Since shelter in place, holidays, Jewish text and rituals have taken on new levels of meaning. The holiday of Sukkot, which we celebrate today, resonates on deeper level than I have ever experienced before.
Sukkot reminds us that we wandered for 40 years – in limbo, full of uncertainty, dealing with the discomfort of searing heat, sand everywhere, anxious about what the next day would bring. While our reality is currently of shorter duration, the circumstances feel familiar. Yet we made it to the Promised Land. Once again, we are reminded that we can survive prolonged periods in the wilderness and make it through. When you feel ready to snap – hold onto that. Indeed, our time in the wilderness was full of complaining, rebellion, desire to turn back – at the same time, we came together as a people, began to develop institutions, laws, ethics and holidays that would sustain us. Our wilderness experience shaped us into who we were meant to become.
We commemorate this journey by going outside and living in flimsy, fragile, impermanent dwelling for the week. This annual encounter with fragility reminds us that it is a part of life – and it is so poignantly felt this year. Few of us have ever felt less certain of the future, whether that be about health, politics, jobs, life cycle events. We have never felt as vulnerable — to antisemitism and racism, to the vagaries of a virus and a political climate that is toxic, fires and all of their devastation that rage around. All of this amidst the President being hospitalized with coronavirus and the unknowns connected to that, which deepen the overwhelming uncertainty. Sukkot, with all of its awareness of fragility, and vulnerable exposure to the elements is so real. We understand what our ancestors must have felt like in the wilderness. We give voice to our fragility and vulnerability. We realize that we are not alone – others are, or will be as the air improves, sitting in their sukkot together with us.
We know we can find ways to adapt and move forward – our ancestors teach us that. And we continue to live it. We made it through the High Holidays on zoom – and while it was not the same as being together – it had meaning and connection. We have stayed connected as best we can – reaching out to one another, comforting and celebrating together. Knowing the resilience that sustained our people and witnessing our ability to live it sustains us.
We allow fragility to teach us important lessons. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin teaches that when you realize that life is fragile – you grab onto the beauty of life and cherish and treasure each moment. The commandment to be joyful on Sukkot may connect to the awareness of fragility. Rejoice in each moment of the fragile life that we have been given. How can you find joy amidst the fragility that is so real right now?
Awareness of fragility can heighten our awareness of the beauty in life we often overlook. I keep returning to a piece written by Rabbi Milton Steinberg after he had a heart attack. He writes: “After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me….So long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building – the golden glow of sunlight .…. And I remembered how often I had been indifferent to the sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometime mean concerns. I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we.” Can we allow our fragility to heighten our awareness of all the beauty that surrounds us? Look outside. See the trees, the sun, listen to the birds, watch the squirrel scurry – marvel at the wonders that surround us.
One of the greatest lessons of leaving our homes and dwelling in the fragile Sukkah is that we embrace that truth that the greatest source of happiness is the people who surround us. And if those people are not in your Sukkah, use the lesson of leaving material to focus on connection to reach out and use the blessing of technology to nurture connection.
An important lesson of confronting fragility by living in an insecure little hut, is we become aware of those who live with that vulnerability every day. A key lesson of the holiday is to share our bounty with those in need. Let the Sukkah’s insecure walls deepen awareness who live each day with insecurity. Let your hearts connect to those who are suffering with loss, food insecurity, lack of proper medical care – including mental health, loss or threat of losing housing, inability to access proper education – and the list goes on and on. So many are suffering in so many ways. As we leave our homes and dwell in the fragile Sukkah – we feel for what others are experiencing so that we act to help. Pick your issue – some of you will have the bandwidth to be involved in multiple issues. Fight for change in the political and communal arena. Let your encounter with elements open our hearts and act in ways to alleviate the suffering of others. What will you do? Let me know – we will share stories of CBJ chesed in days to come. Do something to alleviate suffering.
In my sermon for Sukkot last year, I quoted Yossi Klein HaLevi, who wrote: “We are not just fragile, but perhaps more fragile than we have ever been.” Who could have imagined that a mere year later we would say that now we are even more fragile than that – more fragile than we have ever been. It is so real. Let’s allow that fragility to change us – holding onto to our ability to overcome, appreciating each moment, finding joy, treasuring connection, seeing beauty and caring even more for those in need. Sukkot came just when we needed it. Thank God. Chag Sameach.