October 6th, 2017
17 Tishrei 5778
When I was a little girl my mother and I used to read books together every night before I went to bed. My mother, a writer and poet, read these books with passion and literary fervor. She created universes out of words and I lay there captivated. One of my favorite stories as child was a book called Thunder Cake by Patricia Polacco. The author explains how she overcame her childhood fear of Thunderstorms. The story begins with a little girl who is terrified of thunder. Every time there is a storm she becomes paralyzed with fear and hides under the bed.
Her grandmother, in an effort to comfort and help the child, bakes a Thunder Cake. She explains to her Granddaughter that Thunder is a crucial ingredient to the cake she loves so much and each time there is a storm, they must take advantage of this natural ingredient by baking a cake. There is no time for fear. As the storm draws closer they must quickly prepare their ingredients—gathering eggs from their chickens, milking their cow and mixing the flour.
Slowly but surely, the little girl becomes comfortable with the thunder. She begins to recognize her own bravery through her ability to face her fears. She, like so many of us, is rattled by how small she feels in the face of Mother [N]ature but ultimately, she finds a way to create something meaningful out of this feeling of vulnerability.
Throughout this season of storms and natural disasters, this story has been [very much] on my mind. The uncertainty inherent in our experience of the natural world is, indeed, quite terrifying. And as we have tragically been reminded this past week, this uncertainty extends to manmade horrors as well. We are able to control so many things in this life. Human beings have so much power. We plan and create and put systems in place. Technology gets smarter every day. Things get more efficient. And yet, no matter how far we progress, the one thing we cannot control… is the weather.
In this festival season, our Jewish calendar reminds us of the position in which we find ourselves. Sukkot is a festival in which we celebrate impermanence and the temporal nature of our place in the cosmos.
Sukkot is a festival in which we celebrate impermanence and the temporal nature of our place in the cosmos.
So here we are. The Days of Awe have ended and we are back together as one community, immersed in the celebration of not only Shabbat but also the observance of yet another holiday in the Jewish calendar. Our calendar takes us from one holiday to the next with barely enough time to catch our breath. When I turned on my social media following the close of Yom Kippur, I was flooded with images of Sukkahs going up all over the country; in backyards, on synagogue grounds, and even right here, in our own biblical garden. Indeed, we are taught that the sukkah should be constructed as soon as Yom Kippur ends. There is no rest for the weary in this holy season.
In her book, My Jewish Year, Abigail Pogrebin chronicles her year of traditional ritual observance and exploration. Desperate to better understand from whence she came, Pogrebin took a deep dive into the Jewish calendar and experience. She spoke to us from this very bimah not so many months ago and described the experience of becoming a traveler in one’s own tradition. Of sukkot, she writes: “Its already becoming a recurring epiphany: no holiday stands alone; all are intertwined. This harvest holiday used to appear like a non sequitur, veering jarringly from atonement to agriculture. Now I see that it’s the logical next chapter of a single story line, and Jews need to view several holidays at once in order to understand the one we are in.”
Last week, we spent the bulk of the Yom Kippur holiday facing our own temporality. The core of our liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef, tells us in no uncertain terms that life is fragile. We are reminded more than once throughout the liturgical structure that human life could end at a moments notice. We ask a litany of questions such as who by fire and who by water, and reflect on too many tragic reminders that it is not only natural disasters and the elements of the earth that act as the instruments of mortality. We pray repeatedly to be inscribed for blessing in the book of life and for so many, these words ring heavy and all too true.
In thinking about the moments that follow after the gates [have] closed and fasts have been broken, I don’t disagree with Pogrebin when she points out the stark contrast between Sukkot, which is referred to as Z’man Simchateynu, our time of joy, and that the holy day of Yom Kippur, which preceded it. And yet, if we drill down to the root of what Sukkot represents, we realize that it is not merely a celebration of the harvest and a time to eat delicious food together in a beautifully crafted sukkah. In fact, this holiday is a continuation of what came before.
And yet, if we drill down to the root of what Sukkot represents, we realize that it is not merely a celebration of the harvest and a time to eat delicious food together in a beautifully crafted sukkah. In fact, this holiday is a continuation of what came before.
