Global Jewish Reflections | Living Richly, Even in a Fragile Sukkah

Global Jewish Reflections | Living Richly, Even in a Fragile Sukkah

Rabbi Ari Oliszewski teaches congregants how to shake the lulav and etrog on Sukkot.

Rabbi Ari Oliszewski teaches congregants how to shake the lulav and etrog on Sukkot.

By: Rabbi Ari Oliszewski - Kaplan Leadership Fellow, Porto Alegre, Brazil

Global Jewish Reflections: Wisdom from Around the JDC World

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

These days, Sukkot is beginning. The chag (festival) is characterized by mitzvot (commandments) that help us, day by day, to recognize ourselves and choose to be part of this storied Jewish people.

Among all the mitzvot that surround this beautiful chag, there is one that stands out above all the rest — to sit and dwell in the sukkah for a period of eight days. This ancient booth has a very precarious construction, with weak walls and a roof that lets you see the stars and the moon at night. It’s the primary symbol of the Sukkot holiday, reminding us of the days our brothers and sisters were in the desert, making their way from slavery in Egypt to the promised land.

On the other hand, there is another mitzvah, which, in my point of view, is the most important attitude to adopt during the chag. We must take it into consideration, in order to be able to fulfill it every day of our lives. It is written in the Torah:

  • “V’samachta V’Chagecha” (And you will rejoice and celebrate; Deuteronomy 16:14)
  • “U’smachtem Lifnei Ad´ Eloheichem Shivat Yamim” (“And you will rejoice before Ad´ your G-d seven days” Leviticus 23:40)
  • “V’Haita Ach Sameach” (And you will be truly happy” Deuteronomy 16:15)

This precept appears three times in the sacred texts: Be happy and live this way during the holiday, and replicate that feeling for all the days of your life.

Rabbi Ari Oliszewski (front left) taking a selfie with his congregation.
Rabbi Ari Oliszewski (front left) with his congregation.

The mitzvah of simcha (joy) is so important that it gives Sukkot its second name: Zman Simchatenu, the time of our joy. Already in the holiday’s name we are being asked to fulfill this mitzvah we so often put aside, one that could be so good for us. Sukkot is a time for rejoicing and pleasure, a time for sharing as a family and community, a period of eight days of true happiness after having gone through the difficult trials and tests of Yom Kippur.

But we live in a complicated world, and it’s reasonable to ask ourselves: How can I be happy in the midst of so much crisis?

It is written in the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 4:1: “Ben Zoma says: […] Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion.” We must be able to recognize our wealth day by day and celebrate the things that make us happy.

When I talk about wealth, it’s not about how much money we have in the bank or how many times we travel on vacation to Disney World. It’s about being able to appreciate and value those little things we have at home: A family to share life with, friends with whom we can enjoy happy moments and know we can count on for those difficult ones, and good health that helps us face each of the obstacles that arise in life and enjoy each new challenge we encounter on our daily walk.

Living my life within the framework of community, through my work as a rabbi, allows me to experience in a more direct way the joy that is lived in a chag.

That’s what being rich is about, as the Mishnah says, and being able to recognize this wealth is what will really make us happy.

Living my life within the framework of community, through my work as a rabbi, allows me to experience in a more direct way the joy that is lived in a chag. And when you think about how all this helps your own spirituality? It’s fantastic.

I really do consider myself a rich person, not only because I have a beautiful family, friends, and a job doing something I love. My sense of spiritual wealth also comes from my participation in the Kaplan Leadership Initiative, a JDC global program for promising Jewish professionals.

We come from Europe, the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Latin America to learn together and learn from each other, as we represent a vibrant and diverse modern Jewish world. We get access to essential, efficient, and up-to-date tools that help us grow personally and professionally, and then bring this wonderful experience to our home communities to make a difference.

Sukkot invites us to reflect on the question of precisely who is rich. We all must dwell in the sukkah for eight days, an extremely fragile place where, if it rains, we’ll get wet, and if it’s a 30-degrees Celsius day, we’ll be hot, because it’s difficult to put an air conditioning system inside a sukkah.

Rabbi Oliszewski helps a bar mitzvah read from the Torah.
Rabbi Oliszewski helps a bar mitzvah read from the Torah.

We are only able to live with simplicity, sharing our traditions with friends and family. All the true joy of the chag comes for free, and it makes us happy, fulfilling the very important mitzvah of this holiday, our season of rejoicing. Sukkot leaves us with a message we can apply to every day of our lives.

Being happy and cheerful all the time allows us to see life in a more optimistic way, even as we clearly see all those obstacles that stand in our way. Though it isn’t easy to remain constantly happy, if we could appreciate the little things we have, surely we can achieve it.

May G-d allow us this Sukkot to learn to be truly happy, and thus, richly live out all the days of our life.

Rabbi Ari Oliszewski is a Kaplan Leadership Fellow and the spiritual leader of the União Israelita Porto Alegrense synagogue in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

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