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Portable Judaism: The reason we’ve survived




A colleague, Rabbi Jonathan Gross, served as a rabbi in Omaha, Nebraska for close to a decade. Nebraskans take their football and their home team – the Huskers – very seriously. So, it wasn’t unusual that someone from the community posted the following question on the rabbi’s blog: “Is it permissible to hang a Nebraska Huskers banner in my Sukkah, and can I watch the Huskers game in my Sukkah?” The rabbi answered yes to both questions, “if that’s what you normally do in your home”. The rabbi went even further, explaining that if those were activities normally done in his home, then he should hang the banner and watch the game in the Sukkah because for the week of the holiday, our Sukkot are supposed to become our true homes.


But why should we relate to something that is clearly a temporary dwelling as our permanent home? Doesn’t the halacha disqualify a Sukkah that is created in a permanent way? Which is it? Are our Sukkot temporary dwellings or our real homes to live in as we do our permanent ones?


Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, of blessed memory, taught that the Sukkah symbolizes the wandering Jew in exile trying to make his home in someone else’s country – in another people’s culture. The secret to surviving in another nation’s land, suggested Rabbi Lamm, is to fill our Sukkahs – to imbue our foreign surroundings – with our Torah values and unique way of life.


To me, this is how Judaism has survived to this day. One Succot, I was privileged to spend the holiday with my brother and his family – together with my sister-in-law’s Grandma Blanca, of blessed memory. At the time, Grandma Blanca was 99. She had fled Germany in 1936 when she was just a teenager. She watched as my wife observed the mitzvah of benching over the Lulav and Etrog in the Sukkah. My wife turned to Grandma Blanca and asked if she would like to perform the mitzvah herself. Grandma Blanca was not an observant woman, so she was at first reticent but, at the same time, I saw she was excited. She took the Lulav and Etrog and before reciting the blessing, pulled the Etrog closer to smell its beautiful fragrance. As she breathed in the scent of the Etrog, she immediately began to cry and blurted out: “we had such a nice life until Hitler”. My wife tried to be of some comfort telling her: “Grandma Blanca: Hitler is gone, but we are still here”. Grandma Blanca composed herself and together they made the bracha and shook the Lulav.


It was a powerful moment for it symbolized the success of Jewish continuity. We have survived centuries of persecution because we have learned to maintain our traditions in whatever culture or country we find ourselves. We exist as a vibrant community in America because of our grandparents who carried their Jewish traditions from Europe. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who didn’t toss their Tefillin off the boat when they came to these shores and to the many Jews who, despite not being raised with much Yiddishkeit in their childhood, nonetheless have embraced their Jewish heritage. They are the reason we remain a strong and vibrant people.


And therein lies the fundamental idea behind the Ushpizin, the seven special guests whose spirits visit our Sukkahs every day of the holiday. Each personality of the Ushpizin, suggested Rabbi Lamm, symbolizes the idea of surviving spiritually in an alien setting: Abraham was told to leave his birthplace and travel to an unknown place. Isaac, although he remained in the same place his entire life, was made to feel almost like stranger in his own home, never understood by his wife and children. Jacob was forced to run from his brother Esau for fourteen years, all the while carrying on the traditions of his father Isaac. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and lived out his life in a foreign country, but maintained the image of his father and the values of his family. Moses, before he rose to greatness, also had to flee from Pharaoh and hide out in Midian for many years. Aaron – at the most critical juncture of his life, was left alone to lead the people when Moses ascended Sinai to receive the Torah. Finally, David spent much of his life running from various enemies, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.


Each member of the Ushpizin was forced to manage in a foreign environment but they all maintained the traditions of their forebears. We are no different today. We send our children off to college where staying Jewish is challenging. Our work and careers often place us in environments less than conducive to Jewish values. How do we conduct ourselves on campus, at work, or when we are with our own friends or family who may be less observant or have a different outlook on life? Do we remain proud of our heritage or do we make excuses for our religious observance so we can fit in? Are we trying to inspire others to follow in the ways of Torah?


All these situations require us to ask ourselves: are we living the lesson of the Sukkah? Are we bringing our Torah to these all these places, demonstrating that Jewish values apply everywhere – not only in the synagogue or the Beit Midrash, but to all parts of our existence? In my over twenty years of engaging our less affiliated brothers and sisters in Jewish life, I have found this aspect of Judaism to be its most compelling feature: that the Torah pertains to every part of our lives.


The majority of Jewish tradition pertains to everyday life. Three of the four sections of the Code of Jewish Law deal with how we approach the basic human drives for power, food and sex. Only one of the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch deals with ritual law. Judaism has as much to do with what happens in the marketplace, the kitchen, and the bedroom as it does the synagogue. Yiddishkeit was never meant to be confined to shul. Like the Sukkah, the Torah was meant to be brought into every part of our live.


The vessels of the Tabernacle were carried on poles so they could be taken from place to place. However, once the holy vessel – be it the Menorah or the Altar, was brought to its resting place to be used as part of the service, the poles would then be removed until it was time for it to be transported again. This was the case for all the vessels of the Tabernacle except for the Ark of the Covenant to which the Torah prohibits – “Do no remove the poles”. Why were the carrying poles permanently affixed to the Ark and why is the Torah so emphatic that Ark’s poles never be removed? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that because the Ark housed the Tablets representing the Torah and the Torah must be portable. The Torah must be ready at a moment’s notice to be brought to wherever it is needed, be it in the workplace or on college campus.


This is why and how we are still here. The secret to Jewish continuity is the secret of the Sukkah – never to allow the Torah to be confined to any one place but instead applying it to all facets of human existence.


If we can meet that challenge, we will not only have learned the lesson of the Sukkah but we will have fulfilled our mission to bring the light of Torah to all people and to all places.


October 2, 2022