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Relearning how to slow down

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.