I’ve been thinking a lot lately about dwellings and about containers — about the temple whose destruction we mourn on Tisha B’av at the start of the holy day arc and about the sukkah that we celebrate at its end. About the houses and apartments we’ve all been largely cooped up in these past many months, and about the way we can lock up our emotions, especially the painful ones, in our bodies.
A week or so after my dad died, many years ago, I found myself standing in The Container Store, not far from our house but not a place I ever go. In the fog of grief, I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten there — or why. I just knew I’d felt compelled to come to this place, with aisle upon aisle of containers and boxes and storage devices of all kinds. Surely, I could find here what I needed: something large enough to hold my overwhelming grief. I could find a way to contain it, tuck it away, if only for a while, so that I could see again and breathe. I bought so much stuff that day! My husband, Dennis, didn’t know what to say when I arrived home with blanket boxes, spice racks, drawer organizers, sweater bags, you name it. Of course none of it worked as a way to hold my grief but somehow, in the midst of all that organizing, I began the long, slow process of feeling my sorrow and integrating it.
I’ve had a similar response to the pandemic and everything that’s followed in its wake: marches, murders, wildfires. In March, I threw myself into work, incredibly grateful to be doing something meaningful for a place I love, but also grateful for the guardrails that working long hours provided. On the weekends and at night, I became fairly obsessed with home projects. Like many Americans lucky enough to have a home, I painted, calked, and scrubbed. I rearranged the furniture. I re-stuffed the cushions on my grandmother’s sixty year old sofa. I organized all of the books in our house alphabetically by period and genre. I’ve wanted to do that for 20 years, but who has the time? Suddenly, home all day, every day, I did. (Worth noting: I no longer have small kids at home, like many of my friends, to whom I send prayers of blessing every single day.)
But clearly, it’s not just about having extra hours in my day. In the midst of this swirling, scary time I was trying to contain the chaos by fortifying my dwelling– making it stronger, safer, more impervious to all the bad things out there. Like when my dad died, I was trying to find the perfect container for my grief and confusion, my anxiety and fear.
But hermetically sealed containers, of any kind, are spiritually dangerous. They might protect us from certain things, but they also cut us off from everything worthwhile. Dennis has joked to friends that living with me the past few months has sometimes felt like engaging with a toddler in parallel play. (Can’t he tell that I’m desperately trying to build our family a fortress with my blocks?) I know he’s right. I’m here, but I’ve cut myself off, too often preoccupied with my own toys to give him my heart’s full attention or to receive his.
When I was in my twenties, I used to tell my friends that spiritually I aspired to be a colander — so that everything superfluous and yucky just washed over me and away, with only the nutritious parts remaining. But then I converted to Judaism, and the metaphor shifted. Now I want to be a sukkah. It’s such a richer metaphor, because it’s not about just holding onto the good parts, but about letting everything in: the sun and the rain, the mist and the moonlight. The last warm days before winter, the chilly night air, and best of all — God.
The Torah teaches us that if we are going to know God and become who we are meant to be, we have to leave our homes in Egypt for the wilderness and its sukkot. Neither are what they appear to be of course. Our brick homes in Egypt aren’t secure, and a sukkah in the wilderness isn’t fragile. When we live in a sukkah, we aren’t out in the elements alone. God is with us. And, as in all things Jewish, we have each other. It’s not enough to sit in a sukkah, though. We have to be a sukkah — open, receptive, vulnerable, with faith that we are protected.
Last week, my colleague Rabbi Myriam Klotz led our staff through an embodied practice in which each of us situated and felt ourselves deep inside our bodies, our personal sukkahs. It was a powerful experience. For the first time, I felt cracks in walls I didn’t even know I’d built around my heart these past months. I FELT. I felt my sorrow and caught a glimpse of my real fear. I was so relieved. I was sad, absolutely, but also — because paradox is always and inevitably at the heart of spiritual life — I was joyful, to be fully present to the sukkah of my body and everything it’s holding.
That night, I dreamt that all of my worldly possessions were in the trunk of my car. I was driving on a dirt road through the woods, at dusk. My version of the wilderness? I pulled over and opened up the trunk — only to discover that everything was gone, all of it. It hit me like a gut punch. I woke up suddenly, breathless. But then I felt this odd sense of both relief and deep connection. Yes, we can lose everything in a second, just like that — as our ancestors did fleeing Egypt, or all the people in Oregon and California whose homes have burned to the ground. Like George Floyd on a Minneapolis street corner and Breonna Taylor lying in her own bed.
I want to keep feeling both the gut punches and the connections that are only possible when I live both in and as a sukkah. I am so grateful to my colleagues and teachers at IJS for showing me ways to keep tearing down the walls and letting God in.