An excerpt from Co-General Director Lisa Engdahl's contributions to Deuteronomy (Polis Bible Commentary)
The first sermon I ever heard on Sukkot*, the Feast of Booths, was given by Rabbi Jonathan Kupetz, who is part of a broad-based organizing cooperative (Industrial Areas Foundation) of religious institutions, non-profits, and unions working for community change in our region. He said the purpose of Sukkot is to remind us of our vulnerability and frailty, as well as the vulnerability of our neighbors, by connecting us to the vulnerability of the people of God in their wilderness wanderings. I was deeply touched by his reflection, since at the time I was caring for my elderly mom and was helplessly watching her become increasingly frail and closer to death. As her daughter and caregiver, my own body was beginning to buckle under the stress of attending to her needs. I felt myself teetering on the thin line that exists between health and illness, thriving and depression.
After the rabbi’s reflection, people stood up and shared stories about vulnerabilities in our community—people without homes who come to our churches with significant needs, young adults with crushing student loan debt, children threatened by environmental and traffic safety issues. One mother brought a picture of a local boy who had been hit and killed by a car on the way to school due to a lack of safe walkways. She urged other parents into action, so that a tragedy like this would not affect another child.
The word of God reminds us that God draws near to us in our vulnerabilities. In the wilderness of adversity and weakness we are spiritually formed by God and experience God’s presence. Through Sukkot, He calls us to identify with those who are vulnerable by remembering our spiritual heritage: the wilderness story is our story.
My mother immigrated to America out of the poverty of post-World War II Germany. One time my mom and I had just finished shopping for groceries and unloading them into our car when we were approached by a man who said he needed some food. She pointed at our groceries in the trunk, and we unloaded them into his cart. He was visibly moved. As we drove off she said, “I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to be hungry.” Poverty was a personal memory for her, not a conceptual abstraction.
The stories she told me from her challenging and fascinating life made a deep impact on me. They planted inside of me an identification with people struggling against poverty, since they were like my mom had been. Sukkot takes us into the gritty story of our biblical family, when God’s people were vulnerable and poor in the wilderness. By making a connection between ourselves and that story, we magnify our sensitivity to the hardships our neighbors face, so that we can love them personally. God wants to continue to strengthen us to face our own frailty and the frailty of our community, trusting fully in His power to miraculously provide for us and to sustain us through every hardship we face.
*Sukkot is known as The Feast of Tabernacles or the Festival of Booths. It is described in Deuteronomy 16:13-22, and celebrated in John 7.
This is an excerpt from Deuteronomy (Polis Bible Commentary) by Robert C. Linthicum, Derek Engdahl, and Lisa Engdahl. This commentary explores the book of Deuteronomy with exposition and urban ministry commentary.
You can purchase the commentary here. Published by Urban Loft Publishers.