In the Sukkah

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to dwell in the sukkah. Amen.

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.  Amen.

The Jewish festival of Sukkot began last night at sundown, and we were privileged to enjoy a lovely evening at our friends’, dining with them and other neighbors in the beautiful sukkah.  Natalie finished the construction and all the decorating, and as the photos show, it’s gorgeous!  The good china, lights, potted mums, candles, gourds, hanging branches, and stalks all contribute to the beauty of the setting and reflect the principle that fulfilling a mitvah, such as the command to build the sukkah, should be done in as pleasing a manner as possible.

When it was time to start the meal, we all gathered around the table inside the sukkah, standing, for the blessings — first, of the sukkah itself, then separate blessings for lighting the candles, the wine, and the bread, at which point the challah was passed and shared.  The final blessing was specifically for the first night of Sukkot.  All were said in Hebrew, but I was familiar with the basic structure of the blessings and caught a few key words, like “barukh” – blessing, and “Adonai” – Lord.  Our hosts graciously explained things to us, but in a way that appeared seamless; it didn’t seem to detract from the ritual moment.  For me, it was a real-life experience of what I’ve envied intellectually about Judaism, namely the substantive at-home dimension of their practice. The blessings and being in the sukkah are the major observance for this festival*; they were not created as an activity to illustrate or supplement a main event that occurs only at the house of worship. Not that there aren’t communal services or observances, but the home is central.

As I alluded in the previous post, the symbolic meaning of the sukkah really spoke to me from the start. As the destructive effects of climate change are being felt near and far, with weather disasters increasing in number and severity – a global situation that worries me more and more all the time — the idea of dwelling** in a fragile structure seems to have universal relevance, to recollect our true vulnerability as creatures and perhaps inspire new action.  I’d like to think that my brief experience in the sukkah is the seed of an answer to my worried prayers for the earth.  Rather than vulnerable, I felt instead the power of community, unexpectedly fulfilling Rabbi Greenberg’s depiction of the sukkah as the “perfect expression of divine protection. God is not a mechanical shield that protects us from evil; God is the Presence who gives the strength to persevere, to overcome.”

*There is an additional ritual involving branches of what are known as the “Four Species,” but that was omitted last evening for logistical reasons.
**Sleeping in the sukkah and living in it during the festival are also practiced.

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