Sitting with sorrow in the sukkah

Sukkot is called זמן שמחתנו, zman simchateinu, which means "season of our rejoicing." But what does one do if one isn't able to rejoice at this season? If sorrow, or grief, are getting in the way of the ability to rejoice? What then? My answer is this: we bring whatever we are feeling, in its fullness, into the sukkah with us. Even if it isn't joy. Spiritual practice asks us to be present to what is, whatever it is.

There are five megillot (scrolls) in Jewish tradition which are associated with particular festivals. At Purim we read Esther. At Pesach, we read Song of Songs. At Shavuot, we read Ruth. At Tisha b'Av, we read Lamentations. And at Sukkot, we read Kohelet (in English, it's called Ecclesiastes.) Think "A time to be born, and a time to die..." In every life, there is a time for gladness, and a time for sorrow.

When I am wrestling with sorrow, there is comfort for me in the knowledge that everything comes and goes. "This too shall pass" -- even the deepest of grief. הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל -- often rendered as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" -- can also be translated "Breath, breathing; everything is fleeting as a breath." Even our sorrows are not forever -- though they may feel that way when we are in them.

Sukkot is a festival of impermanence. For a week we do our best to dwell in our little harvest houses which must have roofs through which one can see the stars. We remind ourselves that the structures we build in our lives are not forever. The challenge is finding joy not despite the temporariness, but in it. Not despite life's sorrows, but even as we allow ourselves to wholly feel those sorrows.

Enter Rabbi Jay Michaelson's essay Entering the Gate of Sadness, published in Zeek in 2007. (Speaking of which, I'm looking really forward to reading his new book, The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path, coming in a few days from Ben Yehuda Press.) Jay writes:

Sadness is not an expression of the heart to be discarded in favor of those which are better. To believe that everything happens as it must is not to be fatalistic and cowed; it is not to believe everything happens for the best; it is to understand that sadness is part of the unfolding of the God Process. Praise God with it. Even that which is not, apparently, for our best may be turned to an instrument of praise. Not by denying its painfulness, but by deeply seeing this soul, in this body, at this moment, as manifesting the unfolding of the One. The pain is real, and it is God.

For me the critical words there are "Not by denying its painfulness[.]" There is always a temptation to respond to sadness by shutting it down, or papering it over, or pretending it's not there. Maybe especially at times of year when we feel we're "supposed" to be happy -- at anniversaries or birthdays, at holidays. But spiritual practice calls us to resist the temptation to put a bandaid on what hurts.

The mitzvah of Sukkot is  לישב בסוכה / leishev ba-sukkah, to dwell -- literally, "to sit" -- in the sukkah. If your heart is breaking, then bring that into the sukkah and sit with it as best you can. Sitting in the sukkah can be a kind of embodied meditation, an opportunity to feel what comes and what goes. Torah tells us to rejoice in our festivals, but if you can't, that's okay. God is with you, wherever you are.

Maybe singing the praise-psalms of Hallel will "help," in the sense of lightening your heart, and maybe not. (You might find more resonance in מן המצר קראתי יה / min ha-meitzar karati Yah -- "From the narrow straits I called to You!" -- than in the more overtly joyful verses.) Either way, bring what is with you into the sukkah. Let yourself feel whatever you feel. And remember that this, too, shall pass.

 

Related: Joy, 2009.

 


The fourth of four lunar eclipses is on its way...

Temp-redmoon

We in North America are about to experience the fourth of four total lunar eclipses in a row which, incredibly, have coincided with Pesach and Sukkot. The full moon of this Sukkot will be eclipsed (on Sept. 28), as was the full moon of Pesach last spring -- and the full moon of the previous Sukkot and Pesach, as well. Over these two years, the full moon marking these festival times has been eclipsed at the moments of perhaps the greatest joy in the Jewish calendar – at Pesach, when we experience freedom from the Narrow Place, and at Sukkot, when we enter with thanksgiving into our fragile and impermanent harvest houses...

That's the beginning of an essay I wrote jointly with my dear friend and ALEPH co-chair Rabbi David Markus. (Slightly updated to reflect the fact that we're approaching the fourth eclipse rather than the first.) I shared it here a couple of years ago when we first wrote it, but it seems worth sharing again as we approach the final eclipse in the series: Four eclipses; four worlds; four holidays; four holy perspective shifts.


Apples and honey; falling leaves

ApplesAll the world feels redolent with apples and honey at this time of year. I've taken our son apple-picking twice since Rosh Hashanah. We go to a local orchard, only a few minutes away from our house. I love the palpable abundance of apple trees laden with fruits. And there's nothing else quite like the spicy-sweet crunch of a honeycrisp apple, especially one we've just plucked from the tree.

And when I look out the window in the morning, or step outside into the sukkah, or walk around the playground, the trees are brilliant orange and yellow. When the sunlight filters through their leaves, the very air feels honey-colored: golden and bright. The hillsides are an autumnal kaleidoscope, shifting and changing as the jewels of the leaves tumble, catch the light, float through the air.

It's easy to wish, "if I could only capture this moment!" Right now, with the trees all rustling and brilliant, with the sukkah standing proud in the backyard, our son singing silly songs in the car on the way to preschool. But even as it's happening, it's changing. Already some of the trees have lost the leaves at the top of their highest branches. The end of one thing, the beginning of the next.

Today is the seventh day of Sukkot, also known as Hoshanna Rabbah. Rabbah means great; hoshanna means "please save us!" In many communities people gather today to recite hoshanot, prayers which beseech God to save the earth. In the immediate aftermath of the climate march, with the drumbeats of the need for change ringing in our ears, these prayers take on a different urgency.