As Pogrebin puts it, “Sukkot keeps up the pressure: your home and belongings are fragile, not just you.”
The sukkah represents not only the huts in which our ancestors dwelt during their 40 years of wandering but also reminds us of the vulnerable position in which we find ourselves as human beings in this vast universe. Our ancestors sheltered in these small, hastily built huts during the last period of the harvest preceding the winter rains. The sukkah is a temporary structure that is intended to be open on at least 3 sides and somewhat flimsy in its construction. Its roof should be made of thatch or branches and provide some shade from the sun but still provide a glimpse of the stars at night. This holiday is an opportunity not only to celebrate but also to recognize our humanity and the vulnerability inherent to it. Rabbi David Wolpe, a prominent Rabbi in the conservative movement, explains “in some ways, the most beautiful part about the sukkah is that you know it is fragile and temporary…. In other words, as you sit in the midst of fragility, you also have an eye on eternity.”
According to acclaimed psychologist, Brene Brown, vulnerability represents uncertainty, risk & emotional exposure. While we often prioritize and celebrate grit and tenacity, which are critical tools for survival and success in our world, we rarely teach how to deal with uncertainty or how to manage emotional risk. Our lives are full of experiences that rely on the ability to make ourselves vulnerable: the pursuit of dreams, falling in love, entrepreneurship, buying a house, becoming a parent. Almost without exception, the milestones in our adult lives rely on the ability to exist in a liminal space, a space of uncertainty, a space in between. As Brown writes, “learning how to be vulnerable is a street fight but its worth it.”
This Sukkot season, in particular, the uncertainty of the natural order looms large. Storm after super storm, hurricane after hurricane, serve as a constant reminder of our human condition. We turn on the television and are met with images of homes immersed in water, families struggling to find shelter, and newscasters being pulled to and fro by the force of the wind. As individuals and as a community, we do what we can. We donate to food banks, we buy school supplies and put together drives to replenish the resources that have been lost. We are blessed here in New Jersey to have been spared this hurricane season and our community has come together in amazing ways to support those who have been affected. And yet, even still, it can be hard not to feel helpless and small.
During Sukkot, we take ourselves out of the security of our sturdy homes and spend time in a temporary structure. We are reminded that all the things in our lives—our seemingly permanent shelter, our myriad material possessions, things we might be inclined to take for granted, can in fact, vanish. And yet, we are commanded not only to survive but to make this a time of simcha, of joy! It is not enough to just exist. We are in fact, obligated to dig deeper, to look closer, and truly delight in our experience here on Earth, while we still can. In this season it is our job to sit under the stars with just ourselves, our sukkah, and God and be reminded that we are just a small piece of this big and willful universe. We shake the lulav and Etrog as a reminder that God is everywhere. Small as we may be, we are not alone. We exist in community and in relationship with one another and with the Divine.
In this season it is our job to sit under the stars with just ourselves, our sukkah, and God and be reminded that we are just a small piece of this big and willful universe. We shake the lulav and Etrog as a reminder that God is everywhere. Small as we may be, we are not alone. We exist in community and in relationship with one another and with the Divine.
Would that it could be so comforting that when a storm is brewing, we can bake our uncertainty and fear into a cake. Would that we could reduce the forces that frighten us into something we can control. Alas, we cannot. But we can, this holiday reminds us, dwell together in the safety of our own making and express our joy at the opportunity to be together, our gratitude that we have made it through to another season, and even take comfort in the knowledge that when we embrace our vulnerability together, we have the ability to help, to heal, and indeed, to find joy. May this Festival season indeed be Z’man Simchateynu. May we act as a constant reminders for each other that even in the face of uncertainty, fear and loss, there is joy to be found, there is humanity to be celebrated and there are miracles all around us, if we just stop for a moment and look around.
May we act as a constant reminders for each other that even in the face of uncertainty, fear and loss, there is joy to be found, there is humanity to be celebrated and there are miracles all around us, if we just stop for a moment and look around.