Each year the rhythms of the holidays and the Jewish calendar define our days and are meant to nurture within us different lessons and meanings that we can integrate into our collective Jewish persona. These special days create the arc of our Jewish lives and year.
But now, in a pandemic, some of these meanings and experiences have been reframed and recalibrated anew.