Rabbi Ariel J. Friedlander, 6 October 2017Growing up at Westminster Synagogue, I have wonderful memories of Sukkot. The Sukkah was decorated with exotic and rare fruit such as mango & pomegranate. There was the time that the organist started beating the rabbi with his fists, only for us to realize that the rabbi’s robe had caught fire from the festival lights. I will never forget our favourite guest – the pumpkin-headed Golem of Prague, who stood in the corner facing the entrance to the Sukkah. It was my special task to write on the Golem’s forehead the Hebrew letters that would bring him to life: aleph, mem, tav – emet/truth. Every evening of Sukkot, his wide-open corn-shuck arms welcomed us under the canopy of laurel leaves. His felt-tip eyes watched as we waved the lulav and etrog. His permanent smile reflected our joy as we sang the Hallel, and ate Mrs Harari’s delicious date biscuits. As a rabbi’s child living in the synagogue, I wanted to spend the night in the Sukkah, but it was usually too wet. Instead, after the congregants had gone, my mother would make a fondue with the leftover challah for my sister and me to dine together, sitting at a small card table with a cloth and proper napkins. And there was strawberry mousse for pudding!
We had learned in Sunday School that our ancestors lived in temporary structures as they travelled through the desert. Of course we knew that there were poor and homeless people all around us, and we took part in tzedakah projects throughout the year. However, our refugee parents had worked long and hard to make a better life for themselves and their children and so, during these harvest celebrations, they offered us the fruits of their labour. Together we observed the Sukkot commandment, “v’samachta b’chagecha, you shall rejoice in your feast” (Deut. 16:14).
Our golem guest was part of the ancient tradition of hachnasat orchim/hospitality from which medieval kabbalists created the Sukkot ritual of ushpizin/visitors. Each night we may invite one of seven exalted guests to join us in the Sukkah: Abraham, Isaac & Jacob; Joseph; Moses & Aaron, and David. These days we might include Sarah, Rebekah, Leah & Rachel; Miriam, Ruth & Esther. Each guest represents a divine attribute of God, and our hope is that their presence will inspire us to make such qualities part of our daily lives.
As we appreciate our rich heritage, we must find ways to help those who have not been so lucky. Rabbi Moses ben Maimon emphasized this call to action in his interpretation of the laws of the festivals. He wrote:
“While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and other poor unfortunates. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach.” (Mishneh Torah)
This year, as I eat pizza in the Sukkah with my students, I will remember the friendly golem of my childhood, and those nights of food and fun. But I’m no longer a child, and I know that monsters are real and monstrous people are active in our world. Sitting within the fragile shelter that protected the Children of Israel during their journey from slavery to freedom, I remember my grandparents, z”l. They fled from the Nazi monsters, and found refuge & shelter in the UK. I know that I would never have been born if borders had not been opened and my relatives given permission to enter. So who am I to deny a safe haven to anyone fleeing persecution and injustice? In this country, the debate continues with regard to the current refugee situation. I understand that there are questions about logistics and resources. There are holes in the roof and the structure is small and shaky. We can discuss possible solutions until the lulav wilts and the etrog shrivels. Meanwhile, strangers, widows and orphans continue to suffer and die.
I am proud that Liberal Judaism is at the forefront of current efforts to welcome and support refugees in our country. Through individual and congregational initiatives, as well as partnerships with organisations such as Citizens UK, this sacred work is saving lives. Rather than hanging fruit on the walls of our Sukkah, now we give it to a food bank. The family meal cooked for Erev Sukkot is now shared at the synagogue night shelter. Part of the community building is converted into a flat for a refugee family. With gratitude to all who are already imbued with the spirit of our ushpizin, and the hope that this Succot inspires us to feed our souls as well as our stomachs, may we continue to welcome those in need.
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