There is an intriguing paradox in the laws of Sukkot. Maimonides, following the Talmud, rules that a stolen Sukkah is nonetheless a kosher sukkah (Laws of Sukkah 5:25). That is, if one used a sukkah without another’s permission, it is nevertheless still usable to fulfill the commandment of dwelling in the sukkah. One may fulfill one’s obligation to eat and sleep in the sukkah, even if it isn’t owned by the person fulfilling the mitzvah. A sukkah, in essence, is communal property.

On the other hand, a lulav and etrog must be owned by the person using them. This is inferred from Leviticus 23:40, which commands that “on the first day” u’lekachtem lachem, “you shall take for yourselves” the four species. On the first day, therefore, we are required to have full possession of the species—we are required to own them. This gives rise to the name of an entire chapter of the Talmud: what happens if the lulav, or any of the four species, is stolen? Can it still be used to fulfill the commandment? Unlike the sukkah, where ownership doesn’t matter, for the four species it does.

The lulav is focused on the individual. The shaking of the lulav, done properly, brings the four species in contact with the heart, extending out and in three times in six directions. The symbolism signifies that the individual is integrating the world into the self, and giving the self to the world. But the emphasis is on the individual, and the demand for ownership reinforces this.

The sukkah, but contrast, is a communal structure. It does not belong to the individual, and it doesn’t need to. The sukkah in a sense reminds us of our fragility, of the reality of bittul, self-nullification: ki li ha-aretz, For the Earth is Mine. Hence it is not necessary to own a sukkah—because ownership is a fiction in the first place.

On Shabbat my colleague Rabbi Michael Balinsky taught a piece of the Sefas Emes in which he says that the movement from one’s house to the sukkah is a sort of re-enactment of the movement of Abraham and Sarah: lech-lecha me’artzecha…, Go out from your land. It is an act of undoing the false sense of security we place in our houses, an annual resetting of our relationship to our property. At the same time, I would say that the lulav sends an additional message: of the necessity of integrating our labor (represented in the fruits of our labor) with the wider world and with community.

These paradoxes are on our minds as we watch the protests unfolding around the world. We are challenged to ask, What is our relationship with our property? What does it mean to own? What does it mean to share? And they are on our mind as we watch a nation, and a people, come together to welcome home one of their own: How are we related? Why do we rejoice for some, but not others? What does it mean to have a home? And what does it mean to share our homes with our neighbors?

Baruch podeh umatzil – blessed is the One who redeems and saves.

Chag sameach.

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