Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sukkot: Fragile Dwelling Place


“The land of Israel is not rich in water
resources. . . For this reason, a special
prayer for rain was inserted into the
[Sukkot] service. Since the rainy season
starts approximately at Sukkot, it was
the appropriate time to pray for rain.
Jews are realists. One prays for rain
during the rainy season, not during
the dry summers. One walks across
water by stepping on rocks . . .”

-- Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way


Hail and Rain just before Sukkot I saw the full moon of Sukkot, Season of Our Joy, rising over the mesa in the east, into the white and misty clouds of hail that had just fallen over Freedom Ridge Ranch and was now falling out toward the Red Hill and Cimarron Mesa.  On the ground by the roses, on the porch, and over on the cabin and barn roofs, drifts of pellet-sized hail lay, melting slowly into the waters running off of the hills and mesas, downcutting into rills, rapids and even falls, as they sang their way down to Red Hill Draw.


There will be no Sukkah at Freedom Ridge Ranch tonight.Double Rainbow Between Storms Rain was still falling intermittently as Tippy and I picked our way across to check the chickens, jumping across a stream and its smaller tributary, both coming down from the dirt tank west of the barn. The other dogs were not the least bit interested in leaving the shelter of the living room. They were shell shocked from lightning, thunder, downpour and then hail. A sudden appearance of the setting sun lit up a rainbow over Freedom Ridge, and then curtains of rains covered it again, until the clouds passed to the east and the moon rose into them.


In the pattern of the Holy Days this year, building a Sukkah was called due to rain. The damage to the landscape, the flooding, the car bottoming out in standing water in Red Hill Draw by the shipping pens, all these things together made the typical Sukkot not only difficult, but unimaginable. Sukkot celebrates not only the Ingathering Harvest, the last of the Israeli year, but it also commemorates the years of wandering in the desert. It is a reminder of the fragility and impermanence of life.  

For so many people in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, this impermanence is very real, as they realize what the floodwaters took, and clean up what is left, much of the stuff of their lives washed away like the stuff of our hillsides, roads and driveways. Normal life will not come for weeks or even months for friends of ours who live in Coal Creek Canyon. There house is high and soggy, but they will not see a return of drinking water and natural gas for a long while. They know the fragility of their dwelling place on real terms this Sukkot.

For us, the damage is in a bottomed out car, washed out roads and rilling and gullying in our harsh but fragile landscape. We’ve come through lightly, really. But on another level, we are also confronting impermanence without the need to build a Sukkah this year. Although this is now our permanent dwelling here at Freedom Ridge Ranch, we are in the midst of completing repairs requested by the buyers of the house up in Sedillo, the beautiful house we both thought would be our last. And we are buying a casita, a small and comparatively inexpensive house on a hill north of the Sedillo house a good ten miles by road.

The casita will be a place for the Cowboy to live while he finishes his degree and certifications in welding and metal technology. It will be a place for me to stay this fall and next spring, as I focus intensively on finishing my coursework so I can take my comprehensive exams. It will be a place for the Engineering Geek to land when he comes up to Albuquerque and Sandia Labs on business, for he has contracts that require his intermittent presence. It will not be home. But we will be back and forth between home and not-home a lot, all of us. And while this is the case, we hope to be completing the additions and renovations that will make the ranch house uniquely ours.

Our dwelling place will be most fragile and impermanent this year. Like our ancestors, who had to wander in the wilderness until they understood what freedom really requires. 

“As Jews moved into exile, they understood
what the Sukkah had always taught them: G-d
is not fixed; G-d is everywhere. After the
Exodus, Israel went into the desert to meet
its lord. Later, the favor was returned by
G-d, who went with them into exile, into
the travail of history. Jews learned that the
Shekhinah (Indwelling Presence) was with them
in times of exile and wandering.”

    --Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way

I miss the Sukkah already. The fragrant fall odors of Etrog and s’chach; the moonlit nights in the Sukkah, and the warm Shabbat afternoons. All the delights for the senses, the celebration of the harvest. But this year, with all of our life so impermanent, with our family scattered hither and yon, the reminder of the fragility of life, the shaky nature of shelter in the autumn wind is being delivered another way. Like so many of our friends and neighbors, undone by the Great Southwest Flood of 2013, we don’t need the Sukkah to remind us of these things. Our life is fragile enough. As Rabbi Greenberg reminds us:

“Until the world is redeemed from slavery,
Jews are on an Exodus journey; perforce
they are in, but not really of,the society
and culture they inhabit. Jews can con-
tribute without really accepting the
system. The tremendous effort to parti-
cipate led to Jewish integration into the 
host culture. Then the Sukkah reminded
them to push on. There were miles to go,
on the Exodus way . . .”

-- The Jewish Way

Mother Nature has completed the traditional Water-Pouring, Tevillah, that used to take place on the first night of Sukkot during the days of the Second Temple. She even through in some ice to go with the fiery lighting. And now life itself, and the way it works, is bringing us to a new understanding of impermanence.

Life is a fragile thing, and we shake like a Sukkah in the autumn winds. Yet like the Sukkah, we generally manage to remain standing. Through fire. And water. And ice.
There is a toughness to us as well. It gets us through hard times and makes us too stiff-necked to bow down to what our hands have made.

That is the point of the Exodus journey. Freedom isn’t free. It takes time and an understanding that idolatry is not compatible with our liberty. The adventure has been worth the cost, as we are reminded again each Sukkot what is important and what is not.

Our spirits have a fragile dwelling place, a body that bends and sometimes breaks. But we also have Shekhinah, reminding us that beyond all the fragility, something of us is strong and mighty.

Chag Sameach. Happy harvest!


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