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Reflections on Sukkot During the Coronavirus

So.

I don’t know about you, but I never thought we’d be here.

Saying goodbye to Sukkot, the grand festival of rejoicing, the time when we celebrate harvest, honor abundance, and pray for the rains to come.

And yet, we are. still. in. this. mess.

Last week, I walked the eerily empty streets of Jerusalem. It was an evening that would otherwise be packed with shoppers, tourists, visitors, hawkers, strangers, every kind of colorful human. There would be people buying their palm-branch-and-citron Lulav and Etrog sets from outdoor markets while tourists enjoy a late-night ice cream or beer and outdoor buskers strum their music to contribute to the overall din of joy.

Instead, there were just a few of us, approaching the stray stalls that were open to sell the season’s necessities, a sukkah plank here, a Lulav there; while the produce stands tried to get rid of their last vegetables and the buses stopped running at 9pm. It was dystopian, it was sad, it was infuriating.

And I had had ENOUGH.

I spent most of the last few days crying. Perhaps a comedown from a Yom Kippur that was inspiring, meaningful and also deeply energetically depleting as we did it differently than ever before. Perhaps deep disappointment, that this holiday that I love, that comes every year with so much joy and ceremony, has become a quiet affair. Or maybe just overall frustration, being completely and utterly “over it”. I wanted to travel the country, to visit friends, to roam footloose and fancy-free during the season of rejoicing, without this global pandemic and all its repercussions in my way.

It was refreshing to break down. To connect with the feelings deep within of sadness, of loss, of grief as we leave behind a world we knew for the world we are still creating, that feels pretty uncomfortable mid-process. 

And also, to connect with the deep vulnerability I feel in the midst of that process. The realization that I have absolutely no idea what will be. That I am completely in the unknown – around my career, my life, the place I live, the future governments of both countries I choose to make home, and the future of the world I inhabit, physically and spiritually. 

Sound familiar?

I wrote a deeply vulnerable personal post; a post that garnered more reactions than almost anything I’ve posted, ever. The responses astounded me. I wasn’t sharing in order to get more sympathy or have people try and help me to solve the problem. Instead, I wanted to create awareness for a specific issue, have people understand that they are not alone if they too experience something similar; and allow people to realize the prevalence of this particular kind of lonely vulnerability in our society. And I was astonished at the resonance.

Deep down, we all experience it. We are all frightened, scared, alone and wondering what happens next in the unknown.

And yet.

We do have something that can hold us.

The sukkah.

The clouds of glory.

The protection of the wings of the Shechinah.

Sukkot is a fascinating holiday in terms of its historical, political and religious significance. Was it originally a harvest holiday of the ancient Near East? Is it simply a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt and sojourn in the Desert? Did the people really forget to celebrate it for centuries, until the leader Nehemiah encouraged them to go out and collect branches and pieces of nature to build huts after returning to Jerusalem? Was it a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest, with the resonance of ancient fertility rituals? Did people live in the huts or just shake the items from nature? Was the water-pouring ceremony really the most joyous moment for rabbis and priests? 

So many questions, so much to delve into. And as I think about the deep earth-based connection to our Sukkot rituals, I consider where we are as a people at this precise time. 

We just underwent a long, hot summer. We are staring down the barrel of a winter that we are praying will be lush, filled with abundant rain to grow our food for the coming year. We have done a reckoning for ourselves, looked over our personal deeds and misdeeds, and prayed our guts out for an amazing New Year. We’ve finished begging, pleading and praying for our lives, and now: 

We step into deep surrender.

We bring forth the fruits of the earth, we harvest with joy, we pour water to symbolize the prayer we wish for, and we allow ourselves to lean back and say:

God/dess: You’ve got this. I’ve done the best I can, and now… please… 

Take care of me.

It’s the perfect fusion of complete vulnerability and total power. Just like the sukkah.

As we go outside and brave ourselves to the elements, we expose ourselves and our greatest vulnerabilities. It might rain, it might snow (hai, Midwest), it might be super crazy hot, the wind might blow off the roof. We feel open, naked, vulnerable.

We have no idea what is going to come next.

So we lean back. We allow the Shechinah; the Divine Presence of protection and embodiment, to hold us in Her arms, enfolding us under Her wings.

And we let go, and surrender.

We’ve done our bit. We’ve done, literally, every single thing we can. We plowed, we sowed, we trimmed, we watered, we harvested, we are praying for rains for the next year. And all we can do now is let the Divine do the rest.

Sukkot is a moment of joy, because it’s what happens when you’ve cried all the tears, and done all the calculations, and you know there’s nothing left to do but just be. It’s a moment of huge relief, even as we are still in our water prayer.

It’s a moment of being honest, open and raw, about what we need, what we want, who we are, and what we are willing to do to get what we want.

And it’s a moment of being completely trusting, open, surrendered and ready to receive, fully aware that the best is yet to come. 

Every year, I grapple with the fact that I do not yet have a Sukkah of my own. And as I cry and review what else I could do to make my life one that has a sukkah in it, I also think about the real spiritual work of building a sukkah. Of being in that state of openness and vulnerability, reminding God that all I do is want to build a house for Him/Her/Them. And then letting go, remembering that the protection of the Divine can be felt anywhere, that the sukkah’s magic is accessible wherever I am, as long as I tap into it.

This year, there are many without sukkahs. There are many celebrating alone, as we did on Pesach, some did on Shavuot, and again on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It has been a hard year, a year of rethinking our rituals and our celebrations and our prayers and wondering when things will ever go back to normal again, if at all.

So I want to bless up; in our sukkahs and outside them; in our homes and outside them, within 500m or 1km or 5km or wherever we feel safe to venture. Within our masks, that keep us safe and protected; or beyond them, where we are vulnerable but open. In and out of the structures that keep us safe; the governments we are questioning; the religious rituals that we’ve been comfortable within; the protective gear we’ve learned to rely on:

That no matter where we are, we experience the peace, the safety, the security, the Divine abundance and delight of the Shechinah, as She spreads the sukkah of peace upon us, and the entire world.

May we be safe. 

May we be protected. 

May we be loved. 

May we be abundant. 

May we be filled with joy, happiness and life.

May we draw water with joy, from the fountain of blessing.

And may we gather soon, all together, in the ultimate sukkah of peace; in a space where we can join hands and dance together; look at one another in the eyes and face and hold one another close, and experience the joy of closeness, as one. 

May we feel that love wrap around us, even now, wherever we are, knowing that no matter how hard and sad and desperate it feels, we can surrender into that feeling, that experience, even for a moment, right now.

I surrender. I let go. And I trust that it will be, soon.