What Sukkot teaches us about transition - Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner
Sukkot is a turning point in our calendars in so many ways. Within our Jewish timelines, it is what helps us to leave the serious self-judgement of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur behind and move into the next phase of our year. Globally, we start to feel the seasons turn and see nature take on its autumnal hues. Within the cycle of academic life, it is the start of a new year with all the changes that transition entails - from home to campus life, from relaxation to study and, for many of you, a brand new chapter of your life after leaving school.
Transitions like these make us feel vulnerable. It is only natural that changing from one environment where we have become comfortable to another would be disruptive, maybe even initially unsettling. Sukkot is all about that feeling of vulnerability. It exists for us to remember perhaps the greatest transition in Jewish history - from slavery in Egypt through years of wandering in the wilderness to the Promised Land. The people lived in temporary huts - they had no home in a physical sense, no home emotionally and not even a permanent structure to protect them from the elements. Our Sukkot customs invite us to feel just a small part of what this extreme vulnerability must have felt like.
Why is this important? In the UK, simply eating in the Sukkah can be stretching our patience with the weather a bit thin - never mind going all the way and living in it for an entire week. Why put ourselves through this? Our tradition wants us to remember where we came from. We were strangers in a land that was not our own; we were homeless, stateless wanderers desperate for somewhere to call home - this is our history and we survived to where we are now because we managed to find and build that home.
There is a clear modern-day parallel to the ongoing plight of refugees across the world. By sitting in our Sukka, we remember that their history is our history and that we only made it to where we are today because we were guided to safety. If God isn’t giving them directions, that is because it has become our duty. As Jews, we believe we are partners with God in repairing our world, so the duty falls to us to help people in the same position we were in when God helped us in our tradition. We have to see displaced people, hear their calls for help and lend them the helping hand they need.
Whilst refugees are the clearest parallel, the same duty falls to us to help everyone around us who is vulnerable. Our society has increasing numbers of people who are homeless, and millions of families who now rely on food banks for sustenance. By leaving our stable homes and heading into the Sukkah, we have to realise the luxury and security we take for granted. It is no coincidence that a major mitzvah (commandment) we are supposed to fulfill in the Sukkah is the inviting in of others. Waking ourselves up to the vulnerability people face in the world compels us to reach out and offer to share what we have, however much we have.
At this moment of transition, especially in the student world, we need to be aware that there are certain to be vulnerable people around us. Whether that be the homelessness around the places we are moving into, or the mental health needs of others struggling to cope with changes in their lives. Sukkot comes around to remind us: we must see these people and we must be the ones who help them out of their wilderness and to their own Promised Land, wherever that may be. Chag Sukkat Sameach! Happy Sukkot!
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner is the Senior Rabbi to the Movement of Reform Judaism. Passionate about social justice, community c cohesion, Israel and LGBT issues, she has worked as a Rabbi at Alyth Gardens Synagoge Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Rabbi Laura is regular media contributor, including appearances on BBC Radio 4's 'Thought of the day' and BBC One#s 'The Big Questions'.