“Shelter for the Journey”
Following as I have been, the Jewish calendar of the seasons, holidays, and holy days, with the help of Jill Hammer’s “The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons,” I have arrived at the observance of Sukkot. It began on Friday at sunset, falling as it always does on the full moon, preceded by the highest of Jewish holy days: Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year celebrated in mid-September and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, observed September 24th and 25th this year. Sukkot begins five days after Yom Kippur and is a seven-day festival. This is a 3000-year-old tradition that is a reflection of even earlier harvest festivals. These are deeply contemplative times for the Jewish people.
I want to be careful here not to misappropriate the tradition of another people. I am not Jewish and even though my father believes that we have some Jewish ancestry, I have yet to unearth it! So, we will not be reciting any Jewish prayers or blessings this morning or engaging in any attempt to reenact a variety of rituals associated with the holiday. But the theological anthropologist that dwells in my soul and which cannot seem to be sated is forever curious about the traditions of cultures other than my own and what meaning they hold for me, for us, today. I am grateful for a faith tradition that encourages me to search for truths and meaning, to attend to my spiritual growth through the lens of the world’s many peoples and their beliefs and practices.
Sukkot has its roots in two pieces of Jewish history which Dolly read to us about this morning from Hebrew scriptures. A sukkah – sukkot is the plural – is a hut or a booth. After Yom Kippur many Jewish people begin the construction of a sukkah in their yard or on their porch, but somewhere outside. There are prescribed dimensions and materials, however people today use what they have to build a structure in which they can eat their meals and even sleep over the course of the week. This is a child-friendly holiday and young people are encouraged to decorate with art, lights, fruit, and flowers. The sukkah in this interpretation represents the huts that the people of Israel dwelled in as they were brought out of Egypt. Their G-d declared that they would have these “booths” as shelter for their journey and provided the materials along the way. It is a reminder to them that they were and are accompanied by a Divine Presence and I rather like this concept of being accompanied on the path of life by an Energy or a Source that is gentle and protective, journeying alongside. There is a Greater Love, I often say.
The second reading talks about a house for the Holy, as it were. A structure called the Tabernacle which was built for the Divine Presence to dwell in and to be carried with the Jewish people on their way. It, too, has its instructions. It is said to have been designed by a man named Belzalel, who was a master craftsman of sorts, attributing his vast skills in woodworking and metal work to his closeness to the Divine. His name can be translated as “in the shadow of God.” Wise women were said to have spun and woven blue, crimson, and purple yarns into fine linen, so skilled that the story says they did so directly from the backs of goats without having to shear or card it first!
Our chancel area here today and our table are decorated in the tradition of Sukkot, a visual representation of the joy associated with the festivities. Thank you, Joe, for helping me to bring this to life, this ‘sukkah’ for us to imagine our way into as we seek to honor the tradition. The roof of a sukkah is always built with spaces between the branches and leaves so that the stars and the universe can be seen. We have brought the local harvest in as many ways as we can! Winter squash in abundance now, apples and pears, the summer’s grains fashioned into loaves. And we have set the table for the meal to come. Flickering candlelight welcomes us.
It is customary on the seven nights of Sukkot to welcome the patriarchs of the Jewish tradition, a couple each evening, believing that the Divine Presence comes alongside them and joins you. These days many people also honor the matriarchs as well. It is also a time when personal invitations to those in need of food or shelter are welcomed in for a meal. One story teaches that Abraham, the father of the Jewish people and thus the first invited guest, sat outside his dwelling waiting for dusty travelers to pass by, inviting them in and preparing a meal for them. Today, some families make donations to feed or house the needy in their communities as a modern-day representation of this tradition.
I wonder this morning about the unhoused in our midst. There is an active population of unhoused folks here on the Cape who go relatively unnoticed if we don’t have a mind to pay attention to such things. And more and more there are people, neighbors perhaps, who don’t have the means to feed themselves well. Certainly, there are services available to people, but it is hard to present oneself as in need, embarrassing, a sense of shame accompanying the ask. How often do you take the opportunity to offer judgement-free sustenance to folks you know who are struggling? As I write I have one ear to the news where our nation’s leadership is arguing about funding – for what and for whom – funding that feeds hungry children through the WIC program, funding that makes up the paychecks for service members and their families, funding that some hope will quell the influx of migrants across our borders. I have lived long enough to know that so much of this is about power and control, about being right as opposed to doing the right things. It saddens me deeply because I also know that there is so much wealth which could be
much more evenly distributed and provide shelter of all kinds to all peoples. I hope this week especially as we go about honoring a meaningful tradition of our siblings in faith, we can take the time to consider who among us or around us might be of need and are just afraid to say so. Our Community Outreach this month is the Lower Cape Outreach Council as they prepare to make Thanksgiving meals available to those they serve. But they serve these folks all year long and are able to do so out of the generosity of people like us who care enough to make a difference in someone’s life.
This bundle of greens and the yellow fruit you see on the table are called the lulav and part of the festival ritual involves waving this five directions and carrying it in a procession at the close of Sukkot. This ritual is performed on the first morning of Sukkot and is symbolic of a time of rejoicing as each of the four directions along with the earth are incorporated into a time of blessing and prayer. For some it represents the four parts of the body – the sturdy palm is the spine, the willow leaves the mouth, the myrtle the eyes and the citron the heart. Other interpretations point to the elements of water, air, fire, and earth. Still another suggests they represent the patriarchs. This meaning making is personal as well as collective and continues to unfold.
I share all this today because I find in it a richness that honors the story of one’s people with rituals that have been carried forward through time. We all have these, no matter what traditions have evolved out of the stories of our ancestors. Or maybe we are unaware of any such things in our histories, and we make our own in order to leave a legacy. But we are all indigenous to somewhere and those people all likely had practices that followed the seasons and life events that they encountered. Jill Hammer says that the waving of the lulav reminds us of the oneness of all things. Our rituals connect us to the past and give us something to draw from in the present while gifting future generations with meaning making, all spun together into the thread of time.
I have been thinking about the idea of shelter this week. There are physical shelters like our homes, or those three-sided bus stops to protect from foul weather, or the beaver lodges I read about in my Mass Audubon magazine, that look like mounds of branches but are actually dry and warm inside. There is the shelter we find here at the Meeting House, a home for the expression of our spiritual and religious lives, a place that makes available clothing and household goods to support the real-life shelters of local people, a place to gather and connect. We have this “big tent” faith tradition, symbolic of a shelter that welcomes all seekers as they come, a safe place to bring your questions and traditions and to share in the meaning making. There is the shelter of the forest canopy as I walk the park trails in the summer months, the shelter of this Earth home without which we would not even be. Sukkot is a time to appreciate the abundant harvest, of provision for our wellbeing from the Earth, this, too, a form of shelter for the journey.
To shelter is to protect or to shield, a place of refuge. Those of us who parent think of sheltering our young ones from danger, and many of us have shelter pets at home that we care for. We take this time to consider the interwoven nature of our lives as peoples, the fate of one interwoven with that of all others. We can take this time to think about our relationships with all of humanity and attend to the kind of world we want to build. The Israelites believed their G-d to be a peaceful, sheltering Presence in their midst, hovering over them, keeping violence and sorrow at bay. In the Zohar reading we heard about the Shekhinah as the mother of all souls and the source of rest and comfort, according to Hammer, who says that “when we dwell in the sukkah we dwell in the shadow of the Shekhinah’s wings.”
Where do you find shelter? Do you have a sense of a more ethereal Presence that guides and protects your life? Something you can’t quite put your finger on, but something, you are sure of. Or do you think of shelter in more concrete ways? For all of your life’s journey do you feel like you have made your own industrious and independent way? Or perhaps you have been sheltered by the love and care of others you have met along the path. Maybe we think that we are fortunate or blessed even to have arrived where we are now, safe, housed, with sufficient food and clothes on our backs.
Sukkot is a joy-filled time of thanksgiving and celebration of all the ways we are sheltered on our journeys. It is a time to recall the shelter that provided for our ancestors as they lived out their lives, leaving for us a legacy of love and care. It is a time to gather in the abundance around us – abundance in all its manifestations - to welcome in the stranger, to feast together and to honor the traditions that remind us of who we are as persons, as families, and as a people in this world. May we enter into this time thoughtfully and with appreciation for the shelter we know in our minds and hearts.
Blessed be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, October 1, 2023
Judaism for Dummies: A Reference for the Rest of Us! By Rabbi Ted Falcon, Ph.D. and David Blatner; Hungry Minds, Inc. NY 2001
The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons by Jill Hammer; Ben Yehuda Press, NJ 2018/5778
Readings taken from The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation; Jewish Publication Society; Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Editors; Oxford University Press NY 2004