Posts Tagged 'Sukkah'

The Garden of Gratitude

Last Shabbat, being Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot,  we read Kohelet and this coming Shabbat, being the Shabbat after Simchat Torah, we will be starting to reread the Torah from the beginning of Genesis. How do we go from Kohelet to Genesis?

Kohelet is written from the perspective of Solomon. Like Siddhartha, Solomon was the king and had everything, but he gave it up to find a life a meaning.There we read:

I said in my heart: ‘Come now, I will try you with mirth, and enjoy pleasure’; and, behold, this also was vanity.  I said of laughter: ‘It is mad’; and of mirth: ‘What does it accomplish?’ I searched in my heart how to pamper my flesh with wine, and, my heart conducting itself with wisdom, how yet to lay hold on folly, till I might see which it was best for the sons of men that they should do under the heaven the few days of their life.  I made me great works; I built me houses; I planted me vineyards; I made me gardens and parks, and I planted trees in them of all kinds of fruit. (Kohelet 2:1-5)

Solomon has everything, but he realizes that is it not enough. You can even see here in his trying to plant every kind of fruit that he is trying to recreate Eden itself with the trees of Life and Knowledge of Good and Evil.  There is a profound parallel here between Solomon ( Kohelet) and Adam.  As we read in Genesis

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’ ( Genesis 2: 16-17)

Why was the fruit of every tree except for this one not enough? This speaks to a profound truth to the human condition. If only we could conquer our inner need to have more, we might be happy with what we have.  In this time of year as we returned to nature in the Sukkah we tried in different ways to return to Eden. In the past I wrote about how the act of bringing together the four species on Sukkot itself is an act of putting the fruit of the tree of knowledge back on the  tree. But maybe that itself is missing the point.

Would returning to Eden and access to all of the trees itself be vanity of vanities? This year I want to focus on being grateful for all of the great things I  have in my life without wanting more.  I am truly blessed and I strive to be content. How will I tend my garden of gratitude?

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The Symbol of the Sukkah: Physical and Metaphysical

As I was sitting in our sukkah this week, I got to thinking about what this behavior represents. The Talmud records a difference of opinion between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b) It seems strange in that either way you cut it the Sukkah is a symbol. The question is does this symbol represent something akin to what we are using or does it represent a metaphor. Did either Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva think that we are actually sitting in the imagined reference point? I am not saying that they are lying, but neither is real. So what are they disagreeing about?

At one level we could understand the disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva to be one of understanding what it means to be Jewish. Is being Jewish a religion ( “clouds of glory”) or a nationality ( real booths they used post Exodus in the desert)?   Joseph Campbell said:

Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.
But maybe that is the point of the sukkah any way. It is immersive metaphor we get to really enter. The sukkah can be a symbol of our experience as a people in physical and history way at the same time as it can be a religious manifestation of our metaphysical relationship with God.  In this horrid political season it is wonderful to find a place in the sukkah where we can all come together, both expressions are authentic, and neither is a liar.

Starting the Year Right: Lessons from Simchat Torah

Just when you thought that we were finished with the holiday season, there is more. Tonight we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and then on Thursday night we start Simchat Torah. In Israel these two holidays are celebrated on the same day. In many ways Shmini Atzeret is a completion of the Sukkot holiday. But what is Simchat Torah? I have always understood it to be the day that we celebrate the completion of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Why do we start reading the Torah right after Sukkot on Simchat Torah instead of another time like  Rosh HaShanah , the Jewish New Year, or even Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah?

Sukkot is a time in which we surround ourselves with nature and bask in our being dependent on God. Even before we get to all of the rich symbols of Sukkot we see that the experience is challenging us to live in an Eden-like environment. I think that Simchat Torah is less about finishing reading the Torah then a perfectly timed re-reading of the Torah. Coming on the heels of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were able to easily achieve the will of God, we read the story of Adam and Eve again. This time, maybe we will have learned the lesson.  Instead of starting off the year with the negative reinforcement of getting kicked out of Eden, we start the year off right dwelling in the Sukkah of God. As we have been saying since the advent of Elul,

One thing I ask of the Lord, that I seek- that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit God’s Temple every morning. ( Psalms 27:4)

In this light we see that Shmini Atzeret is a very holy time in which we leave Eden on our own terms. We are not kicked out, instead we leave the Sukkah determined to make the world a better place. We should all be blessed with a year of learning lessons the first time around, giving people we love positive encouragement to succeed, and finding our own ways to make the world a better place.

Seeking Shelter

This past Sunday I convinced my sons to join me out back to put up our Sukkah, ritual dwelling for Sukkot, arguing that it was just a really big Lego set. They were happy to build and play until we got to the s’chach, the cut organic material used as the roof of the sukkah. The boys just did not understand it. The s’chach, as compared to all of the other Lego pieces, did not click or tie into place. So I went on to explain that while it needs to be porous enough so that we can see the stars, minimally the s’chach  must be thick enough so that it provides more shade then sun light in the Sukkah. Of course they asked why?

