It dawned on me yesterday that there is a narrative arc to the fall chaggim (holidays) that echoes parts of the story of the Jewish people.
At Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the beginning of the world, G-d’s creation. (Dinosaurs notwithstanding.) Our story starts alongside everyone else’s, and every year we celebrate the birthday of the world, the place and time that began it all.
Yom Kippur resonates with the expulsion from Eden, as we contemplate error, sin, and the eternal incompleteness of teshuvah (return). Our atonement begins with Kol Nidrei, the acknowledgement that though we will do our best, we expect to fall short. We acclaim our humanity while embracing the striving for improvement.
Just four days later we choose exile, building our sukkot and dwelling in them. We embody the desert wanderings that our people endured for forty years, sharing meals in uncomfortable chairs and batting away the bugs, inviting strangers and friends alike to join us in our sukkot — we make the best of it, together. The company makes it better than bearable, but still we are in the thrall of the elements and the mosquitoes.
The end of Sukkot braids into Simchat Torah, when we rejoice at having the Torah in our midst. We sing and dance with the scrolls; we end our cycle of annual readings and in the same breath begin again. All that desert wandering culminates in the gift of the Tree of Life, whose branches we hope to become.
This Sukkot the guys and I are in a new congregation, having left the familiar comfort of Reform practice and begun moving toward a more traditional practice that doesn’t quite feel like it belongs to us yet. We keep checking the web site of our new synagogue, making sure we know the right time to show up — and still arriving early or late according to how it’s actually done. When, rarely, I get the chance to go to the adult service, I stand hesitantly around the edges, worried that if I sit, I’ll get called on. Someone will realize I don’t know my stuff (yet) and point and laugh, call me a fraud, confirm what I already know, that this is not yet mine. It’s mostly moot, since Gideon is loath to let me go anywhere without him (in shul or anywhere else) and cannot, will not stay quiet in the adult service.
I feel the wandering more acutely than ever.
I sit in my sukkah as I write this, knowing that many in my new congregation would frown upon my using the computer on chag, on my not being at shul right now. Although I seek a more traditional lifestyle in some ways, I bring with me a Reform frame of mind, which emphasizes a personal quest for meaning and which empowers the individual to make the choices that sing G-d’s song to her. In this moment I feel more compelled to write, to explore my soul, than to wrestle my kids into wearing decent clothes and participating respectfully. The boys are playing in their pajamas, the sun is shining through the gauze walls of my sukkah, and I am wondering and searching.
I am searching for my own spiritual core, and for my family’s practice. We don’t yet have our own traditions, and I don’t know where to get them. My parents didn’t do much in the way of traditions, at least none I recognize as such. Bill became Jewish in adulthood so he has no roots to draw water from. We go visiting our friends or go to synagogue, and everything is lovely and strange. Nothing yet fits. We are searching, we are wandering.
A reading from my old siddur, adapted from the Marge Piercy poem Maggid, describes this moment.
BLESSED IS the courage to let go of the door, the handle. Blessed is the courage to leave the place whose language you learned as early as your own.
Blessed the courage to walk out of the pain that is known into the pain that cannot be imagined, mapless, walking into the wilderness, going barefoot with a canteen into the desert. Bless us all, born wanderers, with shoes under our pillows…
And blessed are those Jews who changed tonight, those who chose the desert over bondage, who walked into the strange and became strangers, and gave birth to children who could look down on them, standing on their shoulders, for having been slaves.
Blessed are those who let go of everything but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought, who became other by saving themselves.
For courage, for freedom, sing and rejoice!