May all the foliage of the field,
All grasses, trees and plants,
Awaken at my coming, this I pray,
And send their life into my words of prayer
So that my speech, my thoughts and my prayers will be made whole,
And through the spirit of all growing things.
And we know that everything is one,
Because we know that everything is You.
(excerpt from a prayer by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav; lyric interpretation by Debbie Friedman).
Sukkot, like so many of our Jewish Festivals, is multilayered with significance and meaning. I sometimes love the ‘archeological’ exploration of our Holy days. Like uncovering the strata of time, seeing multiple generations of civilization down through the centuries as we dig at a historical site, so we find historical layers to the Festivals. Often, as with Sukkot, agricultural roots, then the historical narrative of association with the Exodus from Egypt, then the stories of the Temple rituals associated with the holiday in Jerusalem, then the metaphorical layers added to the symbolism of shaking the lulav and the etrog, and then some of the contemporary connections spurring us to social action, such as the focus on homelessness.
All of these layers are drenched with potential for us to draw close to the ritual forms and practices of the holiday, and find something that resonates deeply within us. This year, I am focusing on the historical origins of the holiday, the earliest layers – the celebration of the end of the Fall harvest, and the focus on rain for the land. For Jewish farmers, this layer of meaning is directly experienced and deeply lived. But most of us are not Jewish farmers. How do we tap into a deeply felt experience of land, produce, and water?
I would like to suggest a practice that could just as easily be a personal, silent contemplative meditation, or a group sharing and discussion. Some of us buy our vegetables from a CSA; some from local farm stands; some have grown our own fruits and vegetables this year in our gardens; some have or will take our families to go apple or pumpkin picking. Thinking about those experiences more deeply, we can bring to mind or verbalize our response to the miracle of growing things, the colors, the textures, the tastes, the feeling of harvesting the fruits of our labors, or having met the people who grew and harvested our food. We can share stories about having been traveling somewhere and seeing a field full of something growing – perhaps something we hadn’t seen before (my first experience of seeing date palms in Israel, and orange groves in Florida, with the incredible smell that fills the air, will remain with me forever). Or perhaps our attention is turned to the miracle of water – seeing a particularly gorgeous or spectacular body of water, seeing the miracle of drip irrigation systems literally turning parts of the desert green in Israel, the incredible innovation of the aqueduct and the transportation of water, the time when we were caught in the fiercest of torrential downpours, being made aware of the incredible power of water…
Taking time to think about these experiences – the ones that we have lived, the things that are part of the flow of our everyday lives, and then picking up the lulav and etrog to say the blessings, or then reciting the blessing for sitting in the sukkah – we, like the words of Rabbi Nachman’s prayer, send the life of the earth into our words of prayer. No longer the perfunctory performance of ancient rituals and words, they now become ripe with the experiences of our own lives. We energize our daily experiences with spiritual consciousness, and we energize the rituals of Jewish living by attaching them to meaningful life experience.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz