Velveteen Rabbi: What endures

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The view from inside my sukkah.

Sitting in my sukkah this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about what endures. That might seem counterintuitive: after all, a sukkah is the opposite of that. It’s temporary structure. Its roof is made from organic matter, casting some shade but also letting in the raindrops and the light of the full harvest moon. A sukkah begins falling apart almost as soon as it is built. And yet…

And yet the sukkah will be rebuilt, next year. And the year after. The practice is perennial. When I sit in my sukkah on my mirpesset, drinking coffee and lifting my etrog to my face to inhale its scent, I remember every year I have ever sat in a sukkah. I think of generations before me who built sukkot. I imagine the generations after me who will do the same.

I like to imagine our descendants figuring out how to observe Sukkot in the stars someday, in the science-fiction future where we emigrate to other planets. What would it be like to build a sukkah on the decks of a starship? To build a sukkah on another planet? How will our relationship to our ancient stories and practices shift in those imagined future generations?  

Closer to home, and far more sobering, is the question of how Judaism will adapt to our changing planet as the climate crisis intensifies. How will our practices shift as our planet warms? Sukkot reminds us of the impermanence of our structures, metaphysically and spiritually, but how could I say that to those who have lost their homes to wildfire and hurricane? 

One morning in the sukkah this year our conversation veered into American politics.  I used to believe that the structures of democracy would protect us from demagogues. I thought it was generally accepted that government’s function is to serve everyone, to protect the vulnerable, to ensure and uphold human rights and dignity. That structure feels fragile now.

The American experiment is only a few centuries old — an eyeblink in the span of human history. It may prove to be temporary. Some argue that it’s already over, that our constitutional crisis is already here and democracy as we have known it is already falling to gerrymandering, insurrection, cult of personality, and the terrible persistence of the Big Lie.

I think of the later stories in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Orsinian tales, where her fictional European country has become an Eastern Bloc nation. In those stories the government can’t be trusted. Privations are the norm. And yet people continue to live and love, even when multiple families share a single apartment, even under surveillance. Isn’t that what human beings do?

And that brings me back to the sukkah. Jews have built sukkot in all kinds of circumstances, in all kinds of places, under all kinds of regimes. (We celebrated Sukkot during World War I. We celebrated Sukkot in the Warsaw Ghetto…) Each individual sukkah is temporary and fragile, but the practice endures. The mitzvot, both spiritual and ethical, endure. And so do we.

Last year my Yom Kippur sermon was about our obligation to take care of each other. Whether or not the world is falling down around our ears, our task is to protect the vulnerable, to give aid to those in need, to help each other hope, to build a better world. To feed the hungry. To find housing for the homeless. To raise the next generation to be ethical and kind…

Love endures. Hope endures, even though we have to help each other cultivate it. Our obligations to each other endure — some even say, from one lifetime to the next. Our spiritual practices endure, no matter what the future holds. And right now, the leaves on the roof of my sukkah are rustling, and I know that Sukkot will come again: the cycles of time endure. 

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