The Joy of Sukkot in the Midst of a Storm - October 2009

For the week-long festival of “Sukkot”, many Jews build a makeshift “sukkah” (shelter) from branches and vegetation in which they live (or just eat) during the festival. This is partly in order to “remember” Israel’s Biblical forty year period in the wilderness. It invites us to trust in the protective “cloud cover” of Divine Providence and to accept that all physical and ideological human “dwellings” are transitory.

The photo above is of my sukkah in Jakarta in 1995. How luxurious and bourgeois it all seems in comparison with the images you will have seen of Indonesia during these recent days of natural disaster. It seems almost callous of us to be building these decorative shelters at a time when so many in the Pacific region have died or are homeless as a result of flood and earthquake. We are not callous. Our "Season of Joy" is part of the remedy which can transform and assist us in times of trial, and though it cannot remove the agony of major tragedy and disaster, it has a message of optimism and equanimity which can temper it.

The Joy which is supposed to characterise this season celebrates a time which was no Nature ramble, or jolly summer-camp vacation. As Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote in 1988:

“In the desert, the people of Israel met their God, ate the bread of heaven, and followed the pillar of fire. In that same desert, The Amalekites attacked, the water springs were bitter, the Israelites lusted after meat, the flocks were thirsty”.

The Joy of Sukkot is the joy of optimism in all circumstances-the “good” and the “bad”- and it is the fruit of gratitude for whatever we are provided with daily.

How can we feel joy at ANY time when we are aware that there is so much poverty, suffering and cruelty in our broken world? The sukkah in the photo would be a palace to millions of people right now and at any time of year.

For those fulfilling the commandment to build and dwell in a sukkah this particular week of storms and earthquakes, it will surely seem a bitter-sweet event...but coping with the mix of Chesed and Gevurah in creation is to accept reality and to avoid escapism. The message of the Sukkah makes this clear:

We are given a choice... We can moan and grumble when the roof leaks.. or we can try to keep our spirits up and focus on the beauty of the stars we can see through the hole. We can give up the task of re-building when the winds blow the makeshift walls down or we can be optimistic and remember that all we have is temporary anyway....and just plod on with hope.

It is by reflecting on such symbols as the sukkah when we are safe and in "good" circumstances that we can generate the sort of positive outlook that stands people in good stead in times of crisis.

That is all well and good when we are talking about minor domestic difficulties and personal trials, But what use is this to someone whose entire family has just died in a flood, or to someone whose REAL house is now a pile of rubble?

Not much.

Which is why we try to get practical assistance to those who are struggling in the wake of tsunami, flood, and earthquake at the moment. It is why we do whatever we can daily to heal the mess our species is creating. The contemplative believes that prayer has a role to play in this too even though it may not be so readily measured.

Relying on Divine Providence does not mean that we expect magic to be performed on our behalf. Our prayers for the victims of these natural disasters and for those trying to repair the damage are not an attempt to overturn all laws of nature. They are an attempt to generate positive thought and energy, and to make a plea for inspiration and comfort to descend in the hearts of those in the midst of difficult times. Perhaps this is a form of “positive visualisation”, a healing stream of optimism whose beneficial effects we can only hope for. Some of us claim to have experience of the power and effectiveness of such prayer, for others it is a form of hope and trust in God whatever the outcome. All of us can surely see the value of the psychological support effected by solidarity and positive encouragement... and its results are tangible. For me, praying for the needs of others is an extension of this kind of activity.

One thing is certain ...a Jewish Contemplative cannot be an escapist.

Our faith in Divine Providence is not quietism. Our belief that our prayers make a difference is our active community service. Our prayer is meant to encourage and to generate positive and creative events in ourselves and in other people. As the  Yom Kippur prayer book has recently reminded us : Our prayer may not “avert the harsh decree” but it can “transform it”. It may actually give hope to those who have no hope. It may be one of the ways which the "sukkah of God's Presence" is extended over His wild and broken earth.

Oct 1 2009