Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Great, Awesome Outdoors

The Jewish festival of Sukkot begins today, the 15th of the month of Tishrei (this year September 19) and lasts eight days (seven in Israel). Sukkot commemorates the time the Israelite people spent wandering in the desert after their exodus from Egypt, living in temporary shelters under the protection of the divine. On Sukkot we build imitations of those fragile dwellings (sukkot is Hebrew for “dwellings”) and eat, spend time, and sometimes even sleep in them.

Sukkah (via Rachel Pasch,
Particularly here in Seattle, the commandment to dwell in sukkahs is often taken very lightly. As much as we are an outdoorsy people, sukkahs can seem a little archaic, not to mention unseasonable. The reality of city life means that many people don’t have a large enough patch of space on which to construct a sukkah. As much fun as it is for me to live surrounded by entertainment, amenities, and general hipness, I can’t help but feel I’m losing something being so isolated from nature that I don’t even have the ultra-cultured “nature” of a lawn.

Moving our everyday lives from inside our protected homes and out into the natural world reminds of our vulnerability to and dependence upon the natural world. Almost all of our religious traditions were founded by communities who lived in much more direct physical contact with their surrounding environments than we do today. We are still physical beings living lives of entire dependence upon the resources of our world, but today that connection is often more obscured, with insulation, plumbing, and heating, with cement pavement and steering wheels.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, when they set out the guidelines for the festival of Sukkot around the 2nd century, requires sukkahs to have roofs constructed of natural, unprocessed materials. Heavy rain must be able to penetrate the roof, and you should be able to see the stars through it. Spending time in sukkahs reminds us that all of our shelter ultimately comes from the natural world that provides everything that we have. A sukkah must be able to sway with, and even be blown down by, heavy winds. We like to think of the regular physical structures in our lives in contrast to the sukkah, as resilient and permanent. Anyone who has been watching the news for the last 5,000 years, though, knows that none of our dwelling places are permanent, and that none of them can truly separate us from the world they are built on.

On Sukkot we are to take away the barriers we erect between ourselves and our environment. Sukkot is not about deprivation, though; it is a harvest festival, a time when we are told, “you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.”* We go out to where we can see the sky and feel the wind so that we can be before God and to celebrate what the natural world gives us.
Sukkot reminds us of our physical connection with nature by taking us outside and telling us to not just adventure outdoors in the world but, for a time, to LIVE in it, with all of its buginess, draftiness, and sogginess and to celebrate and experience everything that it provides for us.

So whatever your tradition, celebrate the turning of the season. Go to the farmer’s market and celebrate the earth (and the farmers!) that has yet again provided for you this year, cook good food, and maybe eat it outside. The rabbis never prohibited rain jackets.

- Karin Frank
Outreach Coordinator at Washington Interfaith Power & Light

* Leviticus 23:40, Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures published by the Jewish Publication Society.

No comments: