ISSUES OF FAITH: Recent holidays reinforce empathy and generosity

THE PHRASE “TZEDEK, tzedek tirdof” means “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16), and the concept of tikun olam, which means “repairing the world,” are paramount in Judaism.

We are repeatedly reminded in the Torah to take care of the less fortunate, the widow, the stranger, the poor and the refugee.

There is no accompanying statement indicating that we should only do this as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us in some way.

As long as our taxes don’t go too high, or those we’re helping are only a part of our own circle, class, race, religion or ethnicity.

There are no exemptions, no excuses.

Judaism finds a way to reinforce these values in each of our holidays.

It is easy to see the connection to food insecurity, for example, faced by many when one’s stomach actually hurts toward the end of our 25-hour Yom Kippur fast.

One cannot help but have empathy for those who are suffering from starvation, especially children, when you are hurting after only a few hours of fasting.

Even the joyful time of Sukkot, which begins just four days after the the last shofar blast ending Yom Kippur, is no different.

This harvest festival, rooted in ancient times, gives us a chance to be outside building a sukkah (a temporary hut), covering its roof with branches, and hanging flowers and fruit on it.

We celebrate a bountiful harvest, to which those with overflowing orchards and gardens can attest.

It is a welcome change after hours inside the synagogue praying.

Throughout the seven days of this holiday (“You shall dwell in booths for seven days” Leviticus 23), we are expected to spend time eating and even sleeping in our sukkah if possible.

The sukkah exposes us to the elements, reminding us of those who have no safe, dry place to live.

It must be built so one can see the stars through the roof, thus giving no protection from the rain and wind.

As we celebrate the bounty of the harvest, and enjoy the food we are fortunate enough to have, we are reminded to give to organizations that feed those in need.

In our joy, we are obligated to remember those who have little.

Again, there are no exceptions as to who receives our help.

Rabbi David Teutsch points out that “Sukkot confronts us with the dual message of fragility and bounty. Don’t take bounty for granted, and awareness of fragility motivates us to take care of those who need our help.”

Humble experience

Spending time in a sukkah makes us acutely aware of our vulnerability.

Our warm, sturdy homes and access to an abundance of food can be suddenly disrupted with sickness and death, hurricanes, flooding, winter storms, earthquakes and wildfires.

Trying to eat a meal while bundled up sitting in a sukkah, with rain dripping on us through the roof, is an awakening experience.

Most of us choose not to spend the night in those conditions, and we have the choice to go inside to our warm beds.

However, we realize that many simply do not have that choice.

Rabbi Noa Kushner reminds us, “Right after Yom Kippur, when we have taken our souls down to the studs and have looked squarely in the face of our flaws, Sukkot arrives … at the very time we’d like to hide out in our warm homes. Our protection is inextricably tied to the protection of others. The kind of security we seek will only come once we see ourselves as part of a larger whole, once we witness and respond to the needs of those outside our locked doors and beyond our circle of immediate concern.”

I would add that once we see everyone as a child of God containing a divine spark, it becomes easy to reach out to all in need.

When I saw that Justice Ruth Bader Ginzburg had the word “Tzedek” embroidered on her collar last week, I was reminded of the scholar Shalom Spiegel’s words, “Justice is the soil in which all other virtues can prosper. It is the precondition of all social virtue, indeed of all community life. … In every society justice must be the paramount concern, for it is the very foundation of all society.”

Yom Kippur and Sukkot help us remember the importance of justice in creating the holy world God intends.

Let us commit ourselves to seeking justice for all in the coming year.

Kein yehi ratzon, may it be God’s will. Shalom.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community. Her email is [email protected]

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