Sukkot is magic. Each fall, after the solemn pageantry of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, my childhood synagogue was transformed for Sukkot. The readers’ table and the Torah scrolls remained dressed in white velvet, but the bimah came alive with colors and textures.
Every year, a sukkah appeared, decorated with garlands of cranberries and popcorn, paper chains and hanging apples.
And we, the children, came with offerings: canned goods in cardboard boxes. I was dazzled by the colors and the sparkle, and danced with delight in our procession to the altar, singing “Sukkos time is thank you time for all the fruits and vegetables.”
As an adult, I have discovered the joy of building a sukkah, first in the yard of a tiny graduate student home in Waltham, Mass., and years later, on the deck of my Center City home. Yet I know now that tzman simchatenu: The season of our joy, this holiday of ingathering, is not a time of joy for all. As we welcome friends and family into our sukkot, 48.8 million Americans struggle to put nutritious food on the table. More Americans lack sufficient food than the entire population of Canada. Will we, this Sukkot, share our bounty with our hungry neighbors?
“Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’Chanun: God, our God, Compassionate and Gracious … ” These words begin “The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” that appear in the Torah portion we read on this Shabbat. These words are so beloved that they have become a part of the liturgy for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and for each of the pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. The rabbis who ensured that the words would be remembered, however, did not quote them in their entirety.
On this Shabbat Sukkot, we read these words in context, not only as a powerful and evocative incantation. Two chapters earlier, our ancestors, impatient with Moses’ absence, decide to create a god for themselves. They collect and melt down their jewelry and create a shimmering golden calf. Moses returns from Mount Sinai with the commandments, sees the peoples’ frenzied adoration and shatters the tablets in rage.
The next day, Moses begs God for the peoples’ forgiveness, and God tells Moses to return to the mountain and to carve two more tablets. When Moses descends, the Holy One says, I am a loving and forgiving God “yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
Is our blindness to our neighbors’ hunger a sin for which our children will suffer? Abigail Pogrebin asks, “Is apathy inherited? Is inaction passed on from generation to generation?” If there were 100 people in the world, 15 of them would be undernourished. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches, “Some are guilty; all are responsible.”
At this season of abundance, let each of us remember that we are among a very privileged minority. We are responsible not only to share our joy, but our bounty with our neighbors. May we, in this new year, open our eyes to the millions who are hungry. May our children not suffer for our inactivity or our blindness.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: [email protected] . Mazon.org is a Jewish Response to Hunger; AJWS.org fights hunger, disease and poverty in the developing world.