Feeling Vulnerable... and Joyful

I write to you this week from the midst of Sukkot. This holiday -- although known as the "festival of our joy" ("zeman simchateinu") -- is also a powerful reminder of our vulnerability.

I write to you this week from the midst of Sukkot. This holiday -- although known as the "festival of our joy" ("zeman simchateinu") -- is also a powerful reminder of our vulnerability.

After a sunny first couple days of chag, we've now had enough rain and wind in Seattle over the last 24 hours to test whether our sukkot are indeed "kosher." As the medieval law codes explain, the schach (natural roof) of the sukkah is supposed to be temporary or flimsy enough as to let in some water when it rains; if water cannot penetrate the schach, it's a sign that the roof is too permanent, and therefore the sukkah is not kosher. (Rest assured that my sukkah is soggy enough inside that there's no doubt whatsoever about the kashrut of its roof!)

Second, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, "Rashbam (Rashi's grandson) says the sukkah was there to remind the Israelites of their past so that, at the very moment they were feeling the greatest satisfaction at living in Israel -- at the time of the ingathering of the produce of the land -- they should remember their lowly origins. They were once a group of refugees without a home, living in a favela or a shanty town, never knowing when they would have to move on." Today, the sukkah -- with its temporary, makeshift nature -- continues to remind us of just how fortunate we are to live in homes with real roofs over our heads, and to have bountiful food on our tables with regularity. It hasn't always been so, and we can't take the conditions of our lives for granted.

Over the past week, these important themes of vulnerability, insecurity, and the precariousness of our existence have also been underscored by current events. On Yom Kippur Day, as we gathered to observe the holiday with the Kavana community, we learned of yet another attack on a synagogue, this time in Germany. And this weekend, much closer to home, nasty antisemitic flyers appeared in Bellevue, as well as graffiti tags pointing to white supremacist slogans on street signs here in Queen Anne. (For those of us who saw Indecent at Seattle Rep last weekend, similar themes of antisemitism and Jewish vulnerability were also on powerful display on stage, as the play traced Scholem Asch's provocative play God of Vengeance across the first half of the 20th century, from Europe to America and back.)

What can we possibly do in the face of such vulnerability and insecurity? Sukkot traditions offer so many possible answers... here's but a partial list:

  • We can demonstrate hospitality, inviting guests into our sukkah to share meals (and taking comfort in community).
  • We can spend time outside, delighting in the textures, colors and fragrances of the natural world, and gaining perspective.
  • Through prayer, we can try to cultivate gratitude for the abundant blessings of our lives, and we can feel the divine protection (of the ananei kavod) also symbolized by the sukkah.
  • Here at Kavana, it's become an annual tradition to share with others and give back by gleaning vegetables at Oxbow Farm and donating them to local food banks - please join us this Sunday!
  • We can embrace the vulnerability, reading texts like Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) and reflecting on the impermanence of life.
  • And last but not least, we can continue to celebrate, finding great joy in each festival and season!

My sukkah is not impervious to rain and wind... and none of us are impervious to the frightening behaviors on display in society, both near and far, that make us feel vulnerable.  For now, with more rainy weather in the forecast, we may have to take breaks from the sukkah, sitting instead in the feeling of vulnerability itself. That way, we will be ready -- the very next time the sun breaks through -- to resume our outdoor celebration, on this holiday that helps us hold together both insecurity and joy.

Moadim l'simcha and chag sameach - wishing you much joy and happiness as these festival days continue!