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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Yom Kippur - 2013/5774


Construction Ahead
Yom Kippur—5774

It is midday—and we are barely halfway through this longest day of the year in the synagogue.  We began these Yamim Nora’im, these awesome days, ten days ago with words acknowledging their power—“who shall live and who shall die.”  And this day, this haunting dress rehearsal for death, we virtually died last night and found ourselves standing for judgment before the Beit Din during Kol Nidre as this day began.  This day will then reach it saddest point later this afternoon—at yizkor—when we encounter our loved ones, those who have preceded us in death.  And we say kaddish.  Time after time after time, we offer our confessions in the viddui, beating our hearts rhythmically with each al chet, with each sin.   Yah lei lei-lei-lei ya-la-la-lei lei lei, ya-la lah lei lei lei—ashammnu, baggadnu, gazalnu—an alphabet of our sins.  Like this—the right hand striking right on the heart.  That beating of the heart is our virtual CPR.  In so many ways, our spirits, our souls, ourselves, have died over the year—and we must revive them.  We must once again feel the pain we caused ourselves and others and God.  Beating our hearts—bringing ourselves back to life.  How we yearn to hear that final tekiah gedolah—that final cry–as we emerge reborn, inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

I know, it is hours away still.  But I want you to think for a moment—what are we then supposed to do after that tekiah gedolah?  Yes, we share havdalah, as this Sabbath of Sabbaths come to an end.  And, yes, we break the fast—and you are all invited to do so after havdalah.  But, traditionally, there is something we are all obligated to do.  So, again, anyone know?   Well, first, we have to get out of the synagogue.  Then we have to go grab a tool box and get to work by beginning to put up a sukkah.  Twenty-five hours this day, so many of them in prayer—and then construction?  And even if we only begin tonight, we do not have a lot of time for construction.  We have just four days until Sukkot.

For years, I never worried or thought about this at all.  Build a sukkah?  As I have shared with you several times in the past, in my reform congregation back in Michigan City, Indiana, as I grew up, the sukkah just magically appeared, beautifully designed and decorated, inside the community hall of the temple.  Now I had heard somewhere that a sukkah should be built outside.  Yet to build the sukkah outside seemed such a gamble.  What if it rained and got all the beautiful pictures and decorations wet?  Even worse, after all that work, what if a big wind came along and blew the sukkah in?  And late September, early to mid-October, you never know what the weather might be like.  It simply made sense to build it inside–who would want all that hard work to go to waste.  But now, every year, as I wander around in the dark at home struggling to get the first parts of the sukkah out and up, I marvel at my one-time ignorance and the profound wisdom of our tradition.  Reborn tonight, we have to leave the synagogue; reborn tonight, we have to go out into the world. 

Prayer all day in the synagogue; construction at night at home.  What could possibly connect Yom Kippur and prayer with Sukkot and building?  So consider some dates.  According to our tradition, Moses went back atop Mt. Sinai to engrave the second set of tablets on the first day of Elul, the last month of the Jewish year.  Guess how long it took him (one of our magic numbers)?  Forty days!  That means that Moses descended with the tablets on—add it up with 30 days in Elul—the 10th of the first month of the year, the 10th of Tishri, on Yom Kippur.  Then, the next day, what did Moses do?  Moses gathered together all of the people, the entire community, to give them the instructions in building the mishkan or ohel moed, the tabernacle or tent of meeting in the wilderness, our meeting place with God, the place where we would bring God into this world.  At Sinai, we encountered God—the foot of the mountain may well have seemed like the foot of heaven.  But we had to go on a journey—we could not stay forever at the foot of a mountain.  So the mishkan, the tabernacle, became our portable ohel moed, our portable tent of meeting, so we could bring God, encounter God, anywhere in this world.  As Rabbi Reuven Hammer comments, “On Yom Kippur, we are in heaven; on Sukkot, we are very much on earth.”  So we build the sukkah for the same reason we built the mishkan; we build the sukkah to bring God into this world, to make this the world God so desires, to reduce, paraphrasing Rabbi Jonathan Sach’s words that I shared Rosh Hashanah eve, “the distance between the world that is and the world that ought to be.”  Reborn, we once again build.

