By Rabbi Scott Weiner, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom Rabbinic Cabinet

With Yom Kippur just behind us, our thoughts turn now to the festival of Sukkot (sometimes known as the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles).  Jewish tradition tells us that we should begin building our sukkah (booth) at the first available moment after Yom Kippur; the traditional thinking is that we're rushing to the very next opportunity to complete a commandment, while at the same time closing the door on Yom Kippur, and hence, God's chance to reconsider which book we were inscribed in on Yom Kippur.

Perhaps another explanation for why we begin building our sukkah so close on the heels of Yom Kippur is because it so accurately reflects the mood and goal of the holiday of Sukkot: transience. 

Each year we rebuild our booths and take them down a week later, emulating two crucial moments in our history: the temporary dwelling our ancestors built and took down at each point on the long journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and the ramshackle huts in which our ancestors lived in their fields at harvest-time. Like these other huts, the sukkot we build today are only temporarily fixed in place, and serve to instill within us a sense of movement and freedom.

It appears, however, that in Israel -- where you can find a sukkah on nearly every porch, in every yard and at every restaurant -- this message of movement and freedom is lost on those making policy decisions for the occupied West Bank.  The "security fence," in reality a giant wall in many places whose route has been unilaterally chosen by the Israeli government, repeatedly restricts the movements of, and determines the fate of, the Palestinians on the other side. 

Sometimes movement within one village is interrupted by the gargantuan structure.  At other times, farmers are separated from their crops, an irony during the agricultural festival of Sukkot, to say the least.  Even worse is the fact that many Palestinians are prevented from entering Israel to work, draining the Israeli economy and devastating Palestinian families who rely on these jobs to feed their families.

Even within the walled off portions of the West Bank, Palestinians are ever further restricted in their movement by the ever-present IDF, road blocks and random road closures.  Just this week, the United Nations released a report in which it stated that there are now 572 road blocks in the West Bank, an increase of more than 50 percent in the last two years -- at a time when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have promised a reduction in such road blocks.

The last and perhaps greatest restriction of movement is that which occurs continuously in Gaza.  While Israel likes to portray the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 as a washing of hands with Gaza, the reality is that Israel controls all movement in and out of Gaza -- which defines Israel as an "Occupying Power" according to international law.

As a result, all people, goods and services -- industrial export/import, basic food supplies, medical equipment, pregnant women and elderly cancer patients -- are allowed in or out of the Gaza Strip at Israel's convenience, and in practice the borders are opened at most a few days a month. Intermittently, Israel still disrupts movement within the Strip as well.

Sukkot is a time when we are to recall our own journey toward freedom and the wandering lives of our ancestors.  Can we in good conscience celebrate fully when others are denied their freedom and freedom of movement?  We can and should celebrate, but we need to also take special note of what is happening in the Occupied Territories while we celebrate.  As a child, I remember vividly having an empty chair at the seder table for the Soviet Jews who did not have freedom or freedom of movement either.  Perhaps in each sukkah, we too can leave an empty chair.

In Temple times, Sukkot was a time when Jews from the Land of Israel and from the Diaspora would gather in Jerusalem to offer up the choicest of gifts to God, the bounty of the harvest.  It was called pilgrimage -- sacred, holy movement.  This Sukkot, let us pray that the sanctity of movement for all peoples is restored.

Suggestions for Sukkot:

  • When you attend Sukkot gatherings, talk to family and friends about the work of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom to organize American Jews to change US foreign policy and invite them to join.

  • It's customary to invite guests both literal and metaphorical into our sukkahs, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and David and, for some, seven female prophets: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Hannah, Huldah, Avigail. You might want to "invite" the spirits of those you consider heroes of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation such as Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli and Palestinian members of Combatants for Peace, the activists in Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace or the rabbis of Rabbis for Human Rights. Whose spirits would like to have inhabit your sukkah? If you don't build a sukkah, chose seven figures - one for every night of the festival - and read something about each one at your dinner table each night.

  • Invite loved ones to a special evening dedicated to discussing the spirit of Sukkot and the ideas of universal peace and tikkun olam, repairing the world.  You can download Brit Tzedek materials to guide your conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

  • Learn about the restrictions the occupation places on daily life for Palestinians in the occupied territories and discuss them with your friends and family.  A recent series of articles on this topic by Stever Erlanger of the New York Times is listed below.

If you would like to add to these ideas, please contact Rabbi John Friedman, chair of Brit Tzedek's Rabbinic Cabinet at rabbfriedman@btvshalom.org.


*Rabbi Scott B. Weiner is a national board member and serves on the Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom. He serves as the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation in New York City.
 
Before joining Hebrew Tabernacle, Rabbi Weiner spent four years as the Rabbinic Intern at Manhattan's historic Central Synagogue where his time was devoted to being Youth Director, teacher and a pulpit presence.

Rabbi Weiner is member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the New York Board of Rabbis, New York Area Reform Rabbis, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the ACLU, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, the American Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Nature Conservancy and the Save Darfur Coalition. He is also a URJ Kutz Camp Committee member, a member of the rabbinic cabinet of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and a member of the clergy advisory board of Concerned Clergy for Choice.

Rabbi Weiner co-founded the Running Rabbis, with his chevruta (study) partner, Rabbi Benjamin David.  The Running Rabbis run marathons and other races to raise funds and awareness for important charities and causes. 

Rabbi Weiner holds a Bachelors of Arts in Judaic Studies from the State University of New York at Albany.  He earned his M.A. in Hebrew Literature and was granted rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.


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