By Rabbi Greg Harris
There are many beautiful explanations and metaphors for the Sukkah. From the understanding of the sukkah as a simple shelter that was built as farmers were in the fields for the Fall harvest to many spiritual and mystical images, the Sukkah is part of an amazing tradition.
I love the metaphor of the sukkah as a shelter of Divine peace – a Sukkat Shlomecha. Through that image, we realize that a shelter of peace is a fragile undertaking. A Sukkat Shlomecha is something which can easily fall apart. It requires constant attention and effort to maintain. Sukkat Shlomecha, a state of Shalom – peace, wholeness, completeness, requires our effort and attention.
We have heard that sermon many times… yet when I read the newspapers today, I know we are far from universally fulfilling this vision.
I do not need to list all the examples of abuse, disrespect, and bullying in the headlines that shout out to me that we do not yet have a Sukkat Shlomecha. Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens beating up his fiancée in the elevator. Another NFL player, Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, being arrested for whipping his 4 year old child with a branch from a tree until the child was bleeding and covered with welts.
It is not only athletes. In schools, rates of bullying – verbal and physical bullying is shocking. From the most tragic circumstances of suicide to the paralyzing experience of being in fear from bullying in school and on-line, our collective Sukkat Shlomecha is fragile.
From incidents at our middle and high schools to things happening behind the manicured lawns of Bethesda, we must always remind ourselves that sometimes things are not as perfect as they appear.
From teenagers to adults around us, we need to be aware of others – or even ourselves, who need support.
I want to share two texts with you that helped me think about this more fully. We are familiar with both text but may not have connected them in this way. The first is from Genesis and second is from Deuteronomy. It feels right to bookend the Torah as we are about to finish the reading cycle and begin again. These texts will help us strengthen our fragile Sukkah. In the end, I will highlight one particular organization which deserves our attention for their important work.
You probably do not know Pastor John Gills. Gills was an English Baptist minister who died in 1771. I am told he had a strict Calvanist approach and was a significant teacher in his day. His biblical commentary is still widely used.
I want to teach you something that Pastor Gills taught about 250 years ago. It is his take on Adam and Eve.
We know these p’sukeem from Genesis chapter 2:
21 So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, God took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot.
22 And the Lord God fashioned the rib that He had taken from the man into a woman; and He brought her to the man.
23 Then the man said,“This one at lastIs bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken.”
This is the story of how Eve was created – from one of Adam’s ribs. People have derived many different lessons from these p’sukeem.
Some have looked at this story and derived that men are superior to women since the rib came from the man. Eve was a secondary creation and therefore a lesser being.
It is not just because I do not want to sleep outside in the Sukkah for the rest of 5775 that I find that lesson totally wrong – but I know fundamentalist Christians, and I am sure there are others, who truly believe that this is the proper relationship between men and women.
Pastor Gills’ understanding of those verses is wildly different, especially considering the time he lived. John Gills, this 18th century Baptist minister, has taught me something new from these old verses.
It is commonly observed, and pertinently enough, that the woman was not made from the superior part of man, that she might not be thought to be above him, and have power over him; nor from any inferior part, as being below him, and to be trampled on by him; but out of his side, and from one of his ribs, that she might appear to be equal to him; and from a part near his heart, and under his arms, to show that she should be affectionately loved by him, and be always under his care and protection.1
Eve is made from Adam’s rib because it is near his heart. Gills teaches this is to make a man and women always affectionate for one another. She is made from a part under his arm because he should protect her. It is from his side because she is equal to him.
What a wonderful read of the text.
Gills teaches us about being in a relationship of equals and of caring. It is a beautiful lesson for all relationships but the teaching can also act as a mirror for the control, abuse, belittling, or violence taking place in too many relationships.
We know that Gills image of relationships is not universal. Let’s look right here in our community. Montgomery County courts release monthly statistics on domestic violence cases. This is not the number of police calls where charges were not filed and it certainly does not include the violence which has never been reported. This is only what is in the courts so these numbers are far lower than the total estimated rates of abuse in the county.
Last month, the courts adjudicated 325 Protective and Peace Orders in Montgomery County.2 That excludes emergency orders.
325 people in our neighborhoods – in just September .
Beth El member, Debbie Feinstein, Chief of the Family Violence Division of the States Attorney’s Office told me that in 2013, the Montgomery County police made 6,755 calls for domestic violence.
Even though that is right here in our county, let’s drill down more. Let’s look at the Jewish community in Montgomery County.
The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, JCADA, says:
Domestic abuse occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate as in the general community – about 15-25% and the abuse takes place among all branches of Judaism and at all socio-economic levels.
Studies show that abuse occurs in every denomination of Judaism in equal percentages, and we see abuse in all communities including the unaffiliated. Abuse takes place at all socioeconomic levels.3
The myth that abuse does not take place in Jewish homes is just that – a myth. We believe in shalom bayit, peace in the home, but it is the perpetrator of violence that breaks that value, not the victim. There is a shanda factor which still exists but too often it is the victim who is worried about the shame and not the abuser who is doing such shameful acts.
And we are too secretive. Our silence only makes it harder for people to seek help and support from friends and professionals.
We need to talk about this because people must know that they are not alone within our community – within Beth El. Let others know what I am sharing today because the person you tell may be searching for just the right moment or person to reach out to for help.
So the first text was from Pastor Gills as he taught us that relationships should be protective, caring and equal. When relationships come closer to that, we will be closer to our Sukkat Shlomecha.
The second text was from Deuteronomy but it is probably more well-known from the Sh’ma. It is the command to speak of the mitzvot at home and away, night and day because this is how we will teach our children.4
Deuteronomy was right. The greatest teacher of our children is us. Children see what is happening at home and around them. Children absorb the priorities, values and social cues from their family, friends and community. So the prevalence of bullying – physical, emotional and cyber-bullying concerns me.What signals are we sending to our teens that this is acceptable? Where are they absorbing that perverse idea that bullying is OK?
As a community, we need to send a clear signal that 1) verbal and physical abuse and bullying is unacceptable, 2) abusers and bullies must stop their actions now and 3) victims are not alone.
The message must be clear and as a synagogue, we are making sure our policies and practices are in line with those values.None of us are alone – adults, children, teenagers and even institutions.
I want to raise up the important work of JCADA, which I already mentioned once. The Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse deserves our attention and support. Those at JCADA are advocates and offer tremendous support for victims. They address adults and teens and have innovative programs to make sure victims of bullying and violence can get help.JCADA has a vital role in the community and I want to make sure we are aware of it – www.JCADA.org.
You might be saying, Rabbi, Sukkot is z’man simchataynu – the time of our joy. Why are you talking about this now? It is because the Sukkah reminds me how fragile things are. If we want to build a Sukkat Shlomecha, we must be reminded that not everyone has the wholeness of spirit – shlamut, that our community wants for them. The shlamut that I believe God wants for them.
As we dwell in our Sukkah, think about how we can be a support for each other. Think about how we can strengthen each other, adults and teens, during fragile times in life. And always know that none of us are alone.Adonai li v’lo ira – God is with me so I will not fear.That is how we will build our Sukkat Shlomecha. It is a fragile structure so we can not take it for granted.Like the Sukkah though, we cannot take each other for granted. We must offer our support and safety to those adults and teens who may be especially fragile at this time.
Amen and Chag Semeach
Reprinted with permission by Rabbi Greg Harris, Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County. Original post found here.
3 Clergy Resource Center, JCADA
4 Deut 6:4-9