Is there something perverse, or at least bizarre, about celebrating the beginning of a new year precisely when the physical world is winding down, as its season of burgeoning growth ends and the earth itself begins its slow but inexorable descent through decay and decline into its annual experience of frozen, lifeless—or at least apparently lifeless—sleep? A little bit, there is!
You’ve surely noticed the changes afoot in the world just lately, in our world. A flash of yellow or even red leaves here and there…not the full monty of autumnal color just quite yet, but the intimation of that riot of color that seems so alive and yet which, as any sober botanist will tell you, is actually a sign of decay and deterioration: healthy, growing leaves are green, not red! A chill in the air early in the morning when you head out to retrieve the paper from the driveway or to put the garbage cans on the curb before the appointed pick-up hour. (I found myself reaching for a jacket the other day without even thinking about it much as I headed out to minyan in the morning. And I was glad I did!) The neighborhood cats seem to be gearing up for the winter too, although even I am not entirely sure what I mean by that—they just seem to be out and about more obviously at dusk, perhaps gathering up acorns for the cold winter months to come. (Do cats eat acorns? If I were a cat, I suppose I’d know.) I’ve seen a few more raccoons wandering around the neighborhood too just recently. The squirrels look a bit more plump than usual too, including the one with the huge tail who likes to sit on our deck and watch me work there in the late afternoon.
And so is born the paradox of our temperate climate: the physical world in these tepid latitudes is never more beautiful or more soul-stirring than when it is on the verge of its annual demise.
Why do I love it so? And I do love it. In fact, I’ve always loved the fall colors, always felt myself stirred in a deep, visceral way by the yellow and reds of autumn. I like the way the world turns green in springtime and, like everybody, I like the warm summer weather. (For some reason, I particularly like swimming in the ocean. And that is definitely something that I only do when the weather is at its warmest.) But there is something in the fall…in the smell of the leaves as they fall to the ground, in the brightness of their colors, of the strange blueness of the sky particularly when the air is cold and the sunlight bright and yellow…there is something in all of that that moves my soul and makes me feel part of the natural world in a way that the other seasons suggest a bit but fail actually to stimulate in any truly meaningful way.
Sukkot is part of that set of ideas as well. It is, by all accounts, an odd holiday. We build sukkot that thin the boundary we generally wish to be thick and firm between indoors and outdoors, between the civilized world symbolized by our climate-controlled, electronically secure, comfortably upholstered homes and the natural world that exists uncontrolled by ourselves beyond the boundaries of our property. And then, having thinned the boundary, we proceed to ignore it as we transgress (to use the word literally for once) in both directions: we bring our china and our stemware out into the natural world, into the flimsy hut that can barely protect itself, let alone ourselves and the treasures we casually deposit within its burlap walls…and we take the lulav and bind willow and myrtle twigs to it, then clasp the whole bundle to the etrog and hold it as we sing the Hallel in praise of the God Who made the world and its bounty, but we do so specifically not outdoors in the context of all that bounty but indoors…in our wholly indoor sanctuaries where, unlike in the sukkah, we do not feel ourselves half-inside and half-outside at all, but fully and comfortably indoors.
It’s an outside/inside sort of festival the Jews celebrate as the world surrenders to putrefaction in a blaze of glory that itself symbolizes the degree to which life itself can only truly be loved by those who understand its brevity, its ephemeral evanescence, its essential transitoriness. And so what we are left with as we contemplate our festival in the context of its season is the notion that, truly, nothing is ever as it seems. The security of inside and the insecurity of outside meet and coalesce in the even more basic truth that true security in the world can only come from within, from faith, from confidence born of the knowledge that there is a God in heaven Who watches over the world and Whose essential nature constitutes its moral core. The beauty of the autumn leaves meets the underlying knowledge that what that beauty really signals is the beginning of the end, the death of life, the onset of the harshest season of the year…and those two notions somehow yield—or should yield—the realization that, far more than spring is birth and winter death, the cycle is the thing…and the notion that the world cycles through its seasons in an endless progression of birth and death, of growth and decline, of gorgeousness and bareness, has at its heart a deep truth that the wise will willingly embrace: that creation itself is meant neither to terrify nor to embolden, but to prompt feelings of deep gratitude and beholdenness to the Creator, author of the earth’s bounty and its cycles of life and death.
And so, with those confused, not fully congruent ideas embraced and proclaimed as simple truths (the hallmark of the successful preacher being precisely that ability to make incongruous ideas sound as though they fit together so well that only a fool would feel the need to choose one over the other), I wish you all a satisfying, meaningful, and spiritually transformational Sukkot this year. At Shelter Rock, we’re having about 350 to dinner in our beautiful and elegantly decorated giant sukkah. Tomorrow, lunch will be served serially (not cereally, or at least mostly not) in a succession of neighborhood sukkot including Joan’s and my own. Throughout the festival, we will be eating and drinking in these flimsy backyard huts that will paradoxically make us feel more, not less, secure that the world is a place of majesty and beauty, and that creation itself—and particularly in its lush gorgeousness—is the only adequate mirror in which mortals can catch even a fleeting glimpse of their Creator. And in that thought rests the beauty and the profundity of one of the great festivals the Torah offers us as respites from our workaday lives. I wish you all a chag sameiach and, one last time, a shanah tovah for you and your families.