This evening marks the beginning of my favorite Jewish holiday. Sukkot celebrates the fall harvest season, which we observe by building fragile backyard shelters covered with branches or corn stalks. For a full week, we eat our meals in these structures, with their organic open roofs and burlap walls. We experience our vulnerability in the face of wind and weather, and also enjoy the beauty of sky, starlight and growing things.
In Jewish tradition, the Sukkot festival is also known as “the season of our joy.” After the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with their focus on reflection, accountability and internal transformation, it always comes as a relief to celebrate the bounty of the natural world. As Rabbi Jill Hammer notes: “While the High Holidays ground us in the spiritual, Sukkot grounds us in the physical. The harvest booths of Sukkot remind us that we live with thin walls open to the world. We are always connected to the stars and the earth. Sukkot brings this reality home to us as part of a joyful celebration of the earth’s abundance.”
Sukkkot is also a time to focus on the plight of refugees. The sukkah was originally a shelter for those who needed a place to spend the night – beginning with our ancestors wandering in the desert upon leaving Egypt. This holiday reminds us that we are all immigrants. The Jewish people have a long history of migrating from place to place in search of a safe home. Remembering our past should move us to a place of deep compassion for all who come to our country, state and community in search of refuge. During Sukkot, as we eat and sleep outdoors, we give thanks for our safe homes – and commit to securing that basic human right for others who desperately struggle to find shelter. That includes responding to the human rights crisis on our southern border.
That challenge is complex, and there is plenty of room for political disagreement over policy. No party or ideology holds all the answers, and we need the best minds across the political spectrum working on creative solutions. We should be careful to avoid demonizing the folks who work at U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other federal agencies. Most of them are doing the best they can under extremely trying circumstances.
But partisan debate should cease in the face of moral travesties.
Whatever your political orientation, it should never be acceptable to separate children from their parents. It should never be acceptable to deny immigrants, legal or illegal, their basic human rights to decent food, shelter and hygiene. It should never be acceptable to refer to refugees as invaders.
And it should never be acceptable to limit the number of refugees that we welcome to a paltry 18,000, down from 110,00 just two years ago and 231,000 under Ronald Reagan in 1981. As the number of refugees worldwide soars, due in no small part to the casualties of America’s foreign wars and greenhouse gas emissions, to bar our gates is to betray our fundamental mission as a nation of immigrants.
In this Sukkot season, may we all be reminded of our obligation to welcome the stranger and share the abundance of the harvest we enjoy together.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.