer), a leader of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century, addressed society’s obligation to care for the mentally disabled and wrote extensively about various disabilities, including the manner in which the halachic status of the person in question was affected.
People with physical disabilities have the same halachic status with regard to the Sabbath and holidays as any other person, and are bound by the same regulations. Thus, a person with physical challenges may not desecrate Shabbat and must fast on Yom Kippur – unless, of course, this would represent a possible danger to life.
A recent study by the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services revealed that half of Israelis do not want to live near people with mental disabilities. This is clearly disheartening to those who work in the field of disability awareness. If our faith dictates that society treat people with disabilities as full members of the community, is it not a collective obligation? And if there are adequate financial resources, shouldn’t society provide appropriate facilities and services?
It is consistent with the mission of SHALVA – The Association for Mentally and Physically Challenged Children in Israel – that access to services and other religious functions be provided to the disabled within the financial capabilities of a synagogue or community center. In many cases, greater freedom of worship for the physically disabled was achieved with the installation of ramps and even Sabbath elevators. (Today, most mikvaot [ritual baths] are constructed to accommodate disabled women to allow them to enjoy normal marital relations.)
Jewish history is rife with examples that depict the intrinsic value of each and every Jew. One of the most dramatic illustrations of the role set aside for each soul is in the composition of the ketoret – an amalgam of 11 spices brought into the Temple twice each day: once as part of the morning service and once as part of the afternoon service. This ritual happened seven days a week on every day of the year, including Shabbat and Yom Kippur.
A marvelous illustration of Judaism’s “inclusion curriculum” appears in the daily prayer liturgy. And while it might seem peculiar to recite a recipe as part of a prayer, it is reasonably obvious that Hazal (our sages) identify the individual components for a reason: balsam, cloves, galbanum, frankincense, myrrh, cassia, spikenard, saffron, costus, aromatic bark, and cinnamon.
A basic understanding of alchemy would suggest that everything on the list fits, except for helbenah or galbanum – a bitter and foul-smelling gum resin. Nevertheless, it is an essential ingredient for the incense in the Temple. In addition to meriting the death penalty, omitting it from the mixture left the resulting fragrance sub par. This “unpleasant” ingredient was indispensable if the rest of the aromatic compound were to reach its most delightful and effective peak.
We can deduce that the lesson of both the ketoret and a succa filled with guests from every corner of society is that much in life is not as we had hoped for. Many things occur that we wish would simply disappear. Much happens that we would prefer to deny or ignore.
However, if this is our response to these events, whether mere unpleasantness or genuine hardship, then these events remain helbenah (galbanum), and can make our day-to-day existence “stinky.” Even happy occasions and genuine good fortune get tinged by a trace of helbenah odor.
Ignoring that which isn’t “perfect” has serious drawbacks, and doesn’t lead to better relationships among people. Succot is a time to be cheerful and embrace one another in a unified commemoration of Hashem’s bounty.
In considering this interpretation of the succa as an extension of hesed, the entirety of the mitzva becomes clear. We are commanded to identify with the less fortunate and, indeed, celebrate exactly those things that make us different from one another. The Rambam teaches that when you eat your festival meal, you must also provide for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. Fulfilling the mitzva of the succa demonstrates solidarity with those in need, and a commitment to bring happiness into their lives.
The true simhat ha’hag (joy of the festival) comes when each of us becomes aware of our common destiny.
Andrea Simantov is director of communications for SHALVA. To learn more about disability services in Israel, go to