Finding Shelter in a Transient World

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by Rabbi Paul Saal, Shuvah Yisrael (Hartford, Connecticut)

Sukkot remembers that freedom came as the result of pitching tents over 14,600 days and honors the 43,000 meals prepared in the dessert. But more importantly, Sukkot reminds us that God is everywhere and undermines the idolatry of rootedness. This doesn’t mean that home and hearth are bad values; rather it serves as a dialectic reminder that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners in this present reality. Our journey in the wilderness began at Passover when Hashem took us out of the land of Egypt and commanded us to eat our last meal there in great haste with “our staff in hand and our loins girded” (I am still a little uncertain and just a little scared of the alternative), an idiom which suggests that we are to be perpetual wanderers.

We look for shelter in our possessions, but they can only give us temporary comfort. We seek reassurance from our jobs, but they can't really protect us from uncertainty. We turn to hobbies, people and places to fill the emptiness, but ultimately, our souls cannot be filled from the outside.

The idea is to remind us of the fragility of the world that we occupy, a world that relies upon the sustenance and the benevolence of the Creator. This is why we add the following statement to the daily Amida between Sukkot and Passover; “Who makes the wind to blow and the rain descend”. It is wedged between two other affirmations in the prayers; “You resuscitate the dead and are able to save” and “Who sustains the living with loving kindness.” The placement creates the unambiguous suggestion that God’s provision of our agricultural needs that provide our daily sustenance is no less miraculous than the resurrection of the dead, and no less important than the care of our individual health. Therefore we are reminded that all that we are, all that we have and all that we need are in the hands of the one who created us.

This is not an absolute statement against materialism; Judaism is not a religion of asceticism. Instead the sukkah just reminds us that God will care for our needs in much the same way that he meets the needs of our souls. Maimonides wrote, “The general purpose of the Torah is twofold: the well-being of the body and the well-being of the soul. The well-being of the soul is ranked first, but the well-being of the body comes first.”

Sukkot gives us the opportunity to step back and find shelter for our souls, to fill ourselves up from the inside out and reconnect to the highest visions that we have for ourselves.

Here are six kinds of shelter we can find when we sit in our sukkahs.

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  1. The shelter of faith. The Hebrew root for the word faith also means to be loyal, to stay committed to something even in difficult circumstances. We believe in God's wisdom and goodness through the light and the darkness. When we sit in the sukkah we can also feel embraced by God's faith in us. Every new day that we are given God is telling us: I have faith in you. I believe that you can re-build despite yesterday's mistakes. I'm giving you a new day, a new chance, because I'm not giving up on you.
  2. The shelter of gratitude. One of the reasons we sit in the sukkah is to remind ourselves of the "clouds of glory" that God used to guide us through the desert when we left Egypt. Each of us has different kinds of light in our lives that help us navigate through challenges. The light of our friends. The light of our Torah. The light of our homes. Recognize these gifts that light up your path. Surround yourself with gratitude.

  3. The shelter of connection. Bring friends and family into your sukkah. Learn from others and share what you have learned. Build and nurture the connections that you have with others in your life. Feel the embrace of the chain of kindness that redeems so much darkness; be another link in that chain.
  4. The shelter of authenticity. Close the gap between who you are and how you appear to the world around you. Don't be afraid to change in order to be truly aligned with your authentic values. Use the space of the sukkah to open the space within that wants to be free.

  5. The shelter of prayer. Talking to God is a constant in our lives. When we are lost and scared. When we are frustrated and disappointed. When we are joyous and grateful. When we are distracted and confused. Talk to God. Prayer is a shelter we can take with us everywhere and anytime.
  6. The shelter of awe. Look up at the millions of stars through the roof of your sukkah. Breathe in the crisp, autumn air. Watch the leaves turn gold and red and orange. Watch the trees teach us how to let go. See the stars teach us how to shine. Let the sukkah teach us how to find steadfast shelter rooted in God’s all-encompassing love.