Rabbinic Reflections: Elephant hugs

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. In this particular room, the elephant is the wall of the room. Yes, the rabbis of the Talmud permit the use of an elephant as a wall of a sukkah, the “booth” in which Jews dwell during the harvest festival of Sukkot, also known as the Feast of Tabernacles. Imagine that for a minute, an elephant literally defining a boundary of a room.

Instead of the awkward presence of an issue, challenge, or idea no one wants to discuss, this elephant occupies space at the periphery. The rabbis seem to think that people in the sukkah might not even notice. The ruling in favor of elephant-walls has to do with not being worried that should the elephant die, the wall won’t be high enough to count. While the rabbinic debate is clever in its legalistic considerations, we are left with a serious theological question: does an idiomatic elephant in the sukkah violate the spirit of the holiday?

Sukkot is more than a celebration of the harvest and more than a remembrance of the tents in which the Israelites dwelt on their way from Egyptian slavery to freedom in the Promised Land of Israel. Sukkot is the festival, literally one of its names despite there being other festival holidays. Sukkot is marked by joy, by sharing with guests, and even in Bible itself by including other nations of the world. Sukkot is the symbolic wedding of God and Israel, the celebration of what is meant to be a perfect union.

Today’s world, though, is emphatically not the world to come, not the messianic era. Today’s world is a far from the perfect union of God and humanity. Nuclear threats, increasingly destructive natural disasters, the breakdown in American politics, mass shootings, the rise of White Nationalism, disease, and a tear in the social fabric of communal life are all part of the elephant in the sukkah: where is God’s goodness willed into reality? Where?

The intentional irony of Sukkot is the fragility of the sukkah. As we celebrate the grandest completeness in God’s world, we do it in a temporary structure that has to be strong enough to withstand a normal wind but might be blown away by an unusual wind. We sit and dwell in a three-or-more-sided hut with a roof through which we can see the sky and stars. To make the fragility abundantly clear amidst the cornucopia-style decorations, we read the Book of Ecclesiastes, reminding us that all is vanity. We have to sit with and become accepting of that fragility. Sukkot reminds us that our world is broken when we are in our safe houses and when we go out into fragile shelters. The elephant is not in the sukkah and cannot violate its spirit because the sukkah represents both what is broken and what is strong.

The rabbis allow us to take this lesson one step further. Not only can an elephant be a wall of a sukkah, but so too can a person. The rabbis are not worried that a person might die while standing as a wall and no longer measure high enough to count; they know that you will take care of that person even if they mark the boundary of your sukkah.

A person as a wall of your sukkah is a reminder of the embrace of the divine within us. In allowing a person to be a wall, the rabbis are telling us to let in the brokenness of the world, address the elephant, and value the support one person can give another. There is still shelter; there is still God represented by the other walls; and there is also another human, containing God’s breath, standing by you. Connect with that person or be that person for someone else and bring more of God’s divine presence into the world; you will feel the embrace. It is an elephant hug.

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to editor@chaddsfordlive.com

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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