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May 17, 2024

Finding Shelter on the Journey: Parshat Emor

Hilly Haber

Finding Shelter on the Journey
Rabbi Hilly Haber

Tonight is the 25th night of the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot; seven weeks that stretch from Seder to Sinai, from liberation to revelation. As we count each of these days, we imagine the Israelites making their own journey: a homeless people on a brutal 40-year trek, exposed to the elements, battling exhaustion and despair; slowly learning to trust, to come together, to find their strength.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, God commands the Israelites to re-enact this journey every year.

בַּסֻּכֹּ֥ת תֵּשְׁב֖וּ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים

“You shall live in sukkot, temporary shelters, seven days so that each generation will know that I made the Israelite people live in these shelters [as they journeyed] when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.”[1]

Emor is one of several places in our Torah where we are instructed to observe the festival of Sukkot. Sukkot is linked to the rhythm of the agricultural cycle—it marks the autumn harvest—but our sages imbued the festival with deeper layers of meaning. In the 12th century, the Rashbam taught that the experience of living in temporary shelters for seven days connects us with the Israelites who came out of Egypt lacking shelter and other resources, [2] and calls us to identify with people who suffer such deprivation all year long.  For the Malbim, a 19th century sage, Sukkot reminds us that this world—and everything we acquire within it—is fleeting, impermanent. Our ancestors survived the journey not because of what they carried with them but because of how they cared for one another along the way. And some sages believed that the sukkot which sheltered the Israelites in the wilderness were not physical structures at all. Rather, the people were protected by the clouds of divine glory that God stretched out over the camp.[3] They were sheltered by God’s loving compassion and care; a presence which accompanied them through the wilderness.

Tonight, we honor our Central members and staff who lead and participate in our justice and volunteer initiatives. In a civic climate that can be harsh and merciless, they are a loving, steadfast presence, working in countless ways to build spaces of comfort and respite.Together with our partner organizations, we are welcoming and supporting people seeking refuge and asylum in New York City; providing nutritious meals to hundreds of our neighbors each week; visiting our brothers and sisters on Rikers Island and walking with them as they return home from jail and prison; and advocating for a sustainable and healthy future in which all New Yorkers have the resources they need to flourish. Here at Central and across the city, we traverse the wilderness alongside the most vulnerable New Yorkers, and together we build spaces of respite, sustenance and care, healing and dialogue.  Here are a few stories from this past year.

Isaias is a beloved student in our Nursery School. His family is seeking asylum and was based in one of the temporary shelters run by New York City. Recognizing that his family might not have the space to host the class for Isaias’ birthday, our Central Nursery School parents worked with his father to plan a party for him complete with presents. After the party, Isaias returned home and began sorting and dividing his birthday gifts. When asked what he was doing, he said he wanted to send presents back to his friends in Venezuela who didn’t have toys like these. When asked what made him think like that, he said, “I learned to treat other people like this in school.”

I’m also thinking about Peter, a participant of Coming Home and also a Central Teshuvah Fellow, a program developed and run by Central members who coordinate paid and meaningful employment opportunities for people who have come home from prison. On his way home from work one night, Peter saw a young Orthodox woman struggling to carry a baby carriage up the steps. As he helped her lift the carriage, a passerby called out, “Why are you helping her? Jews only help each other.” Peter called back, “Jews are the only people helping me right now.”

So often in these past months we in the Jewish community have felt isolated as we’ve struggled with grief, worry, and surging antisemitism. But here at Central, just as we strive to meet our neighbors in the wilderness, so too have they stepped up for us. Because of what we’ve built together, we are not alone. Tonight I want to share just a few of the messages we received from people who have stood with us all year, offering us shelter and comfort as we’ve traversed the wilderness.

Alex Anderson, Director of The ReEntry Theater of Harlem, which rehearses and performs in Bier Chapel, has been checking in all year. Last week he wrote: “I want to let you know that I am holding you, your families and the Central Synagogue community close in my thoughts and prayers. In these uncertain times, I am reminded of God's eternal presence, symbolized by the Ner Tamid in the Chapel. It serves as a beacon of hope, assuring us that even in our weakest and darkest moments, we are not alone, and there exists God’s wisdom, love, and grace shining upon us to guide our journey forward.”

We’ve received countless supportive messages from Atta, who came here with his family from Afghanistan, seeking asylum and whose son is in our Nursery School. In October he wrote: “Please send my condolences and sympathy to the Central community. I am deeply heartbroken. I understand the depth of Israel's tragedy more, because, I, as member of the Hazara community of Afghanistan, have been repeatedly subjected to such brutal attacks. Apart from religion and country, firstly we all are human and deserve to have a peaceful life without any discrimination and conflict.”

Prentiss Donaldson, Hotel 46 Program Director, wrote to us after 10/7 to say: “How are you guys doing with what is going on in Israel?  My team and I would like to provide any support you need.  Hotel 46th stands with you all and we want to send our warmest thoughts and prayers during this most challenging time.  We open our doors to you and the entire community should you ever need shelter.”

And our Coming Home Partners, a community of Muslims, Christians, and Jews who share meals and conversation Wednesday nights right here at Central, lit the Hanukkah candles with us this year, and shared this message: “We want to show up and show out for you this year, our beloved community. There is no place for anti-semitism here or anywhere. As we bring the gifts of the Central community together with the gifts and talents of the Coming Home Community, we become the keepers of hope for a more just and inclusive world.”

Each night before we go to sleep, we offer a poignant prayer: Ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, asking God to “envelop us in a sukkah of your peace, of divine wholeness.” We yearn for a spiritual sukkah: a space of safety and comfort; healing from the ravages of daily life; an oasis of loving care in the midst of the wilderness. Each of you, in your own way, has helped to create this sukkah; and our community has been blessed by your efforts. Thank you for sharing your time and talents, your thirst for justice, and for showing the world who we are.

Our sukkah is guided by a vision of hope and a spirit of partnership that begins with recognition that our wellbeing and future is tied up in that of all people who traverse the wilderness alongside us. As our synagogue has grown and thrived under the leadership of Shonni Silverberg, Rabbi Buchdahl, and Marcia Caban, so too have our circles of care and concern. Shonni, over your tenure, you have shaped a vision for a Jewish community which measures its success by the resources it shares, the dignity with which it serves, and the ever-expanding notions of refuge and shelter it shapes.

We honor you and all our keepers of hope tonight: May the Holy One bless you and give you strength for the journey—now and in the years to come. May you be sustained by one another, by the sacred partnerships that unite us, by a resilient spirit that resists despair. And may we continue to walk together toward the land of promise, sheltered by all we hold sacred. 

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.