Throughout my entire rabbinic career, whenever Sukkot has arrived, I have enjoyed explaining that sukkot – the three-sided booths we erect following Yom Kippur and in which we spend a week visiting with friends, dining with family, and watching squirrels carry away its vegetative decor – are fragile! Without a whole lot of trouble, they can fall down. But I never actually thought I’d see one tumble!
My synagogue’s sukkah, lovingly constructed each year out of sustainable materials harvested and built by our sukkah team, crumbled to the ground on the first day of Sukkot.
And I just love that! What a powerful lesson for all of us. We told you it could come down. And lookee there, it did! The world is a fragile place. Things can break. And sometimes they actually do.
I can remember when I was a kid, that from time-to-time I’d get to bring home a model airplane made of balsa wood. These were really flimsy objects, but if you wound up its rubber band enough times, the propeller as it twisted back around would make the airplane really fly. But it would only last maybe fifteen minutes before a wing or the tail would break right off. And I was always devastated by that. Those things were cool!
But sometimes things just break.
Sometimes, we break them ourselves.
Once when I was practicing meditation (you’re gonna love this), I was maybe seventeen years old and sitting still for twenty minutes was, under the best of circumstances, not easy to do. It was a summer day, and I’d brought a glass of ice water to keep me from melting, setting it on the dresser just behind my chair, which was also where I placed my watch so I wouldn’t keep looking at it. But from time-to-time, I obviously did need to look at it to see if I was finished. So I reached back and, while feeling around for the watch, my hand found the iced water, knocking over the glass so that its entire freezing contents spilled right down my back. Furious, I jumped up, spun around, picked up my watch and proceed to smash it to smithereens.
Sometimes things don’t just break. Sometimes we take care of that ourselves.
Once a couple of weeks ago, nature did some of the breaking.
Hurricane Florence dumped up to three feet of water on cities and towns throughout North and South Carolina. The damage was estimated at $48 billion. But the image I will always remember of these two broken states is of a cow struggling to swim through the flooded waters inside and outside her barn and just keeping her head above water until being rescued by a passing boat. Its skipper wrapped a piece of rope around the cow’s nose and mouth, holding its head above water as they towed it to safety.
Sometimes the world breaks all by itself. And all we can do is hang onto each other and ride out the storm.
Then there’s the United States Congress, rendered almost completely ineffective by their refusal to work with people of differing political positions and points of view. That wasn’t what I thought I was voting for. People used to say that nothing except compromise ever takes place in the Senate and House of Representatives. Oh, how I miss those days.
Sometimes we deliberately sabotage ourselves and break things on purpose! On purpose!
Which makes our little sukkah seem pretty insignificant, don’tcha think? Which is what it was always meant to be. Because it’s just a symbol. The sukkah is supposed to remind us of how fragile our world is, that sometimes we have to endure what naturally happens, but that so much of the brokenness is in our control to fix. And when we stand up and angrily smash our watch to pieces, we’re in need of … well, we’re in need of, quite frankly, something we just spent the last few weeks talking about: teshuvah … changing our behavior for the better.
Throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reading after reading and sermon after sermon urged us to fearlessly examine our lives and to inventory where we have fallen short of our obligations to the human family. Some of us spent more than a dozen hours in ten different services engaged in this sacred process of heshbon nefesh, of figuring out where we could seriously improve ourselves in the year ahead.
Now it is the year ahead and the question before each of us is, “So what are we gonna do about it?” Have we simply packed away the makhzorim from our High Holy Days and moved on? Or are we going to take that list of ways we can be kinder and more generous, and actually try to change?
That’s why I love our fallen sukkah. If we’ll let it, it’s reminding us that there’s so much brokenness in our world, and while we may or may not fix our symbol of life’s fragile nature, we can certainly get to work trying to fix some of the real brokenness that’s all around us.
A week ago, members of the Peace Islands Institute, a Muslim community organization, came to visit our high school Academy and served them a homemade dessert called Noah’s Pudding. Premised on the supposition that when the Flood ended and the Ark landed, the community joined together for one last meal, a meal made from the last supplies that still remained on the Ark – Noah’s Pudding – and broke bread together one more time before journeying into their new and individual futures, Noah’s Pudding is an offering from one person to another, symbolizing a wish that whatever lies ahead will be filled with sustenance, sweetness and human companionship. Their sharing of Noah’s Pudding with these Jewish high school students was a powerful and unforgettable demonstration of friendship, of building up, not falling down. I have no doubt that on Monday evening, through the simple sharing of a humble Muslim tradition, we fixed just a tiny bit of the brokenness in our world.
Things break. That’s going to keep on happening. Our great gift is that we can be there for each other when they do. Sometimes we can rebuild; sometimes all we can do is offer a hug.
During the High Holy Days, we shared in the dramatic and, quite frankly, frightening words of Un’taneh Tokef, “Who shall live and who shall die?” When I encounter this reading, I no longer see it as God’s judgement of me or of others. Rather, I see it as a call to action. It reminds us that people do live and people do die. And sometimes, there’s nothing to be done, but sometimes, and perhaps far more frequently, there is something we can do; there’s much that we can do. Like helping a cow keep its head above the floodwaters, if we just keep our eyes and our hearts open, there are plenty of ways to fix things.
And then there’s Simkhat Torah. A simply wonderful celebratory holiday that wraps up this otherwise serious time period. A holiday that may be the most important of them all. It is a time when we dance with the Torah as a symbolic conclusion to these High Holy Days. The Torah is, of course, not only a symbol of our passion for learning right from wrong, it’s also a guidebook for doing so. We’re right to dance with our scrolls. In a world filled with brokenness, our communities must come together, with whatever ideas we can muster, and, like our friends from Peace Islands Institute, share in bringing hopeful change to everyone.
I imagine that I will never see a sukkah fall down again. But I will see children break some of their toys, adults break some of our communities, and nature break some of our homes. May we remember that each one of us is capable of doing something, maybe even a lot, to make things better. May these High Holy Days, and one broken sukkah, inspire us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Postscript: On Thursday (Sep 27), many of us listened in as the Senate Judiciary Committee heard the testimonies of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. While there is much to criticize about what took place, whichever side of the aisle and/or the issue we’re on, there was also something very right happening. We may not like what we see going on in Congress, but we have a Congress. It may be damaged and in need of repair, but it’s still there. So register to vote, run for office, or help someone else run. If you see a sukkah that’s fallen, figure out if it needs picking up. And if it does, let’s do what we can do to lend a hand.