Temporary Dwellings / Sermon by Jackie Novatt – Sukkot – 10/03/20)
Chag Sameach Everyone! When Rabbi Neil asked if I’d be interested in speaking on Sukkot, I looked at the Torah portion and found . . . nothing really. It was mostly a calendar. A description of holidays and the ways people used to observe them. A list of the sacrifices for each holiday, the instructions to count seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, and all the days where you’re not supposed to do any work. . . So . . . what do I talk about?
Every time I tried to think about the Torah portion, my head went back to something more tangible . . . more concrete . . . more . . . wooden. The hut currently gracing my backyard. The sukkah. The temporary structure in which we eat our meals and spend our time for 8 days each year.
Different sources provide different explanations as to why we build the sukkah. From my days in Hebrew school I remember learning that the ancient farmers built temporary housing units during harvest season to avoid having to schlep everything back to the farmhouse each night. So, a temporary shelter provided convenience and a place to sleep near where they needed to work. I’ve also read that the sukkah is to remind us of the temporary dwellings our ancestors lived in as they wandered in the desert for 40 years. So, a temporary shelter provided protection from the elements and other dangers. And I’ve read that the sukkah is to remind us to be grateful for what we have and to provide for those who are less fortunate than ourselves. While we live in homes with electricity, plumbing, washers, dryers, refrigerators, and hot showers, there are people for whom living on the streets is a daily occurrence. The sukkah is uncomfortable. It lets in rain and wind – and maybe a racoon or a rabbit. There is some privacy, but not much. We are blessed to have a permanent shelter, and blessed that the temporary shelter of the sukkah is just that – temporary.
In thinking about the temporary nature of the sukkah, I find myself thinking about what (I really hope) is the temporary situation humanity is in right now.
The sukkah represents a temporary shelter that provided convenience to ancient farmers so that they didn’t have to travel. For many, our homes have now become our workplace – zoom, the cloud, and other technologies mean that we no longer have to commute to do our jobs –when possible we avoid travel and do our work from home. Like the shelters that allowed ancient farmers to sleep where they worked, many of us now sleep where we work.
The sukkah represents the temporary dwellings that protected our ancestors from the desert for 40 years. Now our homes protect us from a microscopic enemy threatening to make us sick.
The sukkah makes us realize how fortunate we are to have a roof over our head. While scrambling for toilet paper, we were safe in our homes – folks in homeless shelters were bracing for the coming tide. For the homeless, social distancing isn’t always possible, and access to masks, clean clothes, or even a place to wash your hands isn’t always guaranteed. When ordered to “shelter in place,” we are grateful to have a place in which to shelter.
So, a sukkah is temporary, local, provides protection and is not as comfortable as a permanent dwelling. However. . . a sukkah is also beautiful. Even though it’s temporary, we work to make it as welcoming and celebratory as we can. We hang up paper chains and children’s drawings. To my daughter’s delight, we hang up Christmas lights (she wants to celebrate Christmas so badly!). We set the table beautifully with gourds, pumpkins, and our best dishes. We put extra effort to make this temporary structure feel like home.
So . . . How does this connect to our current situation? This temporary is not beautiful. People are dying and we cannot physically be there to support them or their loved ones. People of color are disproportionally impacted by the virus while simultaneously facing structural and outright racism. For parents, navigating work and life was challenging before the pandemic – and it has become even more challenging now that the boundaries between work and home life have all but disappeared. Our healthcare providers are stressed. Our teachers and educators are stressed. Our friends of color are stressed, and our police offices are stressed. Parents are stressed. Our children are stressed. People who live in the paths of hurricanes or fires are stressed. Whatever happened to those murder hornets? EVERYONE is stressed.
So . . . where are our paper chains and pumpkins? What can we do to make our temporary situation as beautiful as possible?
Every day since March I sent my students an email with a self-care challenge for the day and a good news story of the day. Self-care challenges included things like “take a bath,” “call a friend,” “go outside for 30 minutes,” or “do something active.” Good news stories included Sir Tom More from England – the 100 year old man who raised millions for the NHS by walking back and forth across his back garden. Good news stories include the black man who posted that he was afraid to walk alone around his mostly-white neighborhood, and the dozens of white neighbors who volunteered to accompany him. Good news stories include the kids volunteering their time to sew masks, people coming together to provide meals for healthcare workers, and the guy from Plainview who set up a Keurig and a fan with chairs on the lawn outside his house to provide coffee and a cool breeze to his neighbors without power after the hurricane. Happy stories and prioritizing self-care are the paper chains of the coronavirus pandemic.
Neighbors are drawing hopscotch boards and other activity paths on their sidewalks and driveways for passers-by to play (as captured by security cameras). Rainbows are seen hanging in many windows. Some houses in my neighborhood have had their holiday decorations up since March to spread some cheer. These are the Christmas lights (literally) of the coronavirus pandemic.
People are using technology to connect with and collaborate with people they never would have had the chance to meet otherwise. I have been participating in a collaborative cello project run by Tony Rogers, a cellist from Austin Texas who is a friend of a friend – that’s how I got connected with it. What started out as 14 cellists from America has now grown to over 300 from over 20 different countries. We formed a Facebook group and are getting to know each other in addition to making music together – this wonderful community is the Christmas lights of the coronavirus pandemic.
So, I encourage us all to take a lesson from the Sukkah this year. Our situation is temporary. (Please let it be temporary!) But let’s put in the effort to make our metaphorical paper chains and children’s drawings. Let’s work together to make our temporary beautiful.