This year of 5775 is a shmita year, a sabbatical year, during which Torah teaches we are not to harvest in the land of Israel but instead to let the earth rest and lie fallow. "By the time the next shmita year rolls around," one of my colleagues said to me recently, "it will be too late to turn the earth around." A sobering thought. Ana Adonai, hoshia na -- please, God; please save us! -- takes on new resonance.

OrangehillsAnother Hoshanna Rabbah custom is circling the sanctuary seven times holding our lulavim, the bunches of branches with which we have beckoned blessings all week, and then beating the willow branches against the ground. The falling leaves represent the rain which is always so urgently needed in the Middle East.

We don't observe Hoshanna Rabbah in any formal way in my congregation. There will be no circumnambulations of the sanctuary, no beating of willow branches against the patio stones. But I will watch leaves fall from birch and oak and maple as the day unfolds. They drift and spiral to the ground, and they evoke the precipitation which I know will fall as the season deepens. Already our lawn is becoming obscured by their fading colors.

I know that it won't be too long before the lawn is obscured instead by fallen snow. And then it will be green again, and so will the trees. The end of one thing, the beginning of the next. I read recently that the leaves of our deciduous trees contain these astonishing pigments all the time, but when photosynthesis is happening, the chlorophyll obscures the reds and oranges and golds.

And then the trees gracefully let go of the need to keep producing food, trusting that their reserves will see them through what's coming, and for a gleaming fiery moment their hidden brilliance can shine.

 


How to Build a Time Machine

 

Start with two-by-fours and bolts.
Fashion a rectangle. Add crossbeams.

Then attach four posts sticking up
like the frame of an old-fashioned bed.

You'll need another pair of hands
to invert it, a wobbly table

higher than you are tall.
Lattices brace, giving the illusion

of wall. Hurl cornstalk javelins
onto the sketch of a roof. Thread

strands of light around the rafters,
golden garlands between the corn.

Hang variegated gourds beside
whatever shiny art or gadgetry

appeals to the five-year-old eye.
When the last paperclip is hooked

you're ready to step inside.
Wave palm fronds until they clack,

thumb the etrog and breathe deep.
Notice the sky change.

There's no controlling
where it will take you: to last year?

To next year? To the year when illness
revealed the fragility of your veins?

Or maybe to the forty years' wandering,
smoky cookfires and bleating goats,

nights beneath the tender curl
of God's sheltering embrace.

When you re-enter your old house again
don't be surprised if the ceiling

seems too plain. The side effects
are temporary. At week's end

pack the holy components
back in the Rubbermaid ark. Return it

to the basement. Unscrew the walls
and lean them against the garage

where they'll linger, inanimate
logs waiting to be lashed together again

into the raft which will ferry you
across next year's unknown seas.


I found myself wanting to write a poem but casting-about for inspiration. So I turned to the list of poetry prompts which Luisa Igloria shared last National Poetry Writing Month, and chose the one for the 13th day of that month: Write a poem which incorporates a set of instructions on how to get somewhere specific, and then on returning or coming back. The "somewhere specific" wound up being more a state of mind than a literal place, and I suspect the poem will become much shorter in revision at some point, but for now, I'm pleased with it.


Letter from the sukkah

SukkahOn the festival's first night I carried a tray out to the sukkah bearing dinner, kiddush cups, wine and juice, a lighter for the candle I encased in a many-pointed glass star so that the wind wouldn't blow it out. Our son complained that he couldn't see the moon, but we came back outside later when it had just risen -- huge and yellow over the dark horizon of the hills -- and he jumped up and down with joy.

I spent much of the first day of Sukkot bundled up in the sukkah: jeans, socks, fuzzy slippers, a shirt, a sweater, a jacket, a knitted hat and scarf, and fingerless gloves. Above me the cornstalks rustled in the breeze. Occasionally yellow maple leaves drifted down from one of the trees overhead and made their way through the schach of the roof to land on my laptop. I was chilly, but I stayed out for a long time.

Being in a sukkah feels like being indoors and outdoors at the same time. The fresh air says "outdoors;" the feel of roof and walls says "indoors." But not too indoors. I can see sky through the roof. The usual views of our backyard and the valley are broken into squares by the sukkah's wooden lattice. All around me, decorations and our son's apple-themed art hang as though in midair.

Sukkot is so short, in the grand scheme of things. Seven days. I didn't want to miss it; I didn't want to waste it sitting indoors at the desk where I sit the whole rest of the year. The commandment is leishev ba-sukkah, "to dwell in the sukkah" -- literally, "to sit in the sukkah," which always makes me think of sitting zazen. The point of sitting in the sukkah is just sitting in the sukkah. Gloves and all.

PomegranateI try repeatedly to photograph our sukkah in a way which would show you what it looks like, what it feels like. But as with the panorama of the autumnal Berkshire hills, the pictures of the sukkah don't capture its reality. Autumn light streaming past golden tinsel garlands and shiny glitter pumpkins, the endless soft rustle of the roof, the little lights which gleam at nightfall. All I can capture are glimpses.

The sukkah has to be experienced in four dimensions, including time. The sukkah only exists for a short window of time. And yet the sukkah is also a portal in time, a door to every other year when I have sat in a sukkah. The ghosts of ten sukkot are imprinted on this back yard. Surely God, Who inhabits all of space and time simultaneously, can see next year's sukkah, and the next, and the next...

In the sukkah I can hear crickets chirping. Soon hard frosts will quiet the hillsides. Soon -- but not yet. On the first evening of the festival, as we ate dinner in the sukkah, we listened to an invisible neighbor playing "Auld Lang Syne" on clarinet. Our own private Sukkot serenade. The soundscape of the week also includes chipmunks rustling in the hillside's fallen leaves, and Canada geese calling overhead.

The sukkah, some say, represents the cloud of glory which followed the Israelites in their 40-year wilderness wandering. This is a house of divine presence. The walls and roof may be barely-there, but Shekhinah surrounds me with her embrace. I think of the angel song, that prayer for surrounding our son with wonder, strength, light, comfort, and the presence of Shekhinah all through the night.

Weather will blow in. Eventually the sukkah will come down. Temporariness is an inextricable part of the design. And yet this is where we're supposed to rejoice. Not despite the leaky roof, short lifespan, short-term design -- but with them, in them, through them. Go outside in order to go inside. Through this parody of a roof, recognize the sheltering Presence which curls protectively over us all.


Inviting (science) fictional ushpizin

There's a Jewish custom of inviting ushpizin, holy guests, into the sukkah each night. In the most traditional paradigm one invites seven (male) Biblical figures; in a more contemporary paradigm one invites Biblical figures of both genders. Each of the invited guests represents or channels a particular mystical energy, so in calling on that figure to invite them to one's sukkah, one is also inviting that figure's qualities to flow into the sukkah and into one's life.

For instance, on the first night it's traditional to call on Abraham. In kabbalah, Abraham is connected with the sefirah (divine quality) of chesed, overflowing lovingkindness. On the second night, one would call on Isaac, who is associated with gevurah, boundaried strength. (And so on.) Here's a lovely Seder Ushpizata by Rabbi David Seidenberg -- a liturgy for inviting and calling-upon these incorporeal guests and their holy qualities. And here's a fantastic infographic on the ushpizin, which lists the traditional (male) ushpizin, an alternative list of female ushpizot, and even a set of Hasidic figures who can be mapped to the seven nights of the festival.

FireflyShortly before the holiday began I found myself pondering aloud on Twitter how one might map these seven kabbalistic qualities to characters from Firefly. The tweet drew enough response that I figured it was worth expanding into a post! If one wanted to welcome the crew of Serenity on all seven nights of Sukkot, in what order would they be called-on, and what qualities would we ask them to channel for us?

(If you are not a fan of Joss Whedon's tragically short-lived "space western" Firefly, the remainder of this post may hold limited appeal for you. No disrespect is intended, in this bit of whimsical geekery, to the traditional custom of inviting Biblical ushpizin.)

Continue reading "Inviting (science) fictional ushpizin" »


Relearning how to slow down

Sometimes it's a little bit difficult for me to wind down after the holidays.

There's so much to do in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The most important parts for me are liturgical (practicing parts of the service with my hazzan, talking through transitions, trying out harmonies) and language-based (sermons, sermons, sermons), but there are preparations in other realms, too. From finding the white kippot at shul and putting them out for use during the holiday season, to making sure we have enough yizkor / memorial candles, to doing a sound-check with the microphones...the list is lengthy. (And did I mention the start of the Hebrew school year, conveniently timed?) My half-time job becomes fulltime. Since sometime this summer, the Days of Awe have been at the forefront of my consciousness all the time.

And suddenly they're over.

And what comes next -- starting tomorrow night -- is a week-long festival where I'm supposed to just sit. It's a bit of a shock to the system.

15276824938_b368d34fb4_nOkay, building the sukkah takes work. But that's Ethan's job; he's the carpenter in our family, and on Sunday he built us a beautiful new sukkah with latticed walls. Decorating the sukkah is the task which falls to me and to our son, but that's not work by any stretch of the imagination -- it's play. We festoon the structure with autumn-colored tinsel, tiny lights, gourds and pumpkins, giant leaves and acorns made out of felt, and a pair of shiny red pomegranates which our son calls "jewels." (They do look rather like jewels.) Over the course of the week he'll make more decorations. By the end of the holiday I expect the walls will be entirely covered in his handiwork.

And yes, there are mitzvot (connective-commandments) associated with this festival. I'll take up my Four Species and wave them in all directions, beckoning blessing. I'll sing the psalms of Hallel. I'll have friends over to rejoice in the sukkah with me. But that's it. None of this holds a candle to the work -- both practical and spiritual -- of the High Holidays! The mitzvah of Sukkot is mostly just being. Being in the sukkah. Sitting in the sukkah. "Dwelling" in the sukkah (or at least eating meals there, weather permitting) and feeling joy in the sukkah.

This feels like a real gift to me, this year. Just when I am at my most tightly-wound, the tradition gives me this built-in opportunity to shift gears. It is time to transition from the overwhelming and slightly frantic season of the Days of Awe to the slower, gentler pace of Sukkot. Sukkot is called chag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. If I were an ancient Israelite farmer, this would be my season of gathering my crops and bringing some to give to God at the Temple in Jerusalem. Today most of us are ingathering memories, impressions, emotions. Ingathering the scattered pieces of ourselves and integrating into a renewed whole.

It's time to bring in the harvest. What have these recent weeks brought forth in me? What feelings, ideas, insights from the Days of Awe can I carry with me into this simple sketch of a house, exposed to the elements, sometimes buffeted by the winds and the rain?

When I sit still and imagine entering the sukkah tomorrow night for the beginning of chag, I notice the clamor of my mind. What's next? Am I forgetting something? What am I supposed to be doing right now? The rapid-fire multitasking which seems so integral to congregational leadership at this time of year has become a habit. And I'm grateful for it, because it allows me to be fairly high-functioning during my busiest time of year. But it comes with the price of continuous partial attention: no matter what I'm doing, some part of my brain is already thinking about the next thing. I'm a little bit chagrined to discover how difficult it is for my mind and heart to st still. I need to re-learn the practice of slowing down.

I'm reminded of lines from Mary Oliver which I learned from Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg many years ago on the day after Yom Kippur: "so this is how you swim inward, / so this is how you flow outward, / so this is how you pray." Yom Kippur is a time of swimming inward, sometimes battling the mighty currents which seek to keep me distracted from and ignorant of what's really happening in my heart. It's a time of inner work, seeking to make myself a channel so that I can help blessing flow into the world. But our holiday cycle is all about balance. Rosh Hashanah was outward-focused; Yom Kippur was inward-focused; and Sukkot is a time of flowing outward once again. Relax: the hard work is done. The current will carry me where I need to be.


Wisdom from Rabbi Alan Lew before Sukkot

The stars are shining on the top of my head, the wind is in my hair; a few drops of rain are falling into my soup, but the soup is still warm. I am sitting in a sukkah, a booth with branches draped over the top, which I have erected in my backyard. A deep joy is seeping out from the core of my being and filling me body and soul. It began as a kind of lightness. I felt it as soon as the shofar was sounded to signal the end of Yom Kippur. There were three stars in the sky then. I felt all the weight, all the heaviness of the day -- all the death and the judgement and the yearning, all the soulful thrashing and beating of breasts -- falling away all at once, suddenly gone. I felt light and clean.

I am rereading the final chapter of Rabbi Alan Lew's This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: the Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. That book begins with the deep dive of Tisha b'Av, when we remember the fallen Temples and confront death and destruction. And it ends with the ascent to the fall harvest festival of Sukkot.

I resonate with these words every year. The lightness which Rabbi Lew describes, which begins as soon as the shofar is sounded at the end of Yom Kippur: I know that feeling. For me it is in part the feeling of having my biggest and most awe-inspiring task of the year behind me -- I have led my community in prayer throughout that long day of fasting, and we have come out the other side! But it's more than that. It's not just the relief or release of a job well done. It's something deeper.

"You shall dwell in booths for seven days," the Torah enjoins us, "so that you will know with every fiber of your being that your ancestors dwelt in booths during their sojourn in the wilderness when they were leaving Egypt." This is a commandment we fulfill not with a gesture or a word, but with our entire body. We sit in the sukkah with our entire body. Only our entire body is capable of knowing what it felt like to leave the burden of Egyptian oppression beind, to let go of it. Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzraim. The root of this word is tzar, a narrowness. Egypt was the narrow place. Only the entire body can know what it felt like to be pushed from a place of dire constriction and into a wilderness, a spacious, open world. Only the body can know what it felt like to be born. Only the body can know the fullness of joy, and this is a commandment that can only be fulfilled with joy.

Did our ancestors really dwell in these little houses during the forty-year wandering after the Exodus? It seems unlikely. Then again, I'm not sure I think we ever actually were slaves in Egypt -- not in historical time, anyway. What matters to me about the story of the Exodus is that it is the narrative around which our peoplehood coalesces. We are the people who understand ourselves to have been enslaved in a place of constriction, and God helped us to become free, and now we live in covenant with the One Who offers us the opportunity for redemption every day of our lives. And we are the people who remember that truth every day in our liturgy -- and every spring at Pesach -- and also every fall during Sukkot.

In the sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security, we let go of this need. The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another.

"The illusion of protection." These are beautiful words. Every year I write something about how being in the sukkah helps me to face my own impermanence. The sukkah is temporary; just so, the apparently sturdy home in which I am blessed to live; just so, the apparently healthy body which I am blessed to inhabit. This year I am struggling with that impermanence a little bit, as I continue to wrestle with my own emotional and spiritual reaction to a loved one's continuing illness. Impermanence is one thing, but oy, does it have to come with suffering? And yet Sukkot will come in a few days and it will call us to be joyful. Not despite our impermanence, but in and through that impermanence. This is human life, the festival seems to say. Nothing is forever. Sometimes the rain falls in your soup. Open yourself to all of what is, and let yourself be flooded with joy.


Learning to greet collapse with joy: from Tisha b'Av to Sukkot

This concatenation of ritual -- this dance that begins on Tisha b'Av and ends on Sukkot, that begins with the mournful collapse of a house and ends with the joyful collapse of a house, this intentional spasm that awakens us and carries us through death and back to life again -- stands for the journey the soul is always on.

That's Rabbi Alan Lew in the book I begin rereading every year around this time. This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.

Every year some of the same passages leap out at me. And every year there are some different lines which strike a chord. This is very like my experience of reading Torah every year, too.

This year I'm struck by his reminder that this period of holy time begins with the mournful collapse of a house -- the fallen Temples -- and ends with the joyful collapse of a house -- the sukkot we dismantle at the end of our festival season.

Impermanence is inevitable. The house is going to collapse. Our bodies fail. Our lives come to an end. But do we greet that inevitable collapse with anxiety, or with faith in whatever comes next?

[W]e can regard the ninth of Av as a time when we are reminded that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we get things right, until we learn what we need to learn from them. Tisha b'Av comes exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, beginning the process that culminates on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tisha b'Av is the moment of turning, the moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation as they manifest themselves in our own lives -- in our alienation and estrangement from God, in our alienation from ourselves and from others.

The moment when we turn away from denial and begin to face exile and alienation. For most of us this doesn't mean exile from the Land. But everyone experiences exile, even if only from the childhood innocence to which we can no longer return.

It is so tempting to deny that everyone feels alienation and exile. I want to pretend that I don't feel these things, and that my loved ones don't either. It is so tempting to put a band-aid over everything that hurts and pretend that we can make it okay.

But today is the day to face the fact that a band-aid isn't going to cut it. That loss and fear, sickness and death, alienation and estrangement are part of every life. And in that existential turning, we can begin to change how we relate to all of these.

As Rabbi Lew writes, "Tisha b'Av is the beginning of Teshuvah, the process of turning that we hope to complete on Yom Kippur, the process of returning to ourselves and to God." Today, because we are willing to face grief, we begin to return home.

Tisha b'Av has a hot tip for us: Take the suffering. Take the loss. Turn toward it. Embrace it. Let the walls come down. // And Tisha b'Av has a few questions for us as well. Where are we? What transition point are we standing at? What is causing sharp feeling in us, disturbing us, knocking us a little off balance? Where is our suffering? What is making us feel bad? What is making us feel at all? How long will we keep the walls up? How long will we furiously defend against what we know deep down to be the truth of our lives?

There's no escaping loss. All we can do is let the walls crumble -- the walls of "holding ourselves together," the walls of "bad things happen to them but not to me," the walls behind which we've allowed ourselves to become complacent and comfortable.

Because every moment is a transition point. And in every moment we can choose to accept the truth of our lives -- that life is temporary; that we come from Mystery and we return to Mystery; that we can't protect our loved ones from sorrow and pain.

All we can do is let the walls fall, and grieve their falling, and pour out our hearts before God -- throwing ourselves wholly into the journey toward that other home demolition, the one at Sukkot which we will greet with song and processional and joy.

Because if we can learn to greet that home demolition with joy, then maybe we can learn to greet the collapse which is at the heart of human existence with joy. Things fall apart. Can we use the next two months to learn how to greet that with celebration?


Four eclipses; four worlds; four holidays; four holy perspective shifts

A Jewish Renewal perspective on the tetrad of lunar eclipses, by rabbinic student David Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

Lunar-Eclipse-on-April-15-Will-be-Visible-All-Across-America42-650x469
We in North America are about to experience four total lunar eclipses in a row which, incredibly, will coincide with Pesach (15 April in 2014, 4 April in 2015) and Sukkot (8 October in 2014 and 28 September in 2015). In 2014 and 2015, the full moon marking these festival times will be eclipsed at the moments of perhaps the greatest joy in the Jewish calendar – at Pesach, when we experience freedom from the Narrow Place, and at Sukkot, when we enter with thanksgiving into our fragile and impermanent harvest houses.

Jewish mystics link the moon with Shekhinah, immanent and indwelling Presence of God manifest in creation. Many Hasidic teachings depict hester panim, the hiding or withdrawal of God's presence from us. In every life, we experience alternating phases of God's presence and God's (apparent) absence -- but just as the moon remains present even during its eclipse, so God's presence remains even when S/He may seem veiled in shadow.

Beyond mere veiling, a lunar eclipse invites a shift in spiritual perspective.  If we were on the moon looking at Earth during these eclipses, we would see the Earth silhouetted in the sun's fire.  Standing on the moon's surface, we would look up at the Earth and witness sunrise and sunset happening simultaneously, everywhere, along the Earth's shadowed rim.  It is the red of the Earthly sunset that we Earthlings see projected onto the moon at the time of a total lunar eclipse.

Lunar eclipses thus invite us to lift grandly above habitual ways of seeing.  Reb Zalman taught that once humanity could see the Earth as a swirled green-blue marble suspended in space, a paradigm shift occurred.  A door opened for us to see ourselves as cells in the cosmic organism of our planet, without artificial borders and boundaries that appear to divide us.  Lunar eclipses call us toward that global vantage.  Lunar eclipses project onto the moon the timeless reality that sunrise and sunset – shifts of awareness between light and dark – are unfolding at every moment.  Usually this truth of nature (and spiritual life) escapes our day-to-day awareness.  A lunar eclipse, however, visibly projects this truth onto our cosmic symbol for Shekhinah, the indwelling divine presence. A lunar eclipse thus reminds us that with God is our power, and our calling, to lift our consciousness beyond the narrowness of place and boundary. 

That lunar eclipses coincide with our biannual festivals for two consecutive years invites especially profound opportunities.  At Passover, season of our liberation, we leave behind the constrictions of slavery and limited insight.  At the Passover eclipses, we can look up and see the ultimate natural image of liminality and change projected onto the springtime full moon.  So too at Sukkot, season of our joy and gratitude, we leave behind old calcified patterns and emerge into deep truths of impermanence. At the Sukkot eclipses, we can gaze at the fall harvest moon and see the ultimate natural image of global interconnectedness reflected on the face of Shekhinah.

At these festival times, traditional liturgy includes Hallel, songs of praise drawn from the Psalms. At the time of these festival lunar eclipses, how amazing to proclaim the Psalmist's joyous words of unity and higher perspective:

רָם עַל-כָּל-גּוֹיִם ה׳ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ
מִי כַּה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַמַּגְבִּיהִי לָשָׁבֶת
הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ

God is high above all nations: God's glory is above the heavens.
Who is like YHVH our God, enthroned on high,
Looking down low on heaven and earth?

-- Ps. 113:4-6

These eclipses are ultimate expressions of natural liminality reflected onto our Jewish calendar.  At Pesach we stop saying the prayer for rain and begin saying the prayer for dew; at the end of Sukkot, we switch back the other way.  These festivals are liminal moments, as are sunrise and sunset. During these eclipses we'll see liminality projected onto Shekhinah at the very moments that we ourselves are liminal, sanctifying transitions from one state of being into another. 

And with four total lunar eclipses back to back, every six months, timed perfectly to our holiday calendar and seasonal shifts, we have four chances to experience this grandeur -- one lunar eclipse for each of the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and spirit.  One lunar eclipse for each of the four letters in the Shem HaMeforash, the unpronounceable Name we denote as YHVH.  Four festival opportunities to deepen our amazement and wonder gazing into the night sky. Four festival moments of liberation and gratitude unlike any that we have known before.

Chag sameach / Happy Holidays.


Decoration

Plates
The rainbow foil garlands broke
on the night of heavy rain.
Slivers of color adorn the lawn.

Your tears fell like willow leaves.
You insisted we find
the decoration store.

This slow disintegration
is part of the point, each sukkah
as fragile as a life, but

who understands that at four?
A compromise: the art supply box,
our spool of kitchen string.

Now paper plates spin and clatter.
Their crayoned markings face me
then whirl away

like your laughing face
hiding under our blanket
then bursting back into view.

 


Re: "Your tears fell like leaves" -- today is Hoshanna Rabbah, when it is customary to beat our willow branches on the earth; their falling leaves represent our prayers for rain.

(Photo source: flickr.)

 


Every life is a sukkah

9819959773_9728b541d5_n

Our sages have asked: what is a sukkah?

Some have said: it’s a remembrance of the tents we lived in during the exodus from Egypt. As we read in Torah, "You shall dwell in sukkot seven days, that your generations may know that the children of Israel dwelled in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt." When we sit in the sukkah, we remember the Exodus.

Others have said: it’s a reminder of the cloud of glory which traveled with us during the exodus from Egypt, the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. When we sit in the sukkah, we experience God's presence and God's glory.

Still others said: it’s a harvest house, a reminder of the temporary dwellings our ancestors used to build in their fields during harvest time. When we sit in the sukkah, we remember our agricultural roots, and feel gratitude for the harvest.

And still others have said: a sukkah is temporary, beautiful, vulnerable, a place for welcoming guests and connecting with people (both those who are in our lives, and those ancestors whom we remember with love) — it is an embodied metaphor for a human life.

Like a sukkah, each life is temporary. Each life is beautiful. Each life is vulnerable. Each life is enriched by the presence of our loved ones, both living and imagined. Into every life a little rain must fall, but when we sit in the sukkah, we have the opportunity to greet even that rain with joy.

Adapted from a teaching originally posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


First morning

DecorationsI wake to the sound of feet on the stairs, but keep my eyes closed so that I can pretend to be startled when our son shouts "boo!" from the bedroom door. This is how mornings begin, these days. We cuddle for a while, and then he says -- as he does every day -- "I was thinkin'..." He pauses for dramatic effect, then goes on. "You could put on your robe-in, and come downstairs, and make me some waffles, and put on some cartoons, and then you could shower!" And that's what we do.

Once I am dressed for the day, I take up my lulav and etrog. "I'm going out to the sukkah," I tell him. "Do you want to come?" At first he says no, he wants to watch cartoons, so I come out here alone. It's a stunning late-September day: clear, sunny, bright blue sky. Our sukkah sparkles, tinsel garlands reflecting the early morning light. I make the blessing, shake my lulav in all six directions, sing some of the psalms of Hallel.

I am interrupted by a shout from the deck. "Does this one go on this foot?" It's our son, wanting to confirm right and left before putting on his sneakers and padding out to join me in the sukkah. "Daddy built this sukkah an' I decorated it," he tells me proudly. He gets up on the stepstool to admire the little birds which he so proudly hung on one of the rafters before the festival began. "One is for me," he says, "and one is for Daddy, and one is for you!"

LulavThen his attention turns to the lulav. "What's that," he asks. I tell him it's a lulav, and that the fruit is called an etrog. I encourage him to smell the etrog; he makes a surprised face at its strong scent. Then he says "It goes on the roof." He thinks the lulav is more schach, roofing branches; not an unreasonable theory, actually. I tell him that if I can find last year's lulav, which might be in my study somewhere, we can add it to the roof -- but this one is special; it's for shaking in all different directions and bringing blessings. I pick it up and show him. Then he asks if he can try.

His hands aren't big enough to hold the lulav and etrog together, so he just holds the lulav. He wiggles it this way, that way, the other way. "Blessings over here," he crows. "Blessings over here!" And then he gets bored and puts it down and wants to run around the yard looking for more branches for the roof, which is okay too.

It is such a beautiful morning, this first day of Sukkot 5774. I don't know how to end this post except with this deep wash of gratitude. For the pileated woodpecker and the rooster calling in the distance. For the quiet hum of the crickets and the chipmunks chasing each other in the first rustling fallen leaves. For this airy little house which my sweetheart built and the sparkly adornments which suited our son's aesthetic just so. For this beautiful tall boy with his curiosity about everything. For everything.


The four in-between days

9763555713_db11821931_nThere are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

In the old Pesach counting song I learned as a child, four are the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. These days I tend to count six matriarchs, including Bilhah and Zilpah, the other two handmaidens from whom the twelve tribes descended. (With today's consciousness, ignoring them seems to smack of a kind of classism; I'd rather be inclusive in my davenen.) So it's hard to connect these four days with those four foremothers.

But four suggests the four letters of the Tetragrammaton; and it suggests the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and spirit.

If each of the four days between the holidays represents one of the four worlds, then perhaps we began with a day of assiyah, action and physicality, and today we move into the day of atzilut, spirit.

It's customary to begin building one's sukkah right after Yom Kippur. (Some make a practice of driving the first nail after the sun has set on what was Yom Kippur day.) That's definitely an assiyah act, an act in the physical world. On Sunday, Ethan built the frame for our sukkah out of wood and screws.

The next day was our day in the world of yetzirah, emotions. I find that my emotions are always heightened during and after Yom Kippur. Something about the long day of fasting, singing, praying, chanting, standing, yearning -- it opens the floodgates of my heart and they often stay open for a little while. On Monday, our son and I gathered some branches for the sukkah roof. Creating a safe container, maybe, for all of that open heart.

Shiviti-BreierThen comes the day in the world of briyah, thought and intellect. A day for intellectually processing everything that has transpired since this season of teshuvah began back at Rosh Hashanah. Or maybe back at the start of Elul. Or maybe back at Tisha b'Av, the fast which falls two months before Yom Kippur. On Tuesday I did a lot of thinking. And our son and I pondered where best to hang the various decorations which we had saved or procured.

And now it's the day of atzilut. The day of spirit. The last day before Sukkot. Tonight at sundown the festival begins.

These four days are meant to be days of integrating whatever we received at Yom Kippur. Once upon a time the High Priest went into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and, some teachings say, received a new name for God. Today there is no High Priest; each of us must serve that function in her/his own way. Our old names, our old partzufim (literally "masks" -- think faces, archetypes, ways of seeing God) grow worn over the course of a year of use. On Yom Kippur, we davened with all our heart and all our might in hopes of receiving a new name for God -- a new way of understanding God -- a new insight --  new way of relating to holiness.

And whatever came down for us on that holy day, we have these four interstitial days to integrate it. To install that new name, as my teacher Reb Zalman likes to say, on the hard drive of our hearts.


It's been impossible, this year, not to see Sukkot through the lens of the flooding happening in Boulder. Sukkot is many things at once: a harvest festival, a remembrance of the harvest huts in which our ancestors once dwelled while harvesting their fields, a remembrance of the temporary shelters in which our ancestors dwelled during the Exodus from Egypt. It's also a festival of impermanence, when we leave our safe and stable homes and spend a week "living" (or at least dining, learning, and rejoicing) in flimsy temporary shelters with leaky roofs. It's one thing for that to be a voluntary practice, as it is for my family and me. It's another thing entirely for the many in Colorado who have had no choice but to leave the homes they thought were safe and stable.

The shviti image I've included in this post (drawn by Morton Breier) features the Jewish Renewal chant which says that in assiyah, in the world of action and physicality, "it is perfect." What does it mean for us to consider this physical world to be perfect when there is so much suffering in this world? Maybe the "perfect" is aspirational -- maybe we can only get there if we try to take care of one another when there is need. If you are able to participate fiscally in that work, please know that the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado has set up a 2013 Boulder Relief Fund; 100% of donations will go to support victims of the flood. You can also donate to support my teacher R' Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and his wife Eve Ilsen as they work to rebuild what they have lost; or to Bonai Shalom, my friend R' Marc Soloway's shul, which was badly damaged by the flooding.

May our journey into Sukkot be meaningful and sweet. May each of us integrate whatever we received on Yom Kippur into our whole being. May we be mindful that even as we celebrate willing embrace of impermanence, others are daily confronted with impermanence they did not choose. May our week of rejoicing in our little temporary houses strengthen our willingness to tend to those in need, here and everywhere.


Yom Kippur is over; Sukkot is almost here!

Prayer Before Building the Sukkah


for the sturdiness of my house
and for the willingness to leave it

for this chance to build
a temporary home, to remember

nomad desert wandering
and harvest houses: thank You.

Connect me, God, with all who labor
here and everywhere.

Increase my compassion
for anyone who has no home.

There is no Temple, and I do not farm:
all I can offer You

is the work of my hands
my heart, open as these walls.

 


 

The festival of Sukkot begins four days after Yom Kippur. Many of us will be building our sukkot, our little temporary houses, today in preparation for the coming festival. Here's a prayer intended for recitation before that work begins; if it's helpful to you, please feel free to use it and/or share it! This will appear in my forthcoming volume of Jewish liturgical poetry, hooray.


Candied citron / dulce de etrog

Earlier this week I got this year's batch of etrogcello underway. But what to do with the etrogim after I'd carved away the yellow part of the peels?

This year's answer is candied etrog. I found two recipes which looked interesting. One comes from chef David Lebovitz: candied citron. The other is this dulce de etrog recipe.

I diced the peel and soaked it overnight in water, then replaced the water and soaked some more. I brought it to a simmer, drained the water, and then put the etrog in a heavy-bottomed pot with water and sugar. Then I clipped on the candy thermometer and let the peel-sugar-water mixture simmer until it reached 230. Once we hit that magic number, I removed the pot from heat.

David's recipe suggested letting the peel sit in the syrup for an hour, so I did that. I had planned to then remove the peel and drain it, but after an hour I found that the peel-and-syrup mixture had hardened into a kind of jelly, so I went with the dulce de etrog recipe's suggestion of spooning the mixture out onto a sheet of parchment paper to rest overnight.

I rested it in the fridge, mostly because we sometimes have ants and I knew they would find it if it were sitting out in the kitchen. In the morning it was lovely and stiff from the cold. I cut it into little pieces (the jelly became softer as it warmed, but remained jelly-like, never melting altogether) and rolled them in sugar.

Candied citron / dulce de etrog.

The end result are pieces of etrog candy of varying shape and size, now drying on a drying rack. I'll seal them in an airtight container later today. The candies are sweet and citron-y, but not bitter. They're delicious.

Unlike the etrogcello, these won't keep for a long time. We'll probably feed them to this weekend's houseguests. I feel good about finding a way to use, and savor, these precious and rare fruits. A little taste of Sukkot now that Sukkot is only memory.

And I still have two more etrogim to use! I think I might try spicing these with star anise and peppercorns, as in this Pierre Herme recipe. Yum.

 


 

Edited to add: the second batch was cooked in a syrup with peppercorns, a star anise, one hot pepper, and a bit of brown sugar to complement the white sugar. They turned out beautiful, too:

Spiced candied etrog peel.

Shabbat shalom!


"Curls of peel / prepare to sleep..."

etrog peels under vodka


ETROGCELLO


curls of peel        prepare to sleep
beneath cold vodka        snow-thick blanket

shreds of autumn        gold and gleaming
in this womb        with no umbilicus

this dark cupboard        a sweet relief
close fevered eyes        let changes come

to unfurl bright        upon our tongues
as springtime's sap        begins to rise


Yes, I am once again making etrogcello! (Here's a glimpse of last year's.)

These slivers of etrog peel will rest under vodka in the dark through the winter. Shortly before Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, I'll strain and sweeten the results: maybe with splenda syrup, as in previous years -- or maybe with local honey, as my friend Bob does.

We'll sip the bright home-made limoncello at our Tu BiShvat seder, a link between this autumn's harvest and the first stirrings of the coming spring.


A sukkah and a song

Drew admires the roof of our sukkah.


"Want to sing the angel song, mommy?"

Drew and I are sitting in our sukkah under the wet cornstalks and the little lights. It is evening; the skies are threatening, but it's not actively raining -- at least not yet.

I sing him Shlomo Carlebach's setting of the song about the four angels who watch over us at night. It's part of our bedtime routine. As I mention each angel, I wave my fingers at him: from the right, from the left, from in front, from behind. He giggles.

When I'm done, I ask if he wants to sing something, and he agrees. He sings me the alphabet song, then asks me to sing it, too. We sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

By this time the light mist in the air has intensified into a drizzle. Even in our raincoats and rain boots, we're getting more than a little bit damp. So we head inside, I unplug the sukkah lights, we watch some cartoons.

A little while later, Drew in his pyjamas, he brings his raincoat and Thomas And Friends rainboots over to me. "Want to go in the sukkah, mommy?" I am completely charmed, but I have to inform him that it's really raining now, and besides, he's in PJs, it's almost time for bed.

In the gliding rocker, when I sing him the angel song before bed, I think of the cornstalks and lights of our sukkah, and it makes me smile.

 

Sukkah roof by evening.


VR Podcast 5: Sukkot

VRPodcastLogo

VR Podcast Episode 5: Sukkot

Happy Sukkot!

In this episode of the VR Podcast -- live from our sukkah in our backyard -- I talk about the festival of Sukkot, interpretations of the sukkah, impermanence, integrating blessings, the Four Species, and more.

 


VRPodcast5

23:08

To listen online or download:  VR Podcast 5 - Sukkot.mp3

23 minutes, 8 seconds / 22.2 MB MP3 file

If you're so inclined, you can subscribe via iTunes.

All feedback is welcome and appreciated, always.



 


חג שמח / Happy Sukkot!

sukkah under cloudy sky

Our sukkah, 5773.

There are four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. One for each letter of the Tetragrammaton, the Divine Name whose pronunciation is lost to us (or is perhaps, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow has suggested, our very breathing, in and out, each inhalation and exhalation together forming a prayer.) One for each of the Four Worlds.

Four days to process whatever emotional and spiritual learning Yom Kippur brought us. To install on our hearts the new name of God we downloaded during that long day of fasting and prayer. Four days to recover from the rollercoaster of the Days of Awe. To make ourselves into channels for the blessing with which we hope to irrigate the world during the festival to come.

And then, at sundown after the fourth day, we enter Sukkot. Chag ha-asif, the festival of ingathering. Zman simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing. A week of dwelling consciously in impermanence, beneath the sheltering divine presence and the shelter of the ever-changing sky. A week of dining al fresco, welcoming our spiritual ancestors and our friends to join us.

During Sukkot, the immanent divine Presence dwells with us in our temporary backyard houses. God moves in with us, this week, and we move in with God. We shake the Four Species in all directions, beckoning blessing.

Even though autumn in New England can be cold and rainy, there's something glorious about being outside in the fall. I love this chance to encounter God's presence in the great outdoors before winter's cold drives me mostly inside.

And I love all the various interpretations of the holiday: that our sukkot represent harvest huts, that they represent the tents in which we dwelled when we left Egypt (or the clouds of divine glory which enveloped us on that journey), even that they're an annual return to the divine womb. Sukkot are liminal spaces, at once "inside" and "outside."

There's nothing else quite like this week. Chag sameach / happy Sukkot to all! Whatever form your festival observance takes, I hope it brings you joy.