Sacred Doing

Sukkot is called Z’man Simchateinu, the season of our joy.  As it closes the harvest cycle begun at Pesach, Sukkot points to the ultimate redemption, to the time of messianic peace for which we hope and pray.  In these days following Yom Kippur, though, we may still wonder: are we yet forgiven? In the sukkah, we don’t experience redemption itself, but only its promise; the contrast of celebrating a harvest combined with the uncertainty of not really knowing what lies ahead in the coming year.  Dwelling in the fragile sukkah signifies our status as continued wanderers in a virtual and recurring spiritual desert.  Sukkot is a week filled with mitzvot, with many things to ‘do’—to build the sukkah and to dwell in it, to wave the lulav, to smell the etrog, to beat the willow, to recite Hallel- the set of psalms of praise, to celebrate the fall harvest—a festive barrage upon on our senses and our physicality.  

My earliest memories of Sukkot are in the sukkah at the home of my childhood rabbi, celebrated together with our chavurah—my parents themselves, my family never built a sukkah, we never owned a lulav or an etrog; so I find myself wondering how I came to be doing all of these things? Perhaps what has always been a pull is the importance of ritual for me, the idea of doing something purposefully. The experience of doing imprints a memory, evokes emotion….and for me that translates into mindful living.

I recently discovered a lovely little book by author Michael Davis called, “Rituals: Light for the Soul”. It is a little volume, filled with suggested rituals to create meaning in one’s day and in one’s life.  More than a routine like brushing our teeth, taking out the trash, or having our morning coffee – something we do without thinking; more than a tradition – those things we have done with our families, our friends, from year to year or generation to generation, deeds that connect us to people; rituals, however, are purposeful and mindful acts that help us to define our place in the universe.  They are vital in the process of personal growth.  There is no way to benefit from a ritual by just watching it, or by reading or hearing about it. It must be personally experienced to have its true meaning. 

In his book The Art of Public Prayer, Dr. Lawrence Hoffman writes about ritual: “Ritual is how we play out prearranged scripts of behavior to shape specific durations of time.  Since each script is repeated regularly, it prepares us to anticipate the high and low points of our lives.  Without ritual, there would be no meaningful use of time, except for accidental events that force us to laugh or cry on occasion.  Ritual helps us minimize our dependence on chance. It arranges our life into relatively small packages of moments that matter.”

For me, it is that ritual provides an experience of ‘before’ and ‘after’, creating a transformative moment. We can get lost in the middle part of transformation, in that moment where one thing has ended and we are waiting for the new beginning. Through ritual, we know that our lives have been positively touched. Of course, Judaism understands this; its framework of mitzvot facilitates this marking of time and life experiences as sacred.  Many of our Jewish ritual are also to be performed with others, so that we share the human experience of this ‘sacred doing’. 

There are still a few days left of Sukkot.  A few more days to explore possibilities of ‘sacred doing’, especially gifted to us during this Z’man Simchateinu, this ‘Season of Joy’.  The promise of redemption is always at hand, if we just open our hearts and step joyously into our lives.    

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