Sukkot/Shmini Atzeret as Act 2

Think about the king who says to his family – “Stay with me. It is hard for me to part with you.” That is Yizkor.

To help me through the pandemic, I have turned to a variety of teachers whose wisdom has guided and inspired me. One of those teachers, Brene Brown, began a podcast, which builds on the teachings in her books and lectures, just as things closed down.

She teaches that we are currently in what she has labeled Act II of a story – the middle part -which is the most difficult.  She came up with the language of Act II when she was working with the leadership at Pixar Animation (you know: Toy Story, Finding Dory, the Incredibles). When she asked the screen writers what was on their minds, repeatedly, they talked about how hard it was to write the second act of a three act animated films. The first act, they explained, establishes the characters, the rules of the imaginary world, and the problem to be solved. The third act is when the problem is solved. The music soars. Redemption. But the second act is when the writers struggle. This is the point where writers understand that they have created problems without easy solutions. It’s not until the writers, along with their characters, allow themselves to be curious and vulnerable, that Act III is possible.

Using her analysis – Act I of the pandemic was the first months. We learned the new rules of handwashing and masks. We scrambled to ensure the basics – we found ways to ensure that everyone in our community had food to eat. We reorganized our personal, school and professional lives and established new routines. When we were not panicking, we joked about finding toilet paper and things we saw in people’s homes. We figured out how to use Zoom for work and connecting.

But now, without a clear expiration date on this pandemic, we are in Act II. and it is getting hard. We are frustrated and anxious. We are tired of everything.  Brene Brown writes the Act II is “a dark and vulnerable time – one that is often turbulent.” (Rising Strong, p. 27) She’s right – Act II is not easy!  We miss each other so much and begin to stretch the rules a bit – saying “Enough!” – while at the same time knowing such behaviors increase risk. Numbers rise, and despair grows. We do not know how much more of this we can take.  Depression is real, and people who are normally calm and patient are ruffled.  The situation in our country exacerbates the angst. We are rightfully concerned about what we are witnessing on so many levels.  If only we could get to Act III – when the scientists tell us, and we feel that this is over.  We will hug our loved ones, throw out our masks and have a huge kiddush for all the Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids who celebrated their simchas online.  In the holiday cycle, Sukkot is Act II.

Act I was Egypt and leaving Egypt. We celebrate on Passover, our core story. We had the courage to leave the place of bondage and hardship. We were so eager to depart, we left before the matzah had a chance to rise. Act III is arrival to the land of Israel.  Act II is the hard journey to get to the Promised Land. We lived in fragile huts – which the sukkah we build today replicated – and faced the challenges, discomforts and monotony of daily life in wilderness. Think about it: every day we had to go out and collect manna.  We lived in flimsy huts and shlepped our kids along with us (I am sure they were not happy about it) day after day after day.  Burning hot days, freezing cold nights, sand everywhere, insecurity in terms of water.  Sukkot is Act II – the difficult journey.

How do you deal with Act II?  Brene Brown says that the secret to dealing with Act II is counterintuitive.  She teaches that we might think it is to act strong – fake until you make it. But it really is to be vulnerable and open to change. What emerges is something new and different!  Sukkot faith – the faith that emerges from Act II – tells us that a key to life is accepting uncertainty and fragility and that it leads us to new places.  Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. That is why we dwell in fragile huts during the holiday of Sukkot – to internalize this message.  We come to understand that we can adapt and build something new. Brene Brown talks about accepting the messiness and lack of clarity so that we more deeply understand who we are – and then we recognize what the moment demands.

A piece of Act II and Sukkot is understanding that pain in life deepens caring.  As we sit in our fragile Sukkot, we remind ourselves of those who live with fragility – food insecurity, housing needs, medical issues and vow to help in whatever way we can.  Faith is also the ability to allow empathy to emerge because of what we have experienced.  The gritty days in the wilderness – pitching and taking down tents over the course of 14,600 days, preparing 43,000 meals, and washing all the dishes – call on us to reflect upon those who live in similar circumstances every day – and act to help them. (Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way, p. 97) On Yom Kippur I asked this community to use our areas of deepest sadness to lead us to chesed, love that can respond to that pain.  That is the call of Sukkot. Let’s continue to live that – allowing our empathy to create new beginnings.

Like a good movie, Act II stimulates curiosity.  It explores – realizing there are no simple answers.  We re-examine our assumptions and conclusions – opening our heart to deepening understanding.  Act II is where the real action is – and that is the lesson of Sukkot.  We don’t just celebrate the moment we left Egypt – that is Passover.  We celebrate the tough journey that lasts a long time to truly learn who we are meant to be.  In wilderness we came to understand the obligations of Torah, the importance of community, how we re-align ourselves after failure.

Act II, and Sukkot’s embrace of vulnerability, helps us internalize that it is through vulnerability that light begins to shine through.  Listen to what Bryon Stevenson writes: “We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.” He quotes Thomas Merton, who said: “We are bodies of broken bones.” And he writes: “I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human.” Act II means confronting, embracing and learning from our pain as we begin to envision a different future. Our shared pain is where creativity, innovation and love grow.

One more crucial detail about Act II and Sukkot.  Act II is all about holding onto the people we love and deepening our bonds.  We move out of our comfortable homes and into the fragile Sukkah – because material possessions are not what brings happiness – connections with one another are what bring true joy, purpose and meaning. As we confront instability and change, traveling toward an unknown destination – we have each other. In explaining the enigmatic holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the Midrash compares it to a king who has had lots of people over for a get together – the 7 days of Sukkot.  On the 8th day, as people are leaving, the King says to his family, “Stay a little longer it’s hard for me to part with you.”  It is that deepening connection with one another that is part of the brilliance of Act II.  Savor the people you are going through this long pandemic with – sit with appreciation for each and every one of them.

Shmini Atzeret is also a time when we say Yizkor – Memorial Prayers for our loved ones who are no longer with us.  Using Brene Brown’s paradigm of three acts helps us reflect on the loss of loved ones.  Act I is the searing pain the accompanies loss.  You are disoriented, confused and overcome with grief.  Act II is the ensuing days, with the dull ache of missing your loved ones, wishing they were here and having moments of feeling their presence and honoring their memories. Act II is not a day or a week.  It can be months or years as we journey without our loved ones – missing them, feeling their presence.  We say Yizkor four times a year, because the journey never ends.

We need those voices to get to where we are going. It can be hard hearing them because it reminds us of our losses. But there is a comfort that can come from hearing the quiet voices of loved ones speaking to our hearts. We remember who they taught us to be and reflect on how we honor their memories. Amidst the pain and sadness of loss. Act II that is ongoing, we realize we can emerge changed – hopefully for the better. Act III is the acts of honor and embrace of growth and character that comes from holding onto memory.  Today is Act II – melding together with Act III.

Think about the king who says to his family – “Stay with me. It is hard for me to part with you.” That is Yizkor.  We allow our loved ones who are no longer with us to stay with us – in our hearts, prayers and deeds. And in so doing, we create moments where memories flood in to touch us and sit with us.  We open our hearts to change and allow the memories of our loved ones to transform the way we live and love. This gives us strength to deal with this pandemic, the grief that accompanies it and personal losses we carry with us, as well as the transformation which occurs during our journey.  The memories of the people we recall today will help us arrive to the places we need to go. That is the holiness and meaning in Act II and Yizkor.

This sermon was inspired by sermon written by Rabbi Barry Dov Katz