And how do we build the sukkah?  We know it must be temporary and portable, a hut or a shack or a booth of two and a half or three or four sides and an entrance.  And the roof must be holey to be holy.  But the rest of the construction was best summed up by my classmate Rabbi Art Gould misappropriating Dr. Seuss, “You can build it very small/You can build it very tall.  You can build it very large/You can build it on a barge.  You can build it on a ship/Or on a roof but please don’t slip.  You can build it in an alley/You shouldn’t build it in a valley.  You can build it on a wagon/You can build it on a dragon.”  However we build it, it becomes our temporary shelter for 7 days.  We sleep and eat and even watch the Packers in it.  We get cold when it is cold; we get wet when it gets wet. 

Yes, I can be cute about the Sukkah.  But what about those who are forced to live in sukkot, in sukkahs, all year round–those 1500 homeless people in Milwaukee or the thousands in Chicago—under overpasses and viaducts, in cars, in cardboard  boxes?  Folks who are mentally ill or veterans, victims of domestic violence, or even children or adolescents?   Thus the inspiration for this sermon–from an article written by Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of Los Angeles’ Jewish Journal.  He began his story by remembering how troubled he had been as a child by a photograph in Life magazine of a well-dressed man selling apples for a nickel on a Manhattan street corner, fearful of living in such a world himself.  So, beginning back in December, every time he saw a homeless person with a sign, he offered to buy that sign, joking that “Los Angeles may be losing its movie productions and manufacturing base, but… [it] produces more panhandling signs than any other city in the world.”  And what did Eshman plan to do with all of these homeless signs?  Build a sukkah!  Why?  In his own words, “During Sukkot, we eat our meals and sometimes sleep in the shelter we have created. Its fragility and impermanence is a reminder of our own. The shelter it provides is welcome, but unstable. A sukkah is not a home.  Neither, my sukkah will remind us, are the streets of Los Angeles. The human suffering that can be found in the shadow of our comfortable homes is shameful. That such homelessness occurs in the midst of enormous wealth is beyond the pale.”

We know from the words of today’s haftarah, the words of the prophet Isaiah, that God wants us to bring the homeless poor into our houses.  So we build the sukkah to remind us that a sukkah is not a home, whether it be a refrigerator box under a railroad viaduct or the streets of Milwaukee with a grocery cart.  Yes, we build the sukkah to bring God into this world, to make this the world God so desires, to reduce that distance between the world that is and the world that ought to be.  And the sukkah that we ought to build in this land of enormous wealth must consist of affordable housing. 

And, yes, a sukkah is not a home but, for seven days, it does become temporary living quarters.  We live in it and are even obligated to invite in some special guests.  The practice is known as Ushpizin, an Aramaic word meaning honored or exalted guests.  You may remember it as the name of a fascinating Israeli film from a few years ago.  For each and every night of Sukkot, I am to invite into my sukkah honorary Biblical guests—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah; Miriam and Ruth and Deborah. They, themselves, were wanderers, exiles much of their lives, without permanent homes.  But these symbolic guests are invited in on one condition—that I also invite real flesh-and-blood guests into my sukkah, those who today are in need of shelter, of home, of protection. 

And the hungry are all around us.  One in seven Americans and one in four children face food insecurity every day.  They daily make painful decisions between sufficient food and medicine, between cheaper processed food and healthier fresh food, between paying the bills and simply having enough money on hand to pay for transportation to a job.  In other words, food insecurity is a nice term for bordering on the edge of hunger.  Of these people, 47,000,000 are dependent upon SNAP, upon the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or what we used to call Food Stamps.  But stories are best told not by big numbers but by individuals and families with names.  So listen to this story about a woman named Elizabeth Webster and her husband, Kenny Robert, and their two teenage daughters, Michelle and Denise (from Michael Cantalini in The National Journal).  They were forced from their homes by Katrina and moved to Alabama where both Elizabeth and Kenny got jobs.  But the BP oil spill sent them into unemployment and they moved back to an apartment in Louisiana.  For the first time, they had to apply to receive SNAP payments.  To do so, their gross monthly income could not exceed $2,498 ($29,976 a year) with less than $2,000 in countable assets.  So Elizabeth gets up at 5:30 every morning to see the kids off to school.  If there is enough left of the $440 the family receives each month from SNAP, her daughters have fruit or vegetables in their lunches. 

