Spread Over All of Us the Sukkah of Shalom

Photo of a sukkah Photo credit: Rachel Barenblat

Here in the Rehab Center where I am, we do not have a sukkah like the beautiful one built by Rachel Barenblat pictured in the photo. It seemed likely to be hard to celebrate the festival of "Sukkot" — "Huts." It turned out — but I’ll get to the story in a moment.

Sukkot marks both the harvest of the last outpouring of God's and earth's abundance, and the hope for rain that will make fruitful the next outpouring of abundance.

Why "Huts"? Because we are taught to build fragile huts whose only roofings are leafy branches that let in rain, wind, starlight. A "sukkah" impermeable to the weather is no sukkah.

Just as for a week each year we eat the simplest food human beings can make – unleavened bread – so for one week each year, exactly six months later, we live in the simplest home human beings can make. Open to the earth.

And we are taught that our prayers for abundant rain are not just for the sake of the Jewish people alone, but for all the "seventy nations of the world," that they should all find abundance from God.

The traditional Jewish prayerbook includes for every evening through the year, as we enter the vulnerability of sleep, the prayer: "Ufros alenu sukkat shlomecha, Spread over all of us Your sukkah of shalom."

Why in this moment of vulnerability do we seek a "sukkah" of shalom? Why not a "palace," a "temple," a "fortress," a "tower," even just a "house" — anyway, something a lot sturdier to protect us than this flimsy hut?

Because we are being reminded that Towers, Skyscrapers, Fortresses, Pentagons, do not in fact ultimately protect us. All human beings and all our human institutions are in fact fragile. Only when we can all remember that, can we all live in shalom -- in harmony, in peace.

Because of my auto accident and the rigidities it has imposed upon us in both space and time, Phyllis and I were for the first time this year unable to build our sukkah. But our friends brought us the four earthy items – branches of palm, myrtle, willow, and the lemon-like etrog or citron – that during Sukkot we traditionally wave in the "six" directions of the universe.

Correction: seven. Rabbi Shefa Gold reminds us that when we wave outward toward these six directions, each time we complete the waving by bringing the branches and the etrog close to our heart. The seventh direction of the universe is –- inward.

(Is that why Shabbat comes on the seventh day? Is the pattern of six/ seventh day a transcription into time of the shape of space?)

There are many midrashim on the meaning of these four life-forms. For me, one of the richest came from my then ten-year-old son, David Waskow, when in 1974 for the first time in my life I did the waving, then taught him to do it – and then asked him a question you do not find in the Talmud: "How did it feel?"

He answered: "I felt like I was a tree. I could smell my own fruit and hear the rustle of my own leaves in the wind."

(Today he is an expert on climate policy for Oxfam America's lobbying staff in Washington. Maybe that etrog made a difference?)

May we all be blessed with a Sukkot that invites us into that intertwined communion between adam (humanity) and adamah (the earth).

So here in the Rehab Center where I am strengthening my legs and arms toward returning to my more usual life, we sought an outdoor place to "wave" the lulav and etrog. The center has a small outdoor patio, surrounded by the building but open to the sky, with trees and grass and bushes fed by the rain.

Knowing there was no sukkah, we went there anyway – and found a tiny miracle. There was a structure open to the world with a semi-roof of wooden slats. It might even once upon a time have been intended for a sukkah, but there was no greenery (s'chach) laid across the roof.

Then Phyllis noticed a broken branch from a nearby bush — with intensely green leaves and intensely purple berries. She tossed the branch up onto the roof of this odd structure, and — suddenly!! — there was a single sprig of s'chach. A sort of sukkah. So there we shook and waved the lulav and etrog, and thanked God for life, for abundance, for love, for shalom.

And now the miracle multiplied. We had seen a family in the rehab center whose elderly patriarch was wearing a Bukharian yarmulke. He was surrounded by children and a grandchild. We had shared a "Good yontif, chag same'ach!" with them to honor the festival. The elder had had a stroke and could not speak, but seemed to respond when they explained to him that Phyllis and I were rabbis. The family had come from Russia 20 years ago; they noticed that "Waskow" is a Russian name, and I explained it was my grandparents who came.

"A woman rabbi? We are Orthodox; what kind of Jews are you? Reform?"

We tried to explain, not just generic "Reform," maybe a fusion of feminism and Hassidism — but I fear it didn’t compute. They said cautiously they had heard that the grandchildren of non-Orthodox Jews usually weren't Jewish at all, and we said that our five grandchildren all had Hebrew names and that all of them except the one-month-old were going to Jewish day schools. They blinked — a myth shattered, a barrier broken?

We told them that we had a lulav and etrog and invited them to do their own waving. Their faces lit up: "We were just talking, how sad to have no lulav. It is a miracle from Heaven!"

So we told them about the patio and the sort-of sukkah. They were interested — but to get there meant taking an elevator, which Orthodox Jews don't do on festival days.

So Phyllis promptly offered to push the elevator buttons, and they agreed. When they saw the sort-of sukkah to which she took them, again a chorus: "A miracle from Heaven!"

What Phyllis did is the kind of deed that in Jewish lore is reserved for the "Shabbas goy" -- the non-Jew who can help out a Jewish neighbor by doing something Jews aren't supposed to do on Shabbat. One way of seeing this is with gratitude to God for encouraging different practices in different religious communities who can help each other in this way, like an eco-system. But another – met more often among many traditional Jews — is with faint derision.

The notion that rabbis could ever act like "Shabbos goys" — that is certainly a new Jewish thought. For us, it was a joy to be able to do this for the festival that out of the entire cycle is called "THE Season of our joy." (That's where the title came from for my book about the entire cycle, Seasons of Our Joy.)

So Sukkot at its best can be a festival for crossing boundaries and softening barriers. Among human beings and the other beings in our interwoven earth. Among the "seventy" interwoven nations of the world.

For other thoughts on the celebration of Sukkot and the festivals that follow this weekend — Sh'mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah — see Seasons of Our Joy (Beacon Press) and — http://www.theshalomcenter.org/taxonomy/term/114

Sukkat shalom!
-- Arthur

Photo credit: Sukkah in the Morning by Rachel Barenblat/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


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