Chatting With Jesus in the Sukkah

I am very happy to repost this essay which appears on ReformJudaism.org on my web blog.  SLF

Outside view of a sukkah

During the Festival of Sukkot it is customary to invite famous people from the past to be our ushpizin(“guests” in Aramaic) in the sukkah, the temporary huts we build to celebrate the harvest festival.

This year, I would like to invite Jesus to be my guest in the sukkah – to chat about this verse from Genesis: “So God created the human beings in the Divine image, creating them in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

To begin the conversation, I would point to one of the most beautiful verses in Scripture from Psalm 8:6: “For you have made humanity little lower than the angels…” As much as I love the English translation, I think the German translation – “Du hast ihn wenig niedriger gemacht als Gott, mit Ehre und Herrlichkeit hast du ihn gekrönt.” – is closer to the original because it speaks of humanity as just a little less than God.

For our Rabbis, the idea that humans are a little less than God or a little lower than the angels was a commentary on the notion that God created humanity in God’s image. It does not mean that we look like God in a physical sense because, of course, God has no form or shape. Rather, it means we have awesome power that God wants us to use responsibly.

For example, we are the only creatures that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore from the mountain, turn the ore into iron, the iron into steel, and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human heart or brain. Likewise, we can fashion that same steel into bombs and bullets designed solely to maim and kill other humans.

With that idea in mind, I would pose this question to Jesus: In your famous Sermon on the Mount, you offer thoughts about how beings created in God’s image should act. Unfortunately, it appears some of your instructions have been misunderstood and misinterpreted over time, causing great harm to Jewish-Christian relations.

Then, I’d offer this discourse.

As the Gospel of Matthew recorded your words, you said, “You have heard, ‘an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth.’” Of course, those words are found in Torah, but surely you know that there is not a single instance in the Hebrew Bible of mutilation being imposed as a punishment for a crime. Surely you know, too, that rabbis who were your contemporaries interpreted these verses to mean that fitting financial compensation should be set for criminals to pay victims.

You also said: “You have heard, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Had I been there to hear you speak, I would have liked to ask, “Where did people hear that expression? Surely not in our Torah.”

In fact, in Exodus 23:4-5, we read “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it.” With all due respect, Jesus, that certainly doesn’t sound like “hate your enemy” to me.

A wonderful story illustrates the Jewish perspective on this idea, and it’s an outlook I’m sure you share.

One year on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest night of the year, the synagogue was packed with worshippers waiting for the service to begin. To everyone’s surprise, the rabbi was not yet there. “Where can he be?” people wondered.

The synagogue leaders sent people to look for him, and finally someone found him, leading a frightened calf back into its stall.

“What are you doing?” the leader asked. “Everyone is waiting for you in the synagogue!”

“I know,” the rabbi answered, “but when I saw the lost animal, I had to bring it back to its owner.”

“But that man doesn’t even like you,” the lay leader said. “He has always been your enemy.”

“That is true,” the rabbi replied, “but our Torah teaches that we must be kind to our enemies.”

Another version of the story has a different ending. In this one, the leaders find the rabbi in a nearby house, rocking a baby in his arms. When asked why, the rabbi answered, “The child was crying. Comforting a crying child must take precedence over even the most important worship of the year.”

Jesus, I know we can agree that if we want to live up to our mandate as beings created in the Divine image, we must love our neighbors – including our enemies – as ourselves. Doing so means we extend a helping hand even to those who hate us and we dry the tears of crying children, including those who are homeless, hungry, or live in fear of violence – in our community, in our nation, and in this world that God has entrusted to our care.

Chag Sukkot sameach! (Happy Sukkot!) I’m glad you could come visit in my sukkah.

Contrasting Commandments

Each year the stark contrast between the inward focus of Yom Kippur and the outward thrust of Sukkot speaks to my soul in a louder voice.

Yom Kippur is all about quiet and contemplation. Sukkot is about building and action.

Yom Kippur asks us to look at ourselves. Sukkot asks us to look at the world.

Tradition teaches that after we rise from our Yom Kippur introspection and eat a bit, we should go outside and hammer the first nail in our sukkah.

The sukkah represents the frail huts where our ancestors lived on their 40-year journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. They also symbolize the temporary huts that farm workers lived in while bringing in the harvest from the fields.

For us who are neither nomads nor farmers the sukkah takes on different meanings.

Sitting in a sukkah, we are at the mercy of the sun’s heat, the wind’s chill and the rain’s wetness. These are temporary conditions for us, and we can retreat to our homes if we become uncomfortable. But so many in the world live without means to escape these elements.

Our tradition demands that we help them.

Sukkot celebrates the harvest.

  • But our celebration is vain unless it sharpens our concern for those who have no harvest. In the United States one in six people faces hunger.
  • Our celebration is an abomination if we ignore the wretched conditions and wages of those who bring food from fields and factories to our tables.

Our Torah teaches we must leave the corners of our field for the poor and needy (Leviticus 19:9-10). We also learn: God commands us to “open our hands wide for… your poor and your needy in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11)

The text does not say the poor and the needy but YOUR poor and YOUR needy. The poor and needy are OUR problem and OUR responsibility.

 Each of us has different talents and different capabilities. None of us can do everything but each of us can do something.

Contrasting Commandments

          Yom Kippur commands us to contemplate how we can make the world better.

          Sukkot commands us to do it.