The first two hours were fairly easy and I was treated to picturesque lake views, minor hills, and the mountain looming large in front of me; of course, seemingly getting bigger the closer I got to it. I began my ascent on a series of steps, and found that metal poles were used as trail markers. I kept my focus as best as I could, finding one pole and then immediately looking ahead or up to find the next pole to properly keep myself on the path.
But about 2/3 of the way up, I encountered a space where two large rocks jutted out from the face of the mountain. Nestled inside what I can only call a "cleft of the rock"was a fellow hiker. I greeted her and asked her how far until I reached the summit.
"Not far," she said. I noticed that she had positioned herself in the rock and was staring out at the world below her. For the first time all morning, I looked back. The view was exquisite, but as one often-afraid-but-determined-to-tackle my fear of heights, I gulped, with eyes wide open. And then I continued scrambling upwards. Here I was, with nothing but a backpack, and a rocky face of a mountain in front of me, and I remember thinking, "A stiff wind could do me in about now."
Five hours later, having summited Cradle Mountain, I rejoined Lisa at the Visitor's Center and we drove off to our next destination.
"So how was it?" Lisa wondered.
After seven hours in silence, my words came out slowly. I stared out the passenger window of the car, watching the countryside pass by as Lisa named my feelings.
"It's like you conquered the mountain, but the mountain defeated you."
All I could do was nod. Instead of feeling accomplished and exhilarated, I felt delicate, unsafe, and foolish. Scaling that mountain, the last time I've ever gone hiking alone, I remember wondering if I'd make it through to meet our child. I said fearfully, "I came down the mountain on my rear end." The only way that I could conceive of descending was to seat myself safely on each rocky ledge, and position myself downward in that manner, minimizing the impact of stepping down or, heaven forbid, losing my balance and falling.
Undoubtedly, many of us have had moments in our lives that leave us feeling unsteady and insecure. Maybe we doubt our decisions, or encounter experiences that leave us questioning our existence or feeling fragile, as if "a stiff wind could do us in." These moments happen in nature, before a long journey, before surgery or treatment, or possibly, after life experiences that leave us experiencing pain or sadness, grief or trauma. We'd much rather be like the hiker climbing the mountain who is safely ensconced, sheltered in that "cleft of the rock," but more often than not, life can leave us feeling vulnerable and shattered, exposed to the elements, come to think of it, much like the symbols of our Sukkot festival.
With three walls, open on the fourth, the sukkah,in all of its fragile impermanence, and the festive objects of lulav and etrog act as metaphor for much greater concepts, and as symbols for life itself. A teaching from the Midrash suggests, "The rib of the lulavresembles the spine of a human being; the myrtle resembles the eye; the willow resembles the mouth, and the etrog resembles the heart."
But look carefully. On the first day of the festival, the branches are fresh, green, and verdant. The etrogis bright yellow, or perhaps, as of yet, unripe. Each changes dramatically over the week. The spine is no longer straight, leaves wither and fall to the floor, and brown spots of age develop on the etrog.
And then consider the sukkah. On a good day, the sukkah is filled with the warmth of an autumn sun lessening ever so slightly in intensity, or a cool breeze causing colorful decorations to flap in the wind. The roof provides just enough shelter, the schach offering space for light to shine on through, or for us to see the glistening stars. But on a more difficult day, when the weather is not ideal, fulfilling the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah proves much more challenging. No one enjoys sitting in a soggy sukkah. The joy of the festival seems to diminish when the wind blows and the rains come, a little bit earlier than they are supposed to.
Our Sukkot symbols ripen with beauty only to enter into a state of decay. We look at paper decorations streaming with watermarks. We are reminded that nothing is forever. Nothing is unharmed. Nothing is without wounds and frailty. Not even us.
But we are often led to believe that we need to be perfect, the best, the brightest, the strongest and the loudest. Vulnerable? Broken? Damaged? Forget about it. According to the Jersualem Talmud, "A dry lulav is not permissible." According to the Babylonian Talmud, "A withered palm branch is invalid." According to the Mishnah, "If the larger part of the etrog is covered with scars...if it is peeled, split, perforated, so that any part is missing, it is invalid." Building a sukkah requires a considerable amount of time, effort, and energy, not to mention financial investment. And then we are expected to purchase perfectritual objects that are unblemishedin any way, another investment.
But why do our texts stress such a need for perfection in our ritual objects when God welcomes and loves those of us who dwell in the sukkah as we are, imperfections and all? The command in Leviticus reads, "You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, 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." These Israelites were fresh out of slavery in Egypt, scrambling for materials in the wilderness to follow obtuse commands. Their backs were bent, their hearts embittered, and even with the miracles that they had already seen, God hadn't yet given them eyes to see, ears to hear, or minds capable of understanding what they had been through. How could they sit in booths of their own construction, except from a place of their own enslavement, a core of soul and self that had been generationally violated? And here we have rabbinic texts demanding that our ritual objects be perfect?
There is something to be said for what we call hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of our commandments, but there is also something to be said for recognizing, embracing, and learning to live with our own imperfections, our fear and fragility, our wounds and our worries, even our own affected bodies. Once we can recognize that each of us is as fragile as lulav and etrog, and subject to the elements like the sukkah then the challenge is upon us to find the joy inherent in this festival. We are taught that Sukkot is z'man simchateinu, the season of our rejoicing.Find someone who can celebrate at the same time that they feel "a stiff wind could do them in about now" and then you will know real joy.
The next time you sit in the sukkah, think about your own body as a sukkah, the fragile, impermanent dwelling that holds your God-given soul. The next time you go to wave the lulav and etrog, ask yourself, consider the power you have in your hands - and do you use that power with all your might, or do you use it gently? Our actions can shake the lulav of another and our backs can be broken by someone else's anger. We can blind myrtle-colored eyes or fail to see the pain of another. We can use our power to silence willow-shaped lips when we should be listening. Our behaviors can break apart the citrus smells of someone else's loving heart.
How will you enter the holy space of sukkah? How will you approach not only your own body, but also that of another? The power rests in our hands, and with our awareness, the way in which we choose to hold one another, allow others to hold us, and hold our world. May Sukkot be a season of true joy, of love, and especially of that gentle reminder, that each of us is our own lulav and etrog, that each of us is our own sukkah, and that for each of us, we never know, how moments may impact us, and leave us feeling, as if "a stiff wind could do us in."
After Exodus 33, incidentally, the Torah portion for Chol Ha'Moed Sukkot.
Leviticus Rabbah 30:14.
After mashiv ha-ruach u'morid ha-gashem - the change in the liturgy for Gevurot
Yerushalmi Sukkah 53c.
Bavli Sukkah 30a.
Mishnah Sukkah 3:6-7. Footnotes 6-8 found in Philip Goodman, The Sukkot/Simchat Torah Anthology.