Sunday, October 03, 2004

Second Day sukkot

At the end of the Torah portion we read today it says in Vayikra 23: 42-43

42. You shall dwell in Sukkot seven days; all who are citizens in Israel shall live in Sukkot;
43. in order That your future generations will know that I caused the people of Israel to live in Sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.

The talmud records a dispute among the rabbis about what these sukkot actually were: one Rabbi tells us, "They were real sukkot," but another says, no, these sukkot were actually the clouds of glory that followed the Israelits through the wilderness (Sifra Emor on Sukkah 2:a).
Although the sukkot being "real sukkot" initially seems to be a much more prosaic interpretation, the Chasidic commentator the Sfat Emet says that this is actually a reference to where the talmud explains, "Go out of your fixed dwelling and live in this temporary shelter," means that every Jew was given the freedom when we left Egypt not to be stuck in the ways of nature.
When the Torah says, "I caused the children of Israel to live in Sukkot when I brought them forth" it means that God implanted in the hearts of Israel the power to escape the prison of the body and nature, to dwell in this world as temporary visitors. -That is, just as the sukkot are temporary dwellings, we are in the world in "temporary dwellings" -our bodies- in the sense that we are not limited to living like animals, with no way of escaping the patterns of nature.
It seems to me that in a way, this is a major message of the entire Jewish calendar year. The secular world tells us that we must act in certain ways because "it's natural" - that can mean anything from, "It's the natural order of things to have the poweful rule over the weak." to becoming inured to the constant bombardment of highly sexualized messages that we get on billboards, television, movies and from magazines to internalizing the ridiculous gender roles that are so prevalent in our society. We're used to thinking of whatever the status quo is as natural - it's hard to think of the world we live in in truly revolutionary ways; yet that IS a message of Judaism.
The beginning of our year really begins with Pesach - the exodus fom Egypt, in which we recieve the most powerful message of all about revolution: God hears the cry of the oppressed, and enables us to overcome the so-called "natural order" when we hold the vision of God's ideal before us. The Torah is a set of rules for living that sets us free - not as our secular world understands freedom, "free to do whatever we want," but rather free to serve God. And truly, that is the most unnatural thing there is. Judaism is a revolutionary religion becasue it denies that we are bound to the world, to doing the same thing over and over again, that we cannot fulfil God's ideal for us.
Some religions deny the world entirely, proclaiming the body sinful - or even unreal- and humans mired in sin, so that the only way to escape is to deny this life, whether that means an afterlife or nirvana, but Judaism doesn't accept this view. Rather, within our sukkot - our frame of nature letting in nature- we strive towards perfection. That's why "Free to serve God" is a vision not of rights, but of responsibilities. That's a difficult vision to implement, because it requires moral agency of everyone. It means that there is no one who can say that a particular act is okay just because it doesn't affect anyone else. There is no such thing. You can never say, "Well, I'm only hurting myself, so I can do what I want." beause you're never only hurting yourself. When you hurt yourself, you hurt God, and you hurt the world, as well, which relies upon you to make it a place fit for God to dwell in.
Sukkot reminds us of that message. It is the natural order for some to have more than others; it is the natural order for the powerful to rule over the weak. But Sukkot is different. On Sukkot we live in fragile temporary dwellings - everyone, powerful and weak alike, and this reminds us of how very little difference there is -in reality- between the powerful and the weak. All of us live, ultimately, in the same fragile vessel of our body, and we survive in our fragile vessels by grace, not by our own power and will. At any moment, the wind can come and blow us over, and the most powerful among us can do nothing to prevent it. -I imagine that's a message particularly poignant to those living in hurricane land right now-
But despite our fragility, we do have choices. These delicate vessels are full of God's power. Like the kabbalists who imagined the universe as a vessel so full of God's power that they can't contain God, and shatter, spilling sparks throughout the universe, we too, are vessels full of God's power.
We need not settle for the the world as it is. The booths may be fragile, but they aren't - at their heart - natural. They are the beginnings of a new structure. That's why Sukkot is the culmination an conclusion of the High holidays. On Sukkot we return from the realm of the angels - we DO need to eat and drink and wash, we can't live every day as we do on Yom Kippur; but the realm of the Sukkah, the human world, is also God's creation. Its imperfections are a place for us to build. There's a story of a king who had a beautiful ruby. The king used to take it out and admire the ruby all the time - one day he noticed that the ruby was actually not perfect - it had an enormous flaw - a long thick fracture down its middle. He called jewelers from all over the world - all the best people, all the most skilled, and aked them to repair the flaw. They all told him what he asked was impossible, that flaws in gems are simply permanent, and there's nothing we can do about them. But finally, one day, a jeweler came to the palace and told the king: "I can fix the jewel." The king gave it to him, and the man spent several days locked up with the Ruby. When he came back, h handed the ruby to the king and bowed. The king took the ruby from his hand, and saw that the jeweler had carved a rose into the ruby, and from the long fracture in the stone, he had carved the stem, making the ruby even more beautiful than before.
A house that's not a house; a window that looks out both on this, our human world, and also the higher worlds: that is what a sukkah is. The Torah says " I caused the people of Israel to live in Sukkot, when I brought them out of the land of Egypt," The Sfat Emet added to his explanation a verse from Shmot, 'They traveled form Raamses to Sukkot (Ex. 12:37)'. The rabbis explain this verse by alluding to a verse elsewhere in Shmot, 'I have raised you up on eagles wings and brought you unto Me (Ex. 19:4)' -God gave them the power to be high above nature, complete with wings with which to fly to their father in Heaven."
Why build a building with no real ceiling? We are only permitted to put natural coverings on our roof, but we have to be able to see the sky through it. Why? We may think that the natural world limits us, but we can see the sky though it; it's open - when we recognise that God brings us out of Egypt into Sukkot, then we understand that God can raise us up, right through that natural covering, which in the end is rather flimsy. When we recognise our capacity for change, God will raise us up on Eagles wings, and we will build a new home, in which the world is a place of justice and beauty. Let us go and dwell inthe Sukkot, let us leave our ceilings open, and see the possibilities for change. May God's face shine through the roof upon us in blessing.

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