COMMENTARY: Sukkot Lesson: The Divine Dwells in Frail Huts, Even After Hurricanes

c. 2005 Religion News Service (UNDATED) The eight-day biblical festival of Sukkot (the Hebrew word for tabernacles or huts) that begins after sunset on Oct. 17 has been observed for thousands of years, but it has a thoroughly modern message as we try to make sense of the suffering caused by hurricanes. After fleeing from […]

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The eight-day biblical festival of Sukkot (the Hebrew word for tabernacles or huts) that begins after sunset on Oct. 17 has been observed for thousands of years, but it has a thoroughly modern message as we try to make sense of the suffering caused by hurricanes.

After fleeing from centuries of slavery in Egypt, the liberated Hebrew slaves lived in temporary shelters as they began their 40-year trek through the Sinai wilderness before reaching the Land of Israel (Leviticus 23:42-43).

Following the Exodus, the Torah describes the building of the Sukkot, frail huts that provided shelter from the rigors of Sinai: harsh sun by day, cold winds at night, flash floods and blinding sand storms. The huts were somewhat similar to the lean-tos used by today’s campers, flimsy and movable.

But early Jewish biblical commentators went far beyond Scripture’s descriptions of blueprints and construction methods that often read like the plans of architects and building contractors. The rabbinic commentary on those seemingly mundane verses is remarkable and profound and has special meaning this year.

While the shelters were temporary and without permanent foundations, the rabbis of long ago taught that God dwells within the huts: “Tell the people of Israel I will dwell in the Sukkot, not because I lack a dwelling, and only as a token of My affection for you will I leave My heavenly temple and dwell among you …”

The Sukkot festival is a reminder of that truth, and the message is clear: God dwells within makeshift huts and shelters; God dwells among people who are former slaves, refugees or, to use today’s current term, evacuees. God’s presence is not limited to huge houses of worship, glittering palaces, fortified castles, gigantic mansions or government edifices. The divine presence is in the Sukkot, the refugees of human history.

In recent weeks we have witnessed the creation of many contemporary shelters as hundreds of thousands of people fled the destruction of Katrina and Rita and entered a modern version of the Sinai wilderness: the Superdome and convention center in New Orleans, Houston’s Astrodome and George Brown Center, havens in Dallas, San Antonio, Baton Rouge and a host of other places. Many synagogues, churches and mosques became temporary shelters _ soup kitchens, sleeping facilities, medical facilities and schoolrooms for hurricane evacuees.

I strongly reject the belief held by 23 percent of Americans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, that the catastrophic hurricanes were God’s wrath, divine punishment for our national sins. Instead, I identify with the rabbinical tradition affirming that a compassionate God dwells with the victims, the uprooted and the homeless.

But I do see the mass evacuations, dislocations and family separations in biblical terms. The Torah declares that 600,000 people followed Moses out of Egypt, across the swampy Sea of Reeds and into Sinai. Skeptics have ridiculed that huge number, calling it a gross exaggeration or sheer imagination.

Indeed, it is difficult to picture such a huge number of men, women and children all on the move. However, after Katrina and Rita, it is much easier to grasp that figure.

During Sukkot, Jews build small booths, decorate them with the fruits of the autumn harvest, and invite guests, particularly strangers, to join them in the hut for thanksgiving prayers and meals _ a re-enactment of what took place over 3,000 years ago. Hospitality, especially to strangers, is a deeply religious act, and during this Sukkot season Americans are being called upon to respond with massive acts of hospitality.

Politicians, as usual, will quibble and debate about hurricane relief programs, but I can never forget my Astrodome visit in early September. It remains in my mind as a giant symbolic Sukkah that thousands of people used as temporary shelter.

I was asked to offer prayers in the Astrodome, and as I recited them, I had the distinct sense that God _ not the one believed to be filled with wrath and anger, but the merciful and compassionate God _ had truly left “the heavenly temple to dwell among you” _ the evacuees.

MO/PH END RNS

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s Senior Interrelgious Adviser, is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University. He has been appointed the AJC’s emergency services director to oversee the organization’s response to the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.)

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