Gather All The Guests: The Good and the Bad

This Sukkot, I have been consumed by two compelling images, one commonplace, the other largely ignored.

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.” The Rabbis elaborate on “this teaching.”

At Hakhel , they say, the king himself (no less) proclaimed various passages from Torah, culminating in “the blessings and the curses” (Deuteronomy 27-28), the frightening explanation that good and bad are divine reward and punishment for our behavior.

This message is hardly ideal sukkah reading, however. 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; the laws of nature are impervious to moral logic.

But just acknowledging our inability to know why bad things happen lets God too easily off the hook. I don’t particularly relish a daily Sukkah dose of Job either.

So I turn to my second image: the familiar Kabbalistic invitation to other-worldly guests (Ushpizin, in Aramaic) to visit our Sukkah. This image too is tied to the problem of evil.

Kabbalah brings enormous sophistication to the issue. Begin with the fact that as thoroughgoing monotheists, Jews cannot blame the bad on some other deity. If a single God created everything, that same God must somehow be implicated in the bad, not just the good. At the very least, an all-powerful God ought to have arranged the laws of nature better!

Kabbalah 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 otherwise good universe. We human beings now face the task of cleaning up the mess – hence, the concept of tikkun olam, the human obligation to “correct” creation’s flaws.

I return to the ushpizin, the Sukkah guests. Our Ushpizin Ritual names them as biblical heroes, like Abraham, Isaac, and David. But Kabbalah meant these names as euphemisms for the good and the bad that crept into creation. It is really personifications of the world’s good and bad whom we summon to our sukkah!

Recall now 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 the bad” of creation. I need not read the former on Sukkot, it seems to me, 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 tikkun 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 of that year.

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 who got, instead, Islamic extremists who betrayed what the revolution might have become.

2012: A six-year old gunned down in Newtown CT, 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.

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