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September 20, 2013  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

Is joy the key to those who seek a way in?

By Rabbi Betsy Torop
By Rabbi Betsy Torop

There are many things about Jews and our habits that are a mystery to me. Why do we seem predisposed to the “two Jews and three opinions” syndrome? Why is it that we can talk endlessly about the “best” deli? Why are we fascinated when we learn that a particular actor or musician or Nobel Prize winner is Jewish?

Amongst the things that I wonder about, is this annual question: Why are synagogues packed on Yom Kippur – the most ascetic day in the Jewish year – a day when we focus on sin, guilt and our imperfections, but on Sukkot and Simchat Torah – which highlight joy, celebration and tangible elements that stimulate our senses – there are empty seats? Are we somehow more inclined to embrace guilt and shame than laughter and celebration?

I am obviously not suggesting that the Days of Awe are not important. But surely there is something out of balance when we make the time and effort for the deeply serious and difficult work of repentance and forgiveness, and then feel that we can skip the celebration of joy and happiness? Sukkot is called in our tradition zman simchateinu – the season of our rejoicing. It is in many ways, everything that Yom Kippur isn’t. It is outdoors, drawing our attention to the sky and the wind and the sun. It is a sensory celebration – the smell of the etrog, the sound of the shaking lulav, the feel of the breeze and the sun. Sukkot is a necessary counterbalance to Yom Kippur. Surely the need for joy is as great as the need for regret; what does it say that we make time to examine our sins, but not to celebrate our blessings?

This question takes on additional relevance when we consider how many feel on the outside of Jewish life. For many, it is hard to find their way into Jewish life. Non-Jewish partners and spouses do not always feel welcome. Gays and lesbians still feel the sting of discrimination. Jews of color and other ethnicities are made to feel “different.” Those with mental health issues are frequently stigmatized. Those who struggle financially often feel on the fringes of a Jewish life that seems increasingly expensive. For young Jews, finding a form of Jewish life that speaks to their 21st century identities is not easy in synagogues that still are attached to old models and practices.

If we were to place as much emphasis on joy as regret, on gratitude as well as blessing, would some who feel alienated perhaps find a way in? Sukkot is the ideal time to find out, because it is THE holiday of welcome. A tradition central to Sukkot is ushpizin – the welcoming of guests. This kabbalistic tradition suggests that every day we welcome certain ancestral guests into the Sukkah – Abraham, Moses, David (and many of us include our well-known matriarchal figures as well). Sukkot is the holiday of joy and welcome. Unlike the doors of our synagogues, which are often locked for security, and require tickets at the High Holy Days, our Sukkot are intentionally open, symbolic of the welcome we extend not only to our ancestors, not only to each other, but all who seek a way in.

There is too much at stake for the Jewish people and the Jewish future for us ignore those who feel on the margins. Sukkot is an essential reminder of the imperative to be welcoming – not only this week, but all weeks – and perhaps by embracing the joy that is the heart of Jewish life, we’ll draw in all who seek lives of meaning and purpose.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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