Just five days after the solemn day of Yom Kippur, we are off to one of the most joyous holidays of the year. Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, is commonly referred to in our liturgy and literature as Zman Simchateinu, the time of our happiness. I began thinking and questioning the so-called happiness of Sukkot. Traditionally on this holiday we read the book of Kohelet. The author of this book retells his investigation of the meaning of life and the best way to live your life. Kohelet proclaims all the actions of humanity to be inherently fleeting, futile, empty, meaningless, temporary, and done in vain. This sentiment is well-said in the most quoted line from Kohelet which reads:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. (Kohelet 1:9)

Learning that life is senseless seems like a real downer for a holiday of happiness. This juxtaposition is only highlighted in that we read this just after Yom Kippur, a day during which we appealed that mercy would win out over justice. If Kohelet is correct, we will never be able to change. Despite our best efforts to repent and atone, we are stuck and should be judged in light of the fact that will never be able to renew ourselves.

Then it all came together for me.

Kohelet is right; nothing is new under the sun. The difference is that just after Yom Kippur we escape the sun under the shade of the Sukkah. There we find shelter from the harsh judgment of the world. If we spend a serious amount of time practicing being the people we aspire to be, we might be able to achieve it throughout the rest of the year. We see a similar dynamic in the shelter of summer camp. There we are able to immerse ourselves in an Eden of our own design. Is there any greater joy then the promise of a better future?

Chag Sameakh-

* Cross-posted on The Canteen

Signs on the Wall: Lessons of an Inclusive Sukkah

We are in the middle of our celebration of Sukkot, the Holiday of Booths. You might notice a number of booths in your neighborhood. Here in the northern hemisphere it seems very counter intuitive. As everyone else is packing up their lawn chairs for the winter, the Jewish community has headed outdoors. Just at the end of a seemingly endless litany of reasons to miss work or school, the Jews will spend a week in booths.

So, what is a Sukkah? In short, a Sukkah is a booth, which symbolizes what the Israelite people lived in during their journeys in the desert after leaving Egypt. Legally it should have at the least three walls and roof made of unrefined natural material. While the roof needs to be dense enough so that it yields more shade than sun light, the custom is that it should be open enough so that you are able to see the stars.

So now you know what one is, but what is the meaning of a Sukkah? While it is open to the whole galaxy of ideas, it still gives a baseline of shelter to its inhabitants. While it has discrete walls that define it, they tend to be much more pores than the walls of our homes. During Sukkot we leave the safety and security of our homes to live as refuges who just escaped slavery in Egypt. We are challenged to reflect on our privileges and assumptions as free people. Do we make room for people to feel liberated in that Sukkah? Can we bring these lessons home with us to affect how we live the rest of the year?

Recently a colleague I used to work with at Hillel was in touch. She wanted to remind me of some work we did together on Sukkot on campus.  Amidst other Sukkah decorations we placed small posters with coming-out stories. We wanted to use the Sukkah as place for LGBT students on campus to find refuge.

I remember one student who came to me as the Orthodox Rabbi to share with me how inappropriate he found this expression. In his mind the Sukkah was a religious space and there was no space there for “alternative life styles”. While there are plenty of people who adopt the NIMBYworld view, this ” it is fine but not in my Sukkah” world view had a special flavor of religious arrogance mixed into it.

Like many other campuses during Chol HaMoed we had a Pizza in the Hut social. At this event there was hekshered and non-certified Kosher Pizza served. The plan was to have signs up indicating which was which. As the case would have it, when the aforementioned Orthodox student showed up there was not more kosher pizza and the signs had been removed. Mid- slice he was informed that he had been eating pizza which was not certified as Kosher. Being very distraught having broken Jewish Law he wanted to give me a piece of his mind.

I felt horrible that he ate non-Kosher pizza. But then I realize my opportunity to be the community Rabbi he needed and not just the Orthodox Rabbi he wanted. I got him together with one of the leaders of the LBGT Jewish group to have a common conversation about the value and importance of having signs that include everyone’s needs in the communal Sukkah. Being inclusive does not mean bowing to the “frummist common denominator”. It means enjoining everyone to share the challenges of making room for all the identities in common space. They could both realize the significance and mandate to make room for each other signs.

These booths might be more than just another wacky Jewish custom. We should all consider the Sukkah as a particular contribution to the universal effort to creating a community open to the diversity of the human experience (religion, sexuality, gender, race, culture, etc.). In making room for everyone’s identities this hut becomes a Sukkat Shalom– a booth of peace.

Chag Sameach– Have a Gay and Joyous Holiday


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