I have this image of my grandma: she’s still in her 70s, as I knew her, but she’s back in Brooklyn, the motherland. She’s sitting around a table with other people in their 60s and 70s, almost all – if not all – Jewish; almost all – if not all – poor. They’ve just pooled resources for a good meal. And they’re telling jokes about the state of the world.
Or maybe it’s my grandma’s parents sitting around the table with their friends, I don’t know.
The image brings me comfort in 2020. These are people who knew uncertainty – financial, political, occupational. They were fearful. And yet here they are: stories, laughing, togetherness. This image is an image of joy.
And not only the ancestors we can remember, but our spiritual ancestors knew this. When they came out of Egypt into the intense heat of the desert, the torah tells us they dwelled in sukkot (Vayikra 23:43). In these sukkot, they gathered not because any master told them to, but for their own refuge from the heat.
Sukkot begins tonight and continues for 8 days. This holiday is known as z’man simchateinu, a time of our joy. It’s the joy that comes after Yom Kippur, after I do t’shuvah and make amends with people in my life, and then go before God ready to accept the forgiveness that God has already given me. One resident who spoke during services called it “a high that goes deeper than any other.” That’s the joy of release. The joy of forgiveness. And it leads directly into the joy of refuge.
And so about Sukkot the Torah says, let’s celebrate that release, that forgiveness with refuge:
“…you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God…” (Vayikra 23:40).
Take the hadar tree, the palm, leafy trees, and willows, and build a refuge. Then rejoice in what you build.
The Torah goes on to say that you should dwell in these sukkot “in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I Adonai your God” (Vayikra 23:43). We have been building and dwelling in these sukkot for generations to remember that even in hard times, we can build something sacred and rejoice in it. Even after Tuesday’s debate, even after the anti-Semitic Proud Boys were hailed by a sitting president, even with a California on fire, even in the middle of a pandemic that has killed over one million people, we can even now build something sacred and rejoice in it.
This is what my grandmother’s generation knew, and what I call on now: when life is hard, it means we can build something – something in which we can rejoice. It can be a sukkah, it can be a community, it can be new connections over Zoom and across thousands of miles. It can be a life of recovery – especially a life of recovery.
There is no joy in addiction because in addiction there is so little building and so much destruction. But in recovery, we build new lives, new ways of living, new ways of being one grain of sand better each day. And there is joy in that building.
I love building with all of you – whether a sukkah or a Zoom connection. I rejoice in what we build together at Beit T’Shuvah.
May we continue to build together and to know joy.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach,