Me'or Eynayim on the hidden meaning of Sukkot
October 04, 2006
This morning in my hevruta group we studied a text about Sukkot by the Me'or Eynayim, as translated by Rabbi Jonathan Slater. (The Me'or Eynayim's given name was Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl; as is typical in the Hasidic world, he's known by the name of his major scholarly work. It's like calling Jane Austen "the Sense & Sensibility," or Charles Darwin "the Origin of Species.") A few ideas leapt out at me which I wanted to share here. Bear with me; this is dense, but I think it's really beautiful.
The world, the Me'or Eynayim says, is built on love; God created the world in order to reveal God's love to all creatures. "Before the creation of the world there was no container for the love; it was above any container and beyond comprehension." In fact, God's creation of the world can be compared to "that loving act that one does for the dead" (taharah), in that just as we cleanse and bless the bodies of the dead without any possibility of payback, God puts forth love in a similarly generous (and impossible-to-repay) fashion.
God contracted God's-self, the Me'or Eynayim writes, and descended step by step into the lowest realms -- into what we would call reality. There's a tension between what's hidden (e.g. God) and what is revealed (reality -- though God hides beneath, so really, even our physical reality has God in it.) With me so far?
Here's the part that really gets me:
This is what parables are all about. Someone who wants another person to understand him will offer a parable (mashal), but the true message (nimshal) is hidden in the lesson of the parable. So, similarly, God contracted, as it were, in the lowest levels of creation, and this is a parable so that we might understand it...God is in everything a parable, and by analogy we can understand the deep lesson.
We tell stories in order to communicate deep meaning. The whole world, Me'or Eynayim argues, is a story -- our lives are a story -- and the deeper meaning beneath the story is the presence of God in all things. Reality as we know it is a parable, designed to communicate the all-encompassing love at the heart of everything.
The turn of the piece comes when he links this with the festival of Sukkot. "Sukkot," he says, relates to the word skhakh, that which covers over an item and hides it. (His etymology is suspect -- since skhakh means the leafy stuff that you put on top of a sukkah, this is more of a pun than an actual lesson about word roots -- but we'll let that slide.) The parable of ordinary reality, he says,"covers over" (like leafy skhakh) the lesson that God is present in the deepest levels of creation, vivifying all things.
Once a year we venture out of our supposedly-solid houses into fragile sukkot, as a reminder of our impermanence in the physical world -- but paradoxically, it's the process of exiting our solid homes that allows us to remember, temporarily, that what's really solid and foundational is what we can't see. What's really solid is the love that permeates all existence, the truth beneath all the stories that we tell.
During the festival of Sukkot we live in booths (or at least pray in them, eat in them, and hang out in them to the best of our abilities) as a reminder that all the world is a sukkah, a fragile booth with a permeable roof through which we can catch glimpses of the ultimate reality that our layers of metaphor and consciousness ordinarily hide.