The Sukka Challenge

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“Spread over us your sukka [Tabernacle] of peace.”
–Jewish evening prayer

We ask God to shelter us in the shadow of a sukka, not once a year but regularly. For a sukka to be a place of peace, it needs to be a place that brings people together in a genuine and deep way. Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” This sukkot is a great time to give people – children, new guests and old friends – the attention they deserve. One way to accomplish this is to take the Sukka Challenge – make your sukka into a technology-free zone for the next week, and in E. M. Forster’s words, “Only connect.”

In this spirit, I would like to share a piece of my Yom Kippur sermon, translating ten of our al chets – our sin list – into a current idiom so that we can think of how to use sukkot as a time to re-frame and renew special relationships. This new list is from the recently published Steve Jobs’ Technology Machzor or High Holiday prayerbook.

ONE – For the sin of lightmindedness (kalut rosh):
For the sin of playing hours of the same video game, stalking people on Facebook or instant messaging without content and not doing something more productive.

TWO – For the sin of misusing the power of speech (dibur peh):
For the sin of being able to connect to anyone at virtually anytime and sacrificing personal silence and contemplation to do so.

THREE – For the sin of entrapping a fellow man (tzdiat re’ah):
For the sin of always answering the phone – being entrapped in conversation – even when it comes at the expense of other important activities like eating dinner with your family. Beat your heart twice if this is a Skype conversation, and you are dressed badly and have not brushed your hair.

FOUR – For the sin of a confused heart (timhon levav):
For the sin of misreading the intention of an e-mail, ascribing bad motives or assuming the worst out of simple confusion. This sin includes getting angry because people do not respond to your texts or e-mails right away or checking your e-mails when someone is telling you something really upsetting on the phone.

FIVE – For the sin of gazing the eyes (sikur ayin):
For the sin of looking at a text when you should be paying attention at a meeting or in a class. Also included is the sin of allowing yourself to be distracted when in the presence of other people who need your attention because you have screenisitis, you are addicted to screens.

SIX – For the sin of the evil inclination (yetzer ha-ra):
For the sin of texting while pausing, not while driving. You would never text while driving but at a red light, it’s OK if the light changes. You’ve just got to finish that last word…distracted drivers can kill people. And they have. Don’t be one of them. Remember: whatever that text says is not worth an accident. If you are a new driver, beat your chest twice.

SEVEN: For the sin of business dealings (masa u’matan):
For the sin of buying too many things on-line because it is just so easy. This sin also includes not pressing the unsubscribe button on all those retailers who are creeping into your computer late at night with the most amazing Groupon manicure, Living Social sky-diving deal for two, Zappos shoes and Overstock sales. If any of you are having trouble understanding this sin, think of two words: Amazon Prime.

EIGHT: For the sin of foolish talk (tifshut peh):
For the sin of going to bed holding a cellphone, as if you could not possibly live without it and checking it the moment you wake-up instead of saying Modeh Ani the minute you wake up. According to the latest medical research a cellphone is still not officially part of your actual body.

NINE: For the sin of impurity of the lips (tum’at sefatayim):
For the sin of being mean or angry at a stranger online or at a telemarketer simply because they will never meet you. They are still human. This sin also includes the infraction of writing in all CAPS to communicate anger, of writing things that should only be said in person or by making someone else feel bad by not responding soon enough to a painful e-mail.

TEN: For the sin committed openly and secretly (begalui u’beseter):
For the sin of secretly looking at websites that we should never look at because they betray our most deeply held moral values and tear away at the fabric of sacred relationships.

In his article, “How Not to Be Alone,” Jonathan Safer Foer makes this confession about technology: “My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.”

Let’s use this Sukkot to show that we do care, that we can create a temporary space that affirms long-lasting relationships by taking the Sukka Challenge. And if you don’t have a sukka, you can still create a technology-free zone elsewhere, and let the vacation begin!

About Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults with for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She has published a number of books and writes a monthly column for The New York Jewish Week and the website Psychology Today, and a weekly column for JTA on Jewish leadership.


  1. I hate to be a naysayer and the moral lessons here are immense, but from a technical-halachic perspective, suppose before the “sukkah challenge” people are sitting and texting in their sukkahs. Now there’s the sukkah challenge. Will they: A.] Ignore their electronic devices and instead think, read, feel, and interact with real human beings in their sukkah? B.] Leave the sukkah to deal with their texts?

    IIRC it’s Chasam Sofer who has a tirade about those who gamble on chanukah. He said he’d tell them to instead do it on December 25th as they’re not learning Torah anyhow, but he’s not allowed to do so because in some years December 25th isn’t chanukah, and that means he would make people gamble one day they otherwise wouldn’t.

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