The Ancient Refugees who got to Share Sukkot

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

There are many values hidden in the Sukkot festival that may only show up when you need them. One is hidden in plain sight: Because both Sukkot and the dates of major U.S. elections are connected with the Harvest, Sukkot in every election year always comes several weeks before the election. The festival could become a period of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual preparation for voting. 

Would doing that just steal Sukkot’s richness from the Jewish people? Or could it take the values rooted in and affirmed by Sukkot, giving them a new voice in the broader world? And could that, for many Jews, give richer meaning to and more joy in a festival that has had little intrinsic meaning for them?

We are exploring the second possibility. Let me give an example:

Torah says that the runaway Israelites who had just fled from slavery to Pharaoh sat “in sukkot” (the plural of “sukkah,” the vulnerable “booth” or “hut” in which we sit and eat (and some sleep) for the seven days of “Sukkot” – with a capital “S,” the name of the festival.

You shall live in sukkot [huts]  seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in huts,  in order that future generations may know that I settled the Israelite people in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Narrowness [Egypt], I YHWH/ Yahhh/ the Breath of Life --  your God. (Lev 23: 42-43)

This seems to mean that as frightened refugees fleeing a cruel master, they briefly lived in actual sukkot, flimsy huts with a leafy, leaky roof.

These traumatized and frightened runaway slaves would want never to forget the first safe housing they were able to cobble together – flimsy though they were.

From that perspective, it would not be surprising that Torah – Deuteronomy 23: 15-16 – demands:

You are not to hand over to their masters
Serfs [slaves or indentured servants]
Who have sought asylum with you
From their master.

Let them dwell beside you,
Among you,
In the place that they choose
That seems good to them,
Within your gates.

Do not mistreat them!”

So now think of Sukkot this way: a festival to celebrate not only the Harvest that God makes flourish every year, but a way to relive the joy of refugees of long ago, who could put an unplanned roof over their heads and some unexpected bread in their bellies.

Certainly one of the issues of this approaching election is the treatment of refugees. – Do we welcome them into our own homes? Does Sukkot remind us that our own homes are fragile – that we must see ourselves as frightened refugees, see the refugee “others” as barely different from ourselves? How do we learn from the festival? We draw from Sukkot the values that speak to us as we approach the election of 2018.

We have gathered three sets of resources for helping each of us make our own decisions how to vote:  Handbooks for registering voters and making sure they can get to the polls;  posters of ushpizin, sacred guests we invite into the sukkah as heroes of the struggle to broaden the right to vote; and brief essays like this one, looking at the values of Sukkot to inform our decisions as we choose whom to vote for.  To enrich our democratic power with these wisdoms, please click to <>.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: