Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Looking up at the Stars: Sukkot Thoughts
My sukkah, the backyard hut that I have built and decorated for the festival of sukkot, is finished. I will spend the next week eating and sleeping out here under the roof of leaves and bamboo through which I can see the stars through the darkness. The Rabbis tell us that the sukkah is a double reminder. It is a reminder of the simple dwellings our ancestors had as nomads in the desert. It is also a reminder of the supernatural clouds that surrounded the Bnai Israel during our 40 years in the desert, protecting us from harm. I love how it reflects my desire to beautify the commandment. I love the smell of fresh green leaves. When sukkot ends there is a prayer to say “farewell” to the sukkah. I always cry.
The Chassidic masters explain that 40 days from the beginning of Elul til Yom Kippur were a seminar in the art and science of personal growth and change. We learned how to repent and we applied what we learned and we emerge from Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement as new beings, spiritual babies. Like all things immature, we are delicate. We are not quite ready to carry our new insights into the “real world” not even into the drama-heavy confines of our own homes. Instead we stake out in the outside world a kind of “field of holiness” our own personal clouds to cushion us as we prepare to be our new improved selves in the same old world. That is the first lesson. We need walls. We do not accept everything about his world unconditionally. We determine who we are and who we want to be by creating boundaries. TV is outside my boundary. A good movie might be inside. I decide what is inside and what is outside. Jewish law says that the walls need to be strong enough to withstand an ordinary wind. There is no point in setting limits if they can’t stand up to ordinary temptations, to resist the fashions of the world from the outside or the promptings of the lower self from the inside.
The roof is made of temporary materials. According to kabbalistic tradition, the roof represents our level of understanding. There is no permanent ceiling to our comprehension of spiritual matters. We are meant to be keep growing. What little I grasp this year will seem like dried out waste compared to the vitality of next year’s comprehension. As the holiday proceeds the leaves wither revealing more and of the sky, that ever present reminder of a reality that transcends our physical limitations, a glimpse of the infinite in a finite world.
I look up through the leaves and I feel the love of G-d, the touchless embrace of that infinity. We call sukkot “The Season of our Joy.” Joy helps us to carry the gains of our repentance into the sukkah and then back into our home. True Joy, the rejoicing in G-d’s goodness and generosity by enjoying His world with gratitude is the elixir that ultimately transforms our delicate new state of being into a solid new servant of G-d who can now serve in the real world.
Of all of our holidays, feasts and fasts, Sukkot is perhaps the most accessible to our neighbors both Jews and non-Jews. The power of gratitude and joy reflected in outdoor living is virtually infectious. To my Jewish friends, I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to invite others, particularly your Muslim neighbors. Break out the tea and cake and enjoy the embrace of the sukkah together. Perhaps find a little peace together.
Our sukkah is finally ready and waiting. See you in its shade!