Torah from around the world #185

Temporary Homes, Permanent Homes: Reflections for Sukkot

by Rabbi Danny Burkeman, The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, NY

Many of you will know the story of the three little pigs, each one of whom built a home; one out of straw, one out of wood and one out of brick. A wolf came along calling each pig out of their home and threatening: ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in’. The wolf was able to blow down the houses of straw and wood, but the one of brick was too solid and the pig was safe inside his home.

I am not sure what the original author intended as the moral of the story, but on one level it is a story about why it is important to use solid materials when building a home. I am unaware of any equivalent Jewish story, but the festival of Sukkot offers a similar message.

For one week each year we abandon the comfort of our houses to eat our meals and dwell in the temporary structure of the Sukkah. Intentionally the Sukkah’s roof must be incomplete and it must be a structure easily assembled and disassembled. For a week in good weather it might be sufficient; with wind and rain it can be uncomfortable, and for the long term it is unlikely to be a permanent source of shelter.

Every year Sukkot is therefore a reminder of how lucky we are to spend the rest of the year living in solid, permanent, secure homes. We choose to erect and dwell in the Sukkah for one week a year, but there are people who would consider a Sukkah to be a luxury; while there are others who spend most nights with absolutely no shelter against the outside world and the elements.

The Miniature Earth project, has been set up to analyze various statistics about the world’s population, and to alert us, in the developed world, to the contrast between our standards of living and those of people in other parts of the globe. According to them, all of us who are fortunate enough to go to sleep in a bed, in a home, with a solid roof over our heads; we are richer than 75% of the world’s population.

In the modern world Sukkot is not just a festival about agriculture and the harvest; it is also a festival which makes us grateful for what we have and reminds us that there are others less fortunate than us.

The story is told of a woman who came to the Rabbi in her village, complaining about her living conditions. She lived in a small one room hut with her husband and three children, and she told the Rabbi that she could no longer cope in her cramped environment.

The Rabbi asked a few questions and discovered she owned a cow, a goat and some chickens. He said to her; “When you get home, take the cow into your house to live with you.”

She did not understand, but she did as she was told.

The following day she ran to the Rabbi shouting: “What have you done, it’s even worse now.”
The Rabbi simply said: “When you get home, bring the goat into your home to live with you.”
She was reluctant to agree, but she did as she was told.

The next day she again came running to the Rabbi crying: “Oh Rabbi, the goat runs around the house breaking everything, the cow has made it all smell. How is this helping?”
The Rabbi looked at her and said: “Bring the chickens into your home to live with you.”

Again she came running to the Rabbi screaming: “I can’t take it any more, my home has become a zoo.”
The Rabbi smiled at her and said: “Go straight home and take all of the animals out of your house.”

The next day, she came back to the Rabbi smiling. “Thank you Rabbi,” she said, “with all of the animals gone it is wonderful just to have my husband and children living with me in my house.”

This story reminds us that we should be grateful for what we have. And the festival of Sukkot specifically teaches us that lesson in relation to the houses which we inhabit. We are actually lucky to have a roof over our heads.

It is striking that one of the ways in which Sukkot is marked is through Hachnasat orchim - inviting guests into the Sukkah. Traditionally there is a different Biblical guest who comes to visit on each night of the festival, but we are also encouraged to invite others to join us in celebration of the festival.

While we may not be about to invite homeless strangers into our Sukkah, maybe one way of fulfilling Hachnasat orchim in the modern world is by supporting a homeless charity at this time of year. We build our Sukkah and dwell in it for just one week, perhaps this festival can inspire us to help other people find shelter not just for one week, but indefinitely.

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