Sukkah expresses public, private dilemma of Judaism

By Rabbi Mark Fasman

Ask almost any Jew what his or her Hebrew name is, and most know it. Outside of Israel, that name is often different from the secular name. Sometimes it is close (Sam/Shmuel, Elizabeth/Elisheva). Sometimes it begins with the same sound (Mark/Mordecai, Lisa/Leah). Sometimes it has the same meaning (Wolf/Zeev, Pearl/Margalit).

But no matter what, we have a public name and a “private” or Jewish name.

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We are remarkably adept at separating our Jewish life from our secular life. Diaspora Jews are exceptionally adept at alternating between these two identities. Many keep a kosher home, but see no inconsistency in eating non-kosher food out of the home. Many expect that the synagogue be a place of strict adherence to halacha, but do not follow halacha in their homes or businesses.

Many committed American Jews are Jews who keep a kippah in their pocket. Like Boy Scouts, we are prepared to make the switch to “Jewish” at a moment’s notice. Twenty-five years ago, as a new professor, I did not divulge my religion, either to colleagues or to students. I did not want the adjective appended to my title: “Jewish” professor. Eventually I wore that aspect of my identity openly and proudly. However, it took many years and it was not until I entered rabbinical school that I began to wear my kippah in public.

There are times in which there are conflicts between our two lives. Shul or soccer? Festivals or work and school? Cardinals or rabbis? Hebrew school or cheerleading/after-school sports? But we find ways to navigate these sometimes turbulent and dangerous waters.

Sukkot is one of the seasons of the Jewish year in which we are challenged to break down the artificial walls we have created between our Jewish self and our secular self. The sukkah forces us to go outside of our homes. It, like the public lighting of Hanukkah candles, places us in contact with our non-Jewish neighbors. We can see this meaning of Sukkot hinted at in the difference between the sacrifices for Sukkot vs. Shemini Atzeret. On Shemini Atzeret there is only one bull offered. But on Sukkot, we offer 70 bulls, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world. The rabbis teach us that these bulls are to atone for the sins of all mankind.

The Jewish people have often been insular. And we are parochial in many ways. This has sometimes been by choice, but often for our own protection. We hold ourselves separate. We ask, “Is it good for the Jews?”

But Sukkot forces us to emerge into the public sphere. We have obligations beyond the walls of the Jewish world. We have to see to the needs of the poor within our homes, but also to our neighbors. We have to see to the needs of the Jewish community, but also to the non-Jewish community.

If the role of the Jewish people has been to introduce God to the nations of the world, and in particular, to convey God’s Torah, our obligations do not stop once that delivery has been made. Torah is instruction. We need to teach it to ourselves and to others. We need to live it for ourselves and teach others how to live by its principles.

The trick, of course, is to find the proper balance between private and public expressions of Judaism.

We must not remain isolated from the non-Jewish world. This is in our interests as well as in the interests of our neighbors.

But remember that the sukkah does have walls. Even as we live outside of our homes, we live within the walls of our temporary shelter. Even as we live outside of our homes, we must retain our particular expression of religious identity. Our tabernacles are Jewish, not Mormon. We have obligations that are particular to Jews, both in private and in public. We have beliefs and practices that are uniquely Jewish, both in the privacy of our homes and synagogues and in the public arena.

The sukkah is a symbol of the great challenge of Judaism in the contemporary world. Like a fiddler on the roof, we walk a fine line between our Jewish identity and our universal humanity, between the imperatives of our tradition and our need to change to meet the changing conditions in which we live. During Sukkot, a fiddler on the s’khakh is in an even more precarious position. This is as it should be. This is the season to focus even more carefully on the balance we strive to achieve in our lives.

Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Congregation prepared the commentary on this week’s Torah portion.