Rabbi Avi Weiss often tells his students that one of the most important traits to be an upstanding Jew, and certainly a Rabbi, is to have a deep sense of “Ahavat Yisrael,” love for our fellow Jew. For many, this can be challenging. To cultivate a love for the values of the Torah, for the holiness of Israel, for the Jews we know is one thing, but can we cultivate a deep love and connection to a random Jew we never met or have anything in common with? What is the origin of this love, and is it genuine? In theory, as a historical construct, it sounds beautiful, but what is its emotional foundation?
In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 4:6), Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (the Rashbi) once taught: “A man in a boat began to cut a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested: ‘What concern is it of yours?’ The hole-maker responded, ‘I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will drown.’” Without a consideration that we as the Jewish people are on a ship together, not in the survivalist sense but in the spiritual sense with a shared mission, our ship cannot sail with its full grandeur. With all passengers, in a shared history and destiny, our ship will sail the mighty oceans.
The Gemarrah (Sukkah 27b) says: “kol Yisrael re’oooim laishaiv b’sukkah achat,” that all of Israel is fit to sit in one Sukkah; as a community looking to perpetuate peace in the world, we maintain the ideal of living under one proverbial sukkah. While we as Jews may have different ideologies, ways of serving G-d, languages, and values, and it may at times seem that we have little in common, we can remember that the “sukkah of peace” must house us all. And so we require the shalom of a unified sukkah with the diverse members of our people. The Midrash teaches that the four species that we wave on Sukkot represent the four different kinds of Jew, and they all unite at this festive time.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat in Israel, tells a story about Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berdichev, who invited all types of Jews into his sukkah—simple people, beggars, even scoundrels. But the more established members of the community, the learned and the wealthy, felt uncomfortable around this motley crew. To address this situation, Reb Levi Yitzchok explained that Jewish tradition records that in the world to come, the holy Jews of all the generations would be gathering inside the sukkah of Leviathan, led by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moses would be speaking words of Torah, Aaron would conduct the ritual, and the songs of praise would be sung by King David. If the doorkeeper demanded to know by what right Levi Yitzchok thought he could enter (because, after all, he was hardly of the caliber of the aforementioned spiritual giants of our nation), then he would answer that since he invited everyone, including the "lesser lights" into his sukkah, would not these true masters of our faith open their hearts and invite him into their sukkah?
In teaching the need to welcome and love all Jews into our Sukkah and our hearts at this special time, Rabbi Riskin asks an important question: “What do we say to a great soul who cannot be burdened with the complexity of religious details (as so many of us are committed to)?” He offers the following analogy: On a clear night, I can often manage to see stars hundreds of light years away, but on a cloudy night I may not be able to see anything at all. However, if I learn the laws of optics and build a telescope, I will see much farther and clearer. But acquiring a telescope has its price. There are many facts to learn regarding its proper use, and an object comprising countless details is placed between the eye and the world. But just look at the added vision it provides!
The laws of the Torah are like this telescope (or microscope) into reality. It seems constrictive, but it is really liberating. On Sukkot, we embrace the stargazers who shun telescopes, we open our hearts and invite them into the sukkah, but at the same time we know how much sharper our vision is when we look at the stars through the gaps (required by halacha) in the roof of the sukkah. As religious Jews we may at times feel at great odds with our secular sisters and brothers, but as an Am Kadosh (holy nation), there is an imperative for some type of unity. This unity is not an ends in itself but a means to fulfilling our global role as advocates for love, truth, and justice. Our love is born out of the unique intensity of this holy partnership.
Sefer Kohelet (the book of Ecclesiastes read on the Shabbat of Chol Hamoed Sukkot) teaches: “There is no tzaddik on earth (no perfectly righteous person on earth) who only does good and does not sin,” (7:20). This sets a foundation for love and tolerance among the Jewish people. From the most to the least learned, from the oldest to the youngest, from the most cultivated to the most reckless, on some level we all err and we all stumble.
As we are continuing our focus on teshuva (growth and transformation from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), which in many ways can feel like a solo journey, we reunite to remember that we are all stumbling and striving for growth. It is for this reason that Sukkot must follow these holy days. Teshuva cannot happen in pure isolation, but rather in community. The peak of our life commitments and growth must now happen together.
May we learn to expand the size of our tent (of our sukkah) to include a few more within our camp (more religious or less religious, older or younger). And may we expand our hearts to create more room for the other as well.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"