December 13, 2018

Power to the table

While we were having our meals in the sukkah this year, I kept thinking about another holiday. This is odd because Sukkot has a strong and distinctive personality. The very idea of building a sukkah is unusual. For eight days, this little hut is the center of our lives, which, in Jewish terms, means it’s where we eat.

The sukkah itself conveys important symbols, from the impermanence of life to our connection with our wandering ancestors to the Jewish ideals of humility and gratitude. Countless sermons and essays have been written on the many layers of rich meaning associated with this holiday.

It’s no surprise, then, that when you’re inside a sukkah, it is the sukkah that is the star of the show, especially when it’s beautifully decorated. And when words of Torah are spoken, those words usually connect directly to the uniqueness of the holiday.

This year, though, my mind wandered elsewhere. As we celebrated night after night in our little hut, it struck me that Sukkot is the only Jewish holiday that isolates so clearly the most sublime Jewish ritual of all — the family table. As beautiful as our sukkah was (thanks to my daughter Eva), my thoughts were mostly on the table.

It was as if Sukkot morphed into “the holiday of the table” — the holiday in which we are commanded to take our tables outside and give them only minimal protection. The sukkah thus became the spiritual envelope for the real star of the show — the table where we shared our festive meals.

Maybe it was simply that the meals themselves reminded me so much of our weekly Friday night meals — only, we were having them inside a hut. Instead of distracting me, the hut focused my attention on the human gathering. I realized the power of a table to bring people together. After all, is any ritual more essential to our humanity than the sharing of a meal around a table?

And has any ritual been more essential to the survival of Judaism than the weekly gathering around the Shabbat table?

It always blows me away to imagine my distant ancestors in some Moroccan village sitting at their own table and reciting the exact same blessings we do on a Friday night — and probably eating the same spicy fish. It’s what all our ancestors scattered around the globe have done for millennia: Once a week, they sat around the Shabbat table and made it holy.

It also impresses me that 3,300 years ago at Sinai, after the Jews were released from bondage, a ritual was born that seemed to anticipate our modern-day version of slavery — our addiction to smartphones. Is there a smarter antidote to this addiction than the weekly holiday of Shabbat, where we turn it all off and reconnect with one another and with everything real? That human connection around a table is what I responded to, more than anything, inside the sukkah this year.

When I mentioned these ideas last week at a Sukkot lunch with students and staff of the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA), who share our building in Koreatown, I was delighted to receive a follow-up email from AJR-CA co-founder Rabbi Stan Levy, elaborating on the importance of the table in Jewish tradition.

Among other things, he pointed out that the codification of Jewish law, compiled centuries ago by Rabbi Joseph Caro, is called the “prepared table” (Shulchan Arukh). “For me it meant that our table is now our altar,” Rabbi Levy wrote. “A sacred place at which we offer the precious gifts each of us brings to the table and receive the gifts everyone else brings.”

Rabbi Levy spoke of the table as “the place where we come together to nurture and nourish each other,” and he mentioned an insightful book titled “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” by Rachel Naomi Remen.

“Everybody is a story,” Remen writes in her introduction. “When I was a child, people sat around the kitchen tables and told their stories. We don’t do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along.”

The continuation of the great Jewish story has depended not on the quality of the structures we’ve built, but on the quality of the tables we’ve set. It is around these tables that the values, stories and wisdom of our tradition have been handed down from one generation to the next.

Placing our holy table inside a humble hut during the holiday of Sukkot dramatizes its power and reminds us to continue this transcendent ritual once we return home.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at