Have you ever experienced a spontaneous bond with a perfect stranger? One moment you were strangers, the next moment you were one, caring as much about what happened to him or her as to yourself. Under ordinary circumstances this common bond doesn’t often surface, but extreme conditions can bring it out.

One such example was in the aftermath of 9/11. Perfect strangers put themselves in harm’s way to help others in need.

A story that recently came to light involves the sea evacuation of nearly half a million people. Many who escaped the towers made their way south to the seawalls, where they realized something New Yorkers hardly take notice of: Manhattan is an island.

When the towers were attacked, the tunnels and bridges were shut down. Those who tried to leave found themselves stranded ashore, and they mobbed whatever ferry or tugboat they could find. The Coast Guard put out a call for additional vessels, and within ten minutes the waterways were dotted with more crafts than the eye could count. Keep in mind that no one knew the extent of the danger, and crews had reason to fear an attack against their boats. Yet these ordinary Americans stepped up and plied the waterways all day, executing the largest sea evacuation in history.

Happily, it is not only disaster that brings out our common spark, but also joy. Take, for example, the feeling of elation that sweeps across a grandstand when the home team wins. Under these circumstances, it is quite common for perfect strangers to celebrate like family. But when the moment passes, they become strangers once again.

In the Sukkah

Judaism requires each person to perform his or her mitzvahs individually. In most cases, my good deeds don’t count for you, and yours don’t count for me. If I tried to sneak into your prayer shawl while you were wearing it, that would not be much of a mitzvah. Neither would be trying to shake my lulav while I am shaking it. Just as we can’t eat for each other, we can’t pray or study for each other either.

The sukkah, a hut covered by foliage, in which it is a mitzvah to sit during the festival of Sukkot, is the exception. You and I can perform the very same mitzvah in the very same sukkah at the very same time.

We don’t each require our own sukkah. The sukkah does not have to expand to accommodate me, and does not have to shrink when you depart. So long as there is room in the sukkah for another, we can share this mitzvah.

I might even suggest that when many people shake the same lulav, multiple mitzvahs are performed by multiple people; but when many people sit in the same sukkah simultaneously, a single mitzvah is performed collectively by a single group of people. In this mitzvah our souls coalesce. We become one.

Full Coverage

After 9/11, New Yorkers came together because they were collectively absorbed by the enormity of the situation. In the sukkah, our souls coalesce because we are collectively absorbed by its enormous holiness.

The sukkah is the only mitzvah that encompasses the entire body. It is not performed by any one limb or set of limbs, but by allowing our entire body to be absorbed by the mitzvah. That is to say that the sukkah is suffused with a divine sanctity so transcendent that it cannot be imbued into us. Rather, we are absorbed into it.

The sukkah encompasses us so completely that it draws us away from our personal interests and focuses us exclusively on the mitzvah. Once we are in this mindset, we can make room for another. The moment the sukkah is not about me, but about setting my needs aside to be encompassed by holiness, there is no reason for the sukkah to be only for me. In other words, if it is not about me exclusively, it need not be exclusively for me. It is for us all.

This is why the sukkah is a place of hosting, a happy place where family, friends and guests gather to perform a mitzvah of unification. Sukkah is not a mitzvah you do—it’s a mitzvah of being. All you have to do is be—in the sukkah. And when it is just about being, room can be made for all beings. For in the sukkah, there are no strangers.