December 19, 2018

Table for Five: Sukkot

One question, five answers. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

If you could invite anyone to your sukkah, who would it be?


Rivkah Slonim
Education Director, the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University, State University of New York

Hands down, Devorah Hashofetet, Deborah the Judge, woman of fire. 

Finally, I could have a heart-to-heart talk with the woman who has always intrigued me. We have matriarchs, prophetesses, queens, female scholars, but Deborah is singular in Jewish history, serving as the leader of the Jewish people in her time. 

Deborah, I have questions for you. Forgive me, but just how was it that you alighted to your position? Were you simply the “best man” for the job? What was it like to operate within — nay, to run — the boys club? 

Believe it or not, all these years later, it’s still not a walk in the park. How did it affect your marriage to Barak? I am guessing your relationship was rock solid, as when he balked at your idea of his leading the Jewish people to war against Jabin of Canaan and asked for you to join him, and you replied confidently in the affirmative. But you prophesied that it would be a woman who would win the war. Delicious irony in that subtle insult, no? 

I admire the way you showcase Yael in your song of victory and give her the credit that is due. That doesn’t always happen in a man’s world. Fearless Yael effectively won the war by driving a tent peg through the temple of Sisera, general of the Canaanites. Go, girl! Move over, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I want to watch a full-length feature film on Deborah. For now, though, I will savor our conversation. 


Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman
ravjill.com

To our sukkah, I would invite Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Protestant minister and social justice activist from North Carolina. 

Rev. Barber has an uncanny ability to weave texts from all over the Bible, especially the words of the prophets, into a rhythmic, almost hypnotic cadence that is profoundly inspiring. He preaches and organizes actions on justice, dignity and equality. He has been a voice I can rest in during these divisive times, because he not only speaks truth, he also uses the Bible’s most lofty aspirations to create a vision that compels me to act. 

When I hear him speak, my heart is all on fire. I want to stand up and move toward the world he paints, where each human is treated as the divine creature God made us to be. He is fearless in addressing the immoral climate of today, and like the prophets comes to tell us to turn around. He reminds us that the God of Compassion needs our partnership. 

In our sukkah, I’d ask him about his greatest sources of inspiration and how he manages to keep moving forward with constant pain from his spinal cord injury. I’d want to discuss how to heal the Black-Jewish divisions that unfortunately are not yet whole. I’d want to talk to him about the source of his inner strength, because Sukkot calls us to examine what is enduring and dependable beyond the concrete. 


Ilana Wilner
Director of Student Activities, Shalhevet High School

Before moving to Los Angeles, I roughed it in New York City with three roommates. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom that we somehow converted into a four-bedroom. To say the least, the space was tight, and yet our door was always open to anyone. Friends started referring to our apartment as the orphanage because constantly there were girls sleeping in any available spot. 

During these years, I decided to write my own set of Pirkei Avot titled, “If There Is Room In Your Heart.” If we were maxed out of room at the table and someone wanted to come over, my roommates would look at me and wait for my line, “If there is room in your heart, there is room at the table.”

This soon became my mantra of how I lived my life and have brought it with me to L.A. — everyone is welcome, no exclusions. For a girl who had only been in Orthodox settings, I have expanded my network and experienced the world through different perspectives. 

So if I had to invite anyone to my sukkah, I don’t think I’d be able to answer because I would want that one extra person who shows up when you think all the seats are full, the person your sukkah has no room for but your heart has plenty of space for. Because life happens when people stumble into your home. If there is room in my heart, there is room in my sukkah.


Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Aish Hatorah JMI, COO Harkham-GAON Academy

I would invite a Holocaust survivor, any survivor. Let me explain. 

The holiday of Sukkot celebrates the unbreakable faith that is the hallmark of the Jew. Who in their right mind walks into a desert, the most inhospitable environment on the planet? Well, that’s exactly what over 2 million Jews did after they left Egypt! 

Every sukkah testifies to the unconditional faith that Jews display even when their very survival is at stake. The air of the sukkah evokes the undying life force that has traveled with the Jew since he stepped into that desert and its shade reassures those who “dwell” in it that with faith, one can rise above any threat and any challenge. 

A Holocaust survivor is a human sukkah, a walking testament to the power of faith. Anyone who put on a tallit after Auschwitz, celebrated Shabbat after Treblinka or started a family after Bergen-Belsen is living proof that the Jewish spirit is indestructible and that our “Jewmanity” can withstand the most withering assaults. 

Sitting in a sukkah with a survivor is probably the most oxygenated faith infusion you can experience! The convergence is powerful and palpable. So, if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in the company of our living Sukkot, breathe deeply. The air is rarified and is the best prescription for the perspective and faith that we all seek. Chag sameach! 


Salvador Litvak
accidentaltalmudist.org

I’m going to assume there are some ground rules to this fantasy. No human being has ever known God as intimately as Moses did, yet he won’t answer our biggest questions. Our teacher Moses hasn’t joined our Sukkot dinner to tell us why good people suffer or where we go when we die, and in truth, perhaps any former human could do that.

So I would ask Moses what it felt like to hold a complaining people together in the midst of a miracle? What is it about us that resists peace and gratitude? We’ve been told over and over again that kindness and service are the keys to contentment, and still we resist. Is it our animal nature that makes us stubborn? Or is stiff-neckedness the most human of all traits?

And what was your best day, Moses? Was it atop Sinai, alone with God, taking dictation? Or was it making the bitter waters sweet and saving a whole population from dying of thirst by tossing in the right stick?

How did you handle the challenge of serving both your nation and your family? Was that an area of regret? Were there others? What did you feel as you stood on the brink of a land promised to everyone but you? Was it enough to be the greatest shepherd in history?

Did you feel that moment had been written long before and you were playing your part? Or did you write your own role?

And do we face the same question?