October 3, 2012
Exodus 33:12-34:26, Numbers 29:17-31
Sometimes we just can’t do as God asks. Our burden is too great.
I run into this often when visiting hospital patients and their families during the High Holy Days. They feel mad at God for their circumstances and conflicts. Why would I get sick on Rosh Hashanah and miss the mitzvah of the shofar call? How am I supposed to take my medicine on Yom Kippur? Sukkot as z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy. Are you kidding?
This week’s special parasha for Sukkot wraps up all the central mitzvot in a neat package — Shabbat, kashrut, marrying in, praying only to the Holy One, and especially observing holidays.
We are commanded to be happy on Sukkot and to love God, but sometimes there is just no way we can. God doesn’t seem to be taking such good care of our safety, our health or our loved ones. We may want to run away from God, religion and all of those troublesome responsibilities.
I tell these families that they have every right to be angry, and need not feel ashamed about it. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with raging at God. Scream, cry, curse, shake your fists. God can take it. Never doubt this.
But please, don’t take this as an excuse for abandoning a life of the spirit. Judaism may seem like a lot of rules and busy-making projects, but there is method to the madness, no matter how loosely you observe.
Sukkot, for example, is not just a project to build a hut and feed our families inside. It is an opportunity to reach out — both to help and for help. The sick, disabled, elderly and stressed-out play an essential role.
Consider the Yiddish short story, “A Meal for the Poor” by Mordecai Spector. In it, a rich man intends to have the greatest wedding party ever, with tables laden with delicious food, music, invited guests and, of course, wagonfuls of poor people to share in the mitzvah.
The host’s servants go to the neighboring town, but the poor folk who live there refuse to come unless he agrees to pay them each a token amount — one ruble.
The man is embarrassed to find himself having to bargain with the needy. He initially responds with anger. But then he backs down and meets their demands. They come, and the party is a great success, with guests wishing the host many blessings.
The Rambam says there is no joy in simply sitting in our sukkah, eating until we are full, and saying our blessings. “This kind of joy is a disgrace,” he wrote in his Mishneh Torah. “When one eats and drinks (on a festival), he must feed the stranger, the orphan and the widow along with all the unfortunate poor. But he who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks (alone) … — this is not the joy of mitzvah, but only the joy of his belly.”
The Zohar agrees. “A person should not say: ‘First, I will fill myself with food and drink; what is left I will give to the poor.’ No, the prime portion belongs to the guests. If he makes the guests happy and full, the Blessed Holy One rejoices with him!”
For the mystics, the “guests,” or ushpizin, refers not just to the people we bring into our sukkah, but also the sefirot, the attributes of God in the form of biblical characters, that we ritually invite to join us each night. With each righteous hero, we enact an aspect of God’s care and gain the blessing of more of God’s presence in our humble hut.
Show loving kindness to those in need and our homes will be truly blessed, our teachers say. That is, if we have the energy to be the one who provides. If not, there is an equally important role for us as the needy, bringing our host the blessed opportunity to give.
The Zohar, speaking of Sukkot, says, “Rabbi El’azar said, ‘Torah does not demand of a person more than he can do, as it is written: “Each according to what he can give …” ’ ” (Deuteronomy 16:17).
If we are in the hospital and not in shul this year, if we are too sick to fast, or cannot erect our sukkah, or we just feel alone at this holiday time, it is upon us to reach out and accept someone else’s hospitality. We need not feel isolated or embarrassed about asking for help. It’s a mitzvah that goes both ways and blesses us all.
Don’t know anyone you can call on? How about HaShem, the Lord of Hosts? It would be God’s honor to comfort you in a time of need. You only have to ask.
Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), an interfaith referral service for professional chaplains.