Monday, October 17, 2011

Sukkot: The Liberating Insecurity of Freedom

The most important part of the Sukkah . . . is the s'khakh,
materials of vegetative origin such as evergreen branches
or marsh rushes that form the roof. . . Though completely
covering the top, the s'khakh should be loosely spread so as
to be open to the heavens, with the stars visible through it.
Thus, the s'khakh is the perfect expression of Divine Protection.
G-d is not a mechanical shield that protects from all evil; G-d
is the Presence who gives strength to persevere, to overcome."
--Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way

As surely as the harvest moon waxes from new to first quarter to full, so too does the month of Tishrei grow from celebrating the Birthday of the World on Rosh Hashannah, to returning again from the death of idolatry to life renewed at Yom Kippur, and growing full at Sukkot, the Ingathering Harvest, the Season of our Joy.

Picture: The CIT and friend throw hay from the trailer into the hayloft at Freedom Ridge Ranch, Catron County, NM; October 2011. EHL

At this season, we recount the harvest of the previous spring and summer, gathering the hay into barns, animal feed for the winter; the cans and jars and bottles into the pantry, food for our bodies; and we bask in the sweet and fleeting warmth of Indian Summer, taking rest and pleasure, experiencing joy to fuel our spirits through the dark and cold of w

Although the Sukkah--the harvest booth--that we are commanded to dwell in for the seven days of the Festival originated in agricultural practices of the ancient Near East, it has come to mean far more than that. It symbolizes the temporary shelters that our ancestors used on the long and arduous journey in the wilderness that marked their transition from slavery to freedom.

If at Pesach we celebrate the high of the liberating moment, at Sukkot we remember the first uncertain steps made in freedom. At Pesach we remember that our ancestors served idols, and at Sukkot we recognize the shaky sense of vulnerability th
at accompanies the refusal to worship that which was made by our own hands. The Sukkah itself is designed to be a symbol of that shakiness, of the impermanent nature of much of what we believe or fervently hope is permanent.

This year, thanks to my summer spent unpacking the library, we rediscovered an old friend, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and his book on living the Jewish holidays. In the way that the turning of the Torah year by year causes us to reveal and rediscover new meanings, so, too, does the turning of the seasons of the year, year by year, cause us to recognize and see anew the meanings of the Holy times and seasons, and how they relate to our lives in the world as it turns and changes. During the somnolent warmth of an Indian Summer Shabbat afternoon, as the dogs dozed and insects hummed, we read:

"The move into the sukkah
is a movement from the certainty of fixed position toward the liberating insecurity of freedom. [Those who dwell in the sukkah] open up to the world, to the unexpected winds, to the surprise setback as well as the planned gain. The joy of Sukkot is a celebration of the privilege of starting on the road to freedom, knowing that to finish the task is not as decisive as the failure to start is."

At the table in the Sukkah, we looked at each other, and smiled over the sweet Sabbath wine in recognition of the reality of those words; the recognition that this entire year has been exactly that for us: a year of unexpected winds (and rain and mud!) and surprises, a year in which we have made the choice to start out on a new road to freedom in our lives, even as the world turns into the saecular winter, a season of uncertainty and crisis.

Moving into the Sukkah, even to ce
lebrate Ha-chag, THE Holiday, the one in which we celebrate the joy of the harvest, is also to move into the recognition that nothing much in life is permanent, and that to attach our hearts too securely to the idea that what is now is what will always be is dangerous idolatry, bound to fail us. That is why the Sukkah is constructed to shake in the wind--it is to remind us that most of what we believe protects us is in fact, ephemeral. As Rabbi Greenberg writes:

"The sukkah . . . instructs Jews not to become overly rooted, particularly not in the exile. For thousands of years, Jews built homes in the Diaspora. Civilizations of extraordinar
y richness--culturally, religiously, economically and socially-- we created. But all such Jewish homes and civilizations have proven thus far to be temporary ones, blown away when the turn of the wheel brought new forces to power. Often, self-deception and the desire to claim permanent roots led Jews to deny what was happening until it was too late to escape."

Picture: The Engineering Geek in the Sukkah after Havdalah ended Shabbat Chol-ha Moed Sukkot 5772, Freedom Ridge Ranch, Catron County, NM; October 2011 EHL

Indeed. One need only to think of those Jews who believed that they were too assimilated, too German; that the high civilization of Germany would protect them, and that they had acquired too much to give it up , to flee with nothing, leaving everything, in the middle of the night. I remember wondering--as I studied the early days of the Shoah and the fall European civilization into darkness; as I read Hersey's The Wall, and as I watched Defiance--I remember asking myself, could I do it? Would I be able to leave everything for the sake of my life and those of my children? I would look around at my beautiful home, at the wealth bound up in fine furniture, at the Polish tea set passed down from oldest daughter to oldest daughter, at my mother-in-law's Passover china, and I would know how hard that choice would be.

But during the past year and a half, as we watched the world teeter once again on the brink of financial ruin and moral darkness, as we listened to the rising voices of antisemitism, and heard the voices of collectivism blaming the Jews, and talking of "eating the rich", we made a decision. We recognized that all of the things we value can be built again by those who place the highest value not the things themselves, but on the lives of those who made them. And so we chose to plan prudently, to remove our work from those who believe they own us, to "go Galt" and preserve ourselves and our values for a new turning of the wheel. And I left the home I loved for a new and more rugged place; and we left the retirement we planned for new challenges in self-sufficiency, in order to provide for ourselves and those we value a shelter in case of trouble. We cannot know the whole of what is coming, and we cannot guarantee for ourselves and those we love perfect protection from all evil. But we can find for ourselves and offer to others, a place to stand; one rooted not in a place and possessions, but one rooted in a Presence identified by the spirit of freedom and adventure, that One who gives us the "courage and strength to persevere."

Thinking of all of this, recognizing who we are are and why we are here, we held hands as we made Havdalah in the Sukkah, tasting the sweet wine, smelling the spices, and holding our hands out to the light of the twisted candle, we sang of our longing for redemption and of the sweetness of joy in the coming week, knowing that whatever may come, we will face it as free individuals who have chosen this path. This ability to choose and to act in the face of the uncertainties of life is the very thing by which we find happiness and fulfillment. In this way, freedom and openness to the world of unexpected winds and surprise setbacks still brings joy. At Sukkot we are
commanded to enjoy ourselves, to take pleasure in the fruits of our action and in the harvest of our choices.

Picture: Setting the Table for Kiddush in the Sukkah, Freedom Ridge Ranch, Catron County, NM; October 2011 EHL

"One fundamental criterion of a life well lived is love of life. It is terribly important, therefore, to enjoy life as it goes along. Joy cannot be postponed. Life as it is, is of infinite value . . .The joy of Sukkot represents maturity. It is the happiness of a free person who chooses to live this way, who chooses this mission above all alternatives."

The openness of the Su
kkah, the frailty of it before strong winds, the beauty of the sun and the stars shining through the s'khakh, all of these things reminded us again this year that the Journey to Freedom that Sukkot commemorates is long and difficult; that our recognition of the temporary nature of most of our experiences is part of the journey; and that the very insecurity of freedom itself fills our lives and choices with meaning. Happiness comes of our choosing freedom over the enslavement of idolatry, and it is in the choosing to love our lives as they are, with all of their challenges and adventures, that we find joy.

This is what we learned anew this year, in the midst of all the adventures here at Freedom Ridge Ranch, during this Harvest Festival, the Season of Our Joy.

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