Years ago, when I started playing the guitar I wanted to play blues, I hired a blues teacher, listened to blues music, but no matter what I did it came out sounding like the Indigo girls. Probably because at that point in my life the Indigo Girls spoke to me, they were queer and at that time there just were not a lot of out gay or lesbian musicians. When I started working on this dvar, I was going to connect Sukkot and creating the temporary structures to the Occupy Movement and the global social protest that have happened this year. I saw it as the perfect theme. Perfect for me, I mean after all I am an activist and now a rabbinical student and I thought I could deliver that message. But I’m not going to deliver that message because just like when I started playing the guitar, I have another message about Sukkot that speaks to me and that message is about welcoming the stranger.
When I think about Sukkot, I remember Abraham, he was 99 years old, in his tent recovering from his circumcision when three strangers, angels, payed him a visit. When Abraham saw the men approaching his tent, he ran to welcome them, knowing that the importance of hospitality to strangers took precedence over his own needs. Our tradition places such strong emphasis on the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger that no one should be made to feel like an outsider especially during a holiday.
When I think about Sukkot I remember a little over 10 years ago when I met a man–his name is Joshua Lesser. I spoke a little about him last night and called him my angel. I had no interest in religion but Josh was my friend and I thought he was a pretty cool dude who just happened to be a Rabbi. As our friendship grew, he would often invite me to his shul for services and I would politely say no. Then every time there was a holiday he would invite me. Finally, I agreed, and I remember the holiday was Hanukkah. I was worried, I was worried about how I would be treated. Would they see me as an outsider? Would anyone speak to me? The opposite was true. The community was warm and loving and welcomed me, a stranger into there community to celebrate the holiday. In fact, until recently, this was the only Jewish space that did not treat me as an outsider. This community, Congregation Bet Haverim, lived in a temporary home. We can call it a sukkah. They were searching for their permanent home and they welcomed me the stranger into their community.
I also think of another time during Sukkot when a friend invited me to her shul. I was new to Baltimore and wanted to find a synagogue. When she invited me, I got worried. Would they see me as an outsider? Would anyone speak to me? I thought I could sit in the back of the shul and somehow go unnoticed. But it was Sukkot, the time when we open our hearts to strangers. The Rabbi, Elizabeth Bolton, and the community welcomed me, the stranger, into their community. Like Rabbi Josh, Rabbi Liz became not just a friend, but an angel.
During Sukkot we build a sukkah and we become surrounded by the walls of a fragile hut with a roof covered in branches, sparse enough to allow a glimpse of the heavens. Although the sukkah has specific requirements regarding how small or tall it can be, there are no limits to how wide and long it can be. In fact, the Talmud says that it can be big enough to accommodate the entire Jewish people.
If our tradition places such strong emphasis on the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger, then why should anyone be considered an outsider, especially during the observance of a holiday?
During Sukkot we welcome the stranger, we think about welcoming the marginalized strangers. So many of us today, have felt marginalized within Jewish spaces, we have to remind our brothers and sisters in synagogues that the doors to the sukkah, as well as the synagogue, are supposed to be open. The Sukkah reminds us that our structures and institutions need to be opened up.
The sukkah is a sign to open our hearts at this season. Just as its roof opens to the sky, so too many those celebrating Sukkot be open to the stranger, the other, and the guest who they do not see everyday. Even in a world where many synagogues require membership or tickets to enter into the building for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, all are welcome in the sukkah. The sukkah invites the community to be welcoming even the living quarters themselves become open and we are ready to receive guest.
I believe this holiday, and the sukkah, expresses the peace and wholeness that we can share with every Jew in the world. Haskivenu, “u’phros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” (spread over us your sukkah of peace).