By Megan Stephens
As Rabbi Naomi Levy teaches, Sukkot is the only holiday where you are commanded to have joy, and specifically instructed that “you shall rejoice on your festival and you shall only be happy”. Rabbi Andy Gordon has opined that perhaps Sukkot is deliberately close to Yom Kippur since, as he puts it, “After a day of fasting, beating our chests, self-denial, and introspection we need time to celebrate.” Or, as he also notes, after we have done the hard work of t’shuvah, returning to our best selves, focusing on self-growth, and the betterment of the world, “we need joy”!
And yet – how does the commandment to rejoice fit with the instruction to live in a fragile dwelling – or a booth?
Even on beautiful fall days like we have been having in Toronto, living in a sukkah with its open walls and doors and a roof made of branches that open to the skies, doesn’t seem designed to be joy-inducing—at least here in Canada. Why would God command us to give up the comfort and amenities of our homes for 7 days – and to find joy in that? Perhaps God wanted us to reflect upon our own vulnerabilities — and those in our communities— and to think about how we can invite in or make space for those less fortunate.
This week’s parashah has me thinking a lot about the many people in our city who don’t have even a fragile dwelling to call home and are living with food insecurity – for whom there is no harvest to celebrate. The sukkah that many of us will build with our families – and that some may “dwell in” for 7 days – is a reminder of our vulnerability, but after a week they get taken down and most of us can return to the homes that keep us safe and secure from the elements.
Here in Toronto, and across this country, more and more people are living in a permanent state of vulnerability and fragility – without a home to keep them safe and secure. Since last spring, I have been helping to coordinate Holy Blossom’s biweekly volunteers for the Ve’ahavta van that goes into the community providing meals, clothing, and supplies to those experiencing homelessness. I have been volunteering on the van myself – most recently with my two older children, Shoshana and Jakob.
On my last outing with my kids, the van staff went in search of those who were rough-housed – not living in shelters but living on the streets. There are a growing number of roughhouses in our community. Every night dozens or more people are turned away from the shelter system that is operating over capacity. Some choose to stay on the streets, finding shelters too dangerous. On that night in August, we visited ATM lobbies of banks, bus shelters in mall parking lots, and tents set up in the ravines where the Ve’ahavta staff knew some of their regulars were living. We brought them food, toiletries and clothes, and stayed to chat as long as they wanted.
It’s not easy to see how these people are living. It was my 14-year-old son’s first time on the van and while it pushed him outside his comfort zone, it was not just eye-opening, but a positive and powerful experience. He’s recently written to our city councillor Josh Matlow about the things he saw that night and the need for our city to address the lack of shelter space and safe and affordable housing for those experiencing homelessness. Shoshana was so moved by the needs of those we met, that she’s started volunteering at a shelter in Montreal, where she has just started her university studies. On a personal level, I’ve found it humbling to hear from the staff about the backgrounds of those we met. That night we spoke at length with a highly articulate man who apparently used to be a lawyer – just like I am – who is now surviving on the street.
I have seen how small acts of compassion from the staff and volunteers can bring moments of happiness to these folks. I’ve been met by genuine smiles when I share “we have fresh baked cookies tonight”. And on that August night, one man and I shared a real moment of joy as we reminisced about going to see George Michael in concert back in the eighties – he at the CNE and I at the Ottawa Ex. I’ve written before about how rewarding I have found these van outings. While it feels wrong to call it “joy-inducing”, I think it’s worth rejoicing in these moments of shared humanity.
The Zohar, the principal Jewish mystical text, teaches that figures from Jewish history “visit” the sukkah as “guests” (ushpizin) and that every Jew welcomes these guests. However, that text also teaches that they must also help the poor rejoice because a portion of the celestial guests whom the Jew has invited belong to the poor.
This Sukkot, I encourage everyone to think about the ways in which we can help the poor or otherwise vulnerable in our community “rejoice”. Even if spending the night on the Ve’ahavta van is not for you, maybe baking the cookies that get distributed would be – or perhaps you have other ideas. What better time to reflect on those possibilities and the small acts we can do to bring ourselves and others joy?
You can find the link to sign up to volunteer with Ve’ahavta here.