Torah portion: Embracing impermanence during Sukkot
When I was visiting Albuquerque, N.M., a number of years ago, a friend brought me to visit the nearby Native American community to observe the annual corn dance. As we entered the space where this harvest ritual would be performed, I noticed that all of the participants began by stopping to pay their respects to a group of tribal elders who sat in a small hut constructed for the occasion. As the ceremonial dancers and musicians were greeted in that fragile space, the elders gave them blessings.
The hut reminded me of the sukkah, the temporary dwelling place in which Jews traditionally dwell for seven days each autumn, during the weeklong observance of our own harvest festival of Sukkot. Historically, these fragile huts commemorate the temporary shelters in which the Hebrew slaves camped during the 40 years in the desert as they journeyed from Egypt and slavery to the Land of Israel and its promise of freedom.
Both the sukkah of the Native American elders and the sukkah that Jews decorate and enjoy during the fall season teach us more than a history lesson. These fragile dwellings have profound spiritual significance. Learning their lesson grants us the status of elder.
Another name for “Hag HaSukkot” (Holiday of the Temporary Dwellings) is “Z’man Simchateinu” (the Time of Our Joy). That this time of great vulnerability and exposure is also a time of joyous celebration is a profound paradox, perhaps the greatest of all spiritual teachings: Life is fragile; be happy. This logic can be hard to penetrate.
Kabbalists say that Sukkot, this time of joy and celebration, when the roofs of our dwellings are open to the heavens, is the time when God’s presence is most accessible. The fragile covering of the sukkah, woven with fronds and branches and decorated with hanging fruits and vegetables, is likened to a wedding canopy, a chuppah. It is said that it is under this chuppah of the sukkah that the Shekhinah, (God’s presence that dwells on Earth) and HaKadosh Baruch Hu, (The Holy One of Blessing, who dwells in the highest places) meet to celebrate their union. This is clearly a time of great joy and spiritual potency, despite the vulnerability of the temporary shelter.
Returning to the corn dance, in light of this paradox, reveals the significance of the Native American community members filing in to reverentially greet their elders and pay respect before assuming their role in the dance ritual. Just what is it that elders know that is worthy of respect?
In Southern California, we reside in a world that more often than not worships youth and devalues old age. Harvesting the wisdom of our elders is not a priority. We cling to the belief that we can stop time with plastic surgery, Botox injections and other procedures. We believe that the blessings we receive will be ours forever; hardship is seen as an aberration rather than as an inevitable part of life.
But the wisdom, which the Native Americans acknowledge as they approach their elders, is another face of the wisdom of Hag HaSukkot: Life is an ever-changing sukkah, with an open roof. Despite the fact of permanent impermanence, we must learn the dance of the seasons and do our best to find joy at every place we set up our tent. We must learn what singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen intones: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
As Sukkot teaches and elders know, all dwelling places are transitory. Whether we have settled in a physical house, an emotional state, an idea or an image of God, it is likely that it will change. Each of the places we dwell, whether in a physical, emotional or spiritual tent, is a temporary and fragile dwelling. It is to be embraced. Its teachings are to be harvested. And we must not hold on too tightly.
Sukkot teaches us to acknowledge the holiness of each of these residences, even as we recognize that change is inevitable. Perhaps this wisdom can give us courage to learn in each new experience, even in the most difficult of situations, because it is almost guaranteed that our visit is only temporary.
In the Book of Numbers, the local Midianite priest, Balaam, looked down to where the Hebrew tribes had set up their tents on the Plains of Moab. He uttered the line we sing as we gather in the synagogue for the morning service:
Ma tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishkenotecha Yisrael.
How good are your tents, Jacob, your Holy dwelling places, Israel (Numbers 24:5).
The phrase honors the change of Jacob’s name to Israel. It also commemorates the shift in the name of the dwelling places of his descendants from simple ohelim (tents) to mishkenot (Holy Places for God to dwell). It signifies Sukkot’s intention that we find what is holy in each of our resting places.
May all of your sukkot be dwelling places for holiness, where you find happiness and embrace the dance of change.
Rabbi Anne Brener is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director. She is professor of ritual and human development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. The author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights Publishing), she assists institutions in creating caring communities.