The sukkah: A house of prayer for all nations


When I became a rabbi, I knew that I would be giving advice on how to build a sukkah someday, but I never imagined that it would be at the local church!

It turns out that many Christians are fascinated and inspired by Jewish holidays. 

“Would it be offensive for us to build a sukkah at the church?” their leaders asked. I stroked my beard and replied, “No, it’s not offensive at all.  It’s a siman tov, a good sign, for humanity that Christians want to learn about their Jewish roots. In fact, some say that Sukkot is holier than Yom Kippur because on it we pray not just for ourselves, but for the whole earth.”

In ancient Jerusalem there were more festival offerings on Sukkot than on any other holiday, because they were praying for the well-being of all 70 nations. And, in his final words, the prophet Zecharia foretells, “All who survive of the nations that came up against Jerusalem will make pilgrimage year by year … to observe the Festival of Sukkot.”

Every year on the last day of Sukkot, we say, “Next year may we dwell in The Great Sukkah made from the skin of Leviathon [the evil inclination], next year in Jerusalem!” Christians also have messianic hopes for this holiday.

Every Sukkot,Jerusalem hosts tens of thousands of Christians’ from all over the world, who march in the streets. With Technicolor floats and costumes, people from each nation, in their own style, ecstatically dance and wish the Jewish people “chag sameach,” joyous festival.

This year, Torat Yisrael will host local Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families at our annual Sukkot celebration (Oct. 23, 11:30 a.m.). As part of the ushpizin, or exalted guests ritual, we invite the soul of Abraham and all of his children into our sukkah.

After dancing among the plants and eating pizza in the hut, we will enter a new sacred space, pitched right next to the sukkah. Abraham’s Tent, a large stretch tent stitched together with fabric from all three of our communities, is based on the idea that all three religions were born and raised in Abraham’s Tent – and now we are ready to come back home as a human family to dedicate a shared sacred space for future gatherings.

With all of the fear, hatred and xenophobia in the world, it would do us much good to start building this great sukkah of the future together now. There is enough food and love in the world to feed everyone and there is enough solar and wind energy to power everything. If only we could work together and share all of this abundance.   

Every night after the Shema we pray, “Ufros aleinu sukat shlomechah”: Spread over us your sukkah of Shalom. Huh?? If we want shelter from the storm, why are we praying for a flimsy sukkah? And if Shalom means “wholeness,” then why are we asking God for a shelter that is porous and broken? Perhaps it is the very openness and vulnerability of the sukkah that enables us to invite in all of creation (plants, wind, sun, rain, birds, etc.). This microcosm of creation is only complete when the most exalted guest of all arrives: the soul of the universe, the indwelling presence of God.                                       

But then the winds come, and the sukkah falls apart, reminding us that God is counting on us to build and rebuild this fragile shelter of peace.

AARON PHILMUS is rabbi of Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.

d'var Torah, sukkot