Sitting with sorrow in the sukkah
September 28, 2015
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.