Now, I do not plan to invite Elizabeth and Kenny and Michelle and Denise into my sukkah this year.  But their story has everything to do with the sukkah we have built and need to maintain here in America, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world.  Know that the SNAP budget is, thanks to sequestration and other moves, definitely going to be cut by $4 billion dollars over the next decade.  More drastic cuts in the Senate and the House ranging from $20 billion to $40 billion over those ten years have been proposed.  So back to Elizabeth and her family.  The minimal cuts mean that about $36 will be gone from their monthly SNAP payments.  And Elizabeth will have to figure out how to feed her family at about $3.37 per person per day.  And no matter how much you give to MAZON or to Feeding America, no matter how much food we grow in our Salinsky Garden and how many meals we make for Meta House and the Guest House—all of which are necessary–such charities can only cover approximately 1/24 of America’s food assistance costs.  Noted Margarette Purvis, president and CEO of Food Bank For New York City, “In New York City alone, if these cuts go through, we are talking about in a single year having 76 million meals be gone.”  [That] is more than what we distribute in a year.” 

You could take a SNAP challenge  yourself—maybe that becomes your sukkah this year.  At current levels, try to live during the week of Sukkot on $31.50 for all of your meals; that’s right, about $1.50 on every meal.  And understand that SNAP was meant as a sukkah, as a shelter for those who are hungry.  We know from the words of this morning’s haftarah, the words of the prophet Isaiah, what God wants—to share our bread with the hungry.  We as Jews understand that we do this to bring God into this world, to make this the world God so desires, to reduce that distance between the world that is and the world that ought to be.  And the sukkah that we ought to build in this land of enormous wealth must consist of sufficient food for all of our neighbors.  To cut SNAP is to take away that sukkah, that flimsy shelter. 

Look around you.  There are more people here in the synagogue than will be here any other day of the year.  Yet, today, on Yom Kippur, in spite of the hundreds of people around us, we are also quite alone, each of us standing in judgment before God.  We have grown distant from ourselves, from each other, and from God.  That distance is what sin is all about—and how we yearn to be reborn tonight, relationships restored.  In that sense, as my colleague Rabbi Susan Grossman has written, Yom Kippur is all about us as individuals; Sukkot is all about us as part of a large extended historic family.  We build and then our first guests Wednesday evening in the sukkah are Abraham and Sarah.  They join us and our family and our friends, along with those who seek a home, along with those who yearn for sustenance.  We build God’s world together.

Of all of our holy days and festivals, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are most distant from any historical moment.  Pesach, you know, the exodus from Egypt.  Shavuot, you know, the revelation at Sinai.  Hanukah, you know the story by heart.  Yes, on Yom Kippur, you now know that Moses returned to the people with the second set of tablets.  But Sukkot?  Not the entrance into the Promised Land.  Not the covenant ceremony we read from Torah this morning.  Rather Sukkot commemorates our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Sukkot is all about our journeys; how we, reborn on Yom Kippur in the book of life, work, in our lives, to bring God into this world.   

And only on Sukkot are we commanded “vesamahta be-chagecha—to rejoice, to be happy, in our festival.”  No, say the ancient rabbis, read the Hebrew instead as ve-see-mahta—to cause to rejoice, to cause to be happy.  How do we rejoice?  By bringing joy to others—to our families and friends, surely, but also specifically in the Torah, to the stranger, to the orphan, to the widow—to those who are without, to those unable to support themselves, to the poor and the powerless. 

Today, we stand before God in heaven; tonight, we bring God down to earth, into this world.  So tonight, after you break your fast and leave here, begin to build your sukkah.  It may not be like mine, made up of wooden planks held together by plastic ties.  It may not be like Rob Eshman’s, made up of those homeless signs attached to a bamboo frame.  It may instead involve taking that SNAP challenge and trying to live like Elizabeth and Kenny and Michelle and Denise for the week of Sukkot.  Or it might be working to ensure that the sukkah of SNAP does not collapse.  “So build a Sukkah one and all/Make it large or make it small.”    So build tonight, make this the world God so desires, reduce that distance between the world that is and the world that ought to be.   That is how we pursue holiness and, at the end of our journeys in this world, that is how we find happiness. 


Tue, June 18 2024 12 Sivan 5784