Back when I was in Jerusalem this summer, I decided that I was going to give myself the gift of attending Sukkahfest at Isabella Freedman come autumn. It would be my reward for making it through the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe): after my first Yom Kippur pulpit, I would get three days of being able to relax into davening and learning and connecting with people during the festival known as zman simchateinu, the time of our joy. I've just returned from that adventure.
On the first night, there were songs and storytelling in the sukkah until late, and then I sat and listened to a man who was giving over teachings about the custom of inviting ushpizin, holy guests, into the sukkah. (The first night, it's traditional to invite Abraham; in Hasidic communities it's customary to invite the spirit of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism.) The man told a beautiful teaching from the BeShT about how the whole world is on fire -- which one could see as a sign of chaos, but the Baal Shem saw it as a sign of how everything that lives burns for God.
The best part, the thing I most wish I could chronicle, is the part that defies words: the davening. Oy, the davening! On Monday night, instead of a plain short evening service, we did what Reb David Ingber called "kabbalat Succos" (like kabbalat Shabbat, the service of psalms and songs which welcomes the Sabbath bride, only for Sukkot) to prolong the sweetness of welcoming the festival into our lives. With Shoshana Jedwab's drumming and Reb David's niggunim and the heartfelt quality of the prayer, the davenen was rich and sweet. It felt so much like home!
One of the things that was unusual for me about this retreat is that much of the time, there were three groups davening in different styles in different places: Orthodox, Progressive Egalitarian, and Renewal. I chose the Renewal davenen, naturally. On the first morning, it was led beautifully by Rabbi Efraim and Rosalie Eisen (the founders of Basherte.) We greeted one another with one of my favorite prayers, hareini m'kabel alai ("Here I am, ready and willing to take on the mitzvah of the creator: to love my neighbor as I love myself") which had special resonance for me because Efraim and Rosalie are my neighbors, more or less: they're from Amherst.
During the set of songs and psalms of praise that come at the start of the service, we went outdoors -- Shoshanna drumming all the way -- and davened with the geese and the lake and the pine needles that fell lazily from the trees like rain. And then all three groups gathered together for Hallel (the set of psalms recited on festivals), which was glorious -- singing and dancing and jumping up and down, and everywhere the amazing clack of lulavim (the Four Species we gather and shake in every direction: palm, willow, myrtle, and a citron called an etrog) like rattles in everyone's hands. I felt like I was in a living lulav forest.
The Torah reading was also a treat. The reading for the festival is a recap of the major holidays of the year: we read about Shabbat, then Pesach, then Shavuot, then the Days of Awe, then Sukkot. On the first day, Reb Jill Hammer invited up for group aliyot those who resonated with the energy of the holiday described in each section of the reading: being a seed planted deep in the ground and resting (Shabbat), being born / emerging ready to grow (Pesach), flowering and being ready to bring the fruits of one's labor to the community (Shavuot), and so on. I went up for the Shavuot aliyah, feeling like for a long time I was a seed, and for a long time I was working on emerging, and these days I'm in a position of having gifts to bring.
On both days, after the Torah service we chanted hoshanot (prayers for salvation) by the side of the lake. We formed a great circle, and sang out prayers, and shook our lulavim. On the first day our hoshanot were relatively sedate. On the second day our circle turned into a spiral and we wound up singing and dancing in the sunshine for a long while. On both days, we chanted some of the traditional hoshanot, and some spontaneous ones of our own.
On the afternoon of the second day of the holiday, my new friend Andrew and I went on a hike to an overlook that looks out on the stunning vista of valley below. Granite cobble, wild blueberry bushes all red now with autumn foliage, the bowl of the valley orange and yellow and green and red, the fields already shorn for winter, hawks circling below...it was glorious, and a good reminder of the spectacular beauty of the place where I live which I don't explore near often enough.
One thing was strange for me: the last time I'd been at Isabella Fredman was for week four of DLTI, when everyone there was an incredibly dear friend. This time, the only people I knew at the retreat center were teachers and staff. And there were a lot of families who came on retreat to celebrate the festival together in a beautiful setting, not necessarily to meet interesting strangers at the dinner table. Of course people were friendly; I met a lovely couple from Pittsfield, and I saw a couple of old acquaintances from prior visits, and I made one new friend who I hope to keep. But I hadn't realized how accustomed I'd grown to feeling woven-in to the fabric of my retreat community. (Makes me excited already about my next Ohalah...)
Over the next few days I hope to share a few of the teachings I gleaned on retreat. But right now, as I settle into being home again (in my own house and my own sweet little sukkah!) I want to thank everyone at Isabella Freedman who worked hard to bring Sukkahfest 2008 into being. It really is a blessing to be able to celebrate this deep holiday in such a sweet, renewed, and renewing way.