Growing up, Andrew lived a few blocks farther from school than I did so most mornings he would come to my house and we would walk the rest of the way together. I was not a morning person in my early adolescent years which meant that often Andrew would show up at my house and I would still be asleep, or at least not quite ready to start the day. On mornings when this was the case my parents would offer him breakfast and he would settle in while the bustle of my busy house buzzed on around him. I would often emerge from my bedroom to find Andrew sitting in the living room with my baby brother, eating cereal and watching TV.
Andrew was an only child, born to Korean and Italian parents. His home was quiet and orderly. I think he must have been fascinated by the warm chaos of my little Jewish commune with our two families made up of four adults and, eventually, six kids. I don’t actually know what he thought of it all because we stopped hanging out so much in high school and lost touch soon after that, before we had the chance to look back on our childhoods with enough distance to ask each other what it was really like, before we were equipped with the linguistic tools to talk about race and culture and how our home lives impacted the kinds of kids we were, the kinds of adults we would become.
It wasn’t just in the mornings that Andrew would spend time at my house. Whether it was board games in the living room, Legos in the basement or some game we made up in the yard, he was a regular and my family loved having him around. He was curious about our lives and our traditions. The one he seemed to like the most was Sukkot. On Sukkot mornings Andrew would inevitably arrive at the house a little earlier and I would, less reluctantly, wake up so that we could sit outside in the Sukkah, bundled in sweatshirts and warm up with some oatmeal and hot chocolate.
Sukkot is one of those holidays that, on the surface, can be a little confusing. It’s the fall… it’s starting to get cold… so you build a structure outside, with no real roof and you hang out and eat your meals in it? And you do this because your ancestors spent many years wandering in the desert? And it’s also a harvest festival?
Yet, for so many of us who experienced it as children, it is one of our favorite holidays and brings up some of our fondest memories. I vividly remember building the Sukkah in the back yard, finding tarps and blankets and bamboo to make the walls, hanging branches and gourds and other things that I wasn’t sure exactly what they were to decorate it. I remember breakfasts and dinners with the families in the Sukkah. I remember playing in it, as if it were a fort. I remember lying on the ground and looking up at the sky through the openings in the mostly uncovered roof. I remember seeing wonderment up there.
Because my Jewish education was experiential rather than formal and because my family’s practice did not include Synagogue attendance, there are a lot of things that many of my peers have known or at least been familiar with their entire lives regarding traditional Jewish practices and readings that are outside of the bounds of my knowledge or practice. A few weeks ago while studying up on the more formal elements of Sukkot I came across a reading that is part of the traditional Sukkot services and was taken aback. The text, found in the prophetic book of Zachariah, basically yearns for an apocalyptic battle after which all who remain will take up the practice of worshiping the Lord by celebrating Sukkot and anyone who doesn’t will suffer and eventually die.
This holiday, which is both a celebration of the harvest and a harkening back to the days our ancestors lived as nomads, a holiday in which we raise sacred branches to the sky and welcome the ancestors into our “tent”, this holiday is about wandering and hospitality. Why then, is the prophetic text that we read about wrath and vengeance? Why do so many of our traditions and celebrations include and elevate messages of wrath and vengeance?
Of course it makes perfect sense. For millennia we were persecuted, targeted by systematic oppression, forced to wander and often killed because of who we were. Wrath filled prophecy and revenge fantasy are perfectly acceptable, even healthy when dealing with oppression. Of course our most joyous celebrations included reading texts that professed a day when we would see vengeance visited upon our enemies and all those who lived free of the persecution that we felt.
And while Anti-Semitism pervades in the world in many different forms, there is something bizarre about members of the most privileged Jewish community that has ever existed sitting in our North American synagogues, reading a text that calls for the vanquishment of all those that do not accept the word of our Lord. It is even more unsettling to celebrate these texts when the Jewish State, realized as a place of refuge for a generation torn apart, now has the means to enact such wrath and vengeance and far too often does so on a people who have not held power over us, who were not the perpetrators of our oppression.
I understand that these texts have a place in our tradition. I understand the importance of holding onto the things that kept our ancestors going for all of those years, of honoring them and the hardships that they suffered by continuing the practices that held their communities together. But our ancestors, whether in Europe, Africa, the Middle East or Asia, survived because they were able to adapt. The gift that our ancestors were given was that their religion, the glue that held their communities together, is an interpretive one. The practice of it can adapt and change, all the while staying within the spirit of our vast collection of core, guiding texts.
There is not one way to practice Judaism. There never was and there never will be. We have an astounding number of beautiful prophetic texts that are not calls for wrath and vengeance but are odes to the beautiful and marvelous world, that are calls for justice and lasting peace. It is within our power as a community of Jews to reinterpret our practices. It is in our power to say, “These texts that kept our people going when we were the primary target of structural oppression are no longer serving us”. It is in our power to search our cannon to find and elevate texts that can show us how to celebrate the lives we have, that can teach us how to behave when we do have power (as individuals, as communities and as a state) and that can guide us towards leveraging our privilege and standing in struggle alongside of those peoples who are the primary targets of structural oppression today.
The spirit of Sukkot is beautiful, is celebratory, is inclusive. The practice of building a Sukkah – of eating, of singing and of dancing in it – of inviting into it our community and beyond is demonstrative of the very best of who we are as Jews and as people. It is that spirit that my friend Andrew was attracted to. It is that spirit that makes the celebration of Sukkot a standout memory in so many of our childhoods. And it is in that spirit that so many of us spend this week building, eating, singing and dancing in our Sukkot.
As a community, we must make sure that all of our practices, as well as the texts that we center those practices around, are true to that spirit, reflective of the context in which we live and relevant to the questions that we currently face. As our ancestors did before us, we must continue to adapt to the situation of the world around us. This time it is not so much our lives that are at stake, it is our souls.