This Sukkot, I have been consumed by two compelling images. The lesser-known (from Deuteronomy 31:9-12) is called Hakhel (“gather”) — the commandment that on every seventh Sukkot, the population gathers to hear “this teaching.”
At Hakhel, the rabbis say, the king himself proclaimed various passages from Torah, culminating in the “blessings and curses” (Deuteronomy 27-28), the frightening explanation that good and bad are divine reward and punishment for our behavior.
This message is hardly ideal sukka reading; indeed, most Jews no longer believe it.
Fortunately, the book of Job provides an alternative: We simply do not know why good and bad occur. But just acknowledging this lets God too easily off the hook.
So I turn to my second image: the familiar kabalistic invitation to other-worldly guests (ushpizin, in Aramaic) to visit our sukka, an image tied to the problem of evil.
Kabala brings enormous sophistication to the issue. Begin with the fact that as monotheists, Jews cannot blame the bad on some other deity. If a single God created everything, that same God must be implicated in the bad, not just the good. At the very least, an all-powerful God ought to have better arranged the laws of nature!
Kabala solves the problem by implying that God is actually not all-powerful; God intended only good, but the process of creation went wrong, allowing evil to become embedded in the universe. We human beings now face the task of cleaning up the mess — hence, the concept of tikun olam, the obligation to “correct” creation’s flaws.
I return to the ushpizin, named in the ritual as biblical heroes like Abraham, Isaac, and David. But Kabala meant these names as personifications of the good and bad that crept into creation summoned to our sukka!
Recall the image of the king, every seventh Sukkot, reading the blessings and the curses. The “blessings and curses” of Torah are not altogether different from the “good and bad” of creation. I need not read the former on Sukkot, as long as I consider the latter. As the king once assembled the population to hear the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy, we might assemble friends and family to hear the good and bad in our world — an updated version of the ushpizin, and a reminder of the tikun the world needs.
Here’s my list for the seven years past.
2008: An elderly pensioner left penniless by greed that brought recession beyond imagination.
2009: A suffering child, now healthy, because she is insured through the Affordable Care Act.
2010: A Haitian mother who died of cholera following the most devastating earthquake in memory.
2011: A liberal Muslim lawyer who joined the crowd in Egypt’s Tahrir Square hoping for freedom but instead got Islamic extremists who betrayed what the revolution might have become.
2012: A six-year-old gunned down in Newtown, Conn., because we have no gun control.
2013: A homosexual couple, finally married, because the Supreme Court rejected the “Defense of Marriage Act.”
2014: An African father, dead from the Ebola epidemic.
Sukkot evokes gratitude: for the food, the brilliant autumn colors, and the gift of life renewed after another Yom Kippur fast. It should also prompt admission that all is not yet rosy throughout the world. God began creation, but left us to correct it: curing disease, preventing wanton cruelty, insisting on freedom, demanding equality, and standing up for the dignity of every human being. At least once every seven years, we should create our own Hakhel — a Sukkot “gathering” to acknowledge both the good and the bad that remain our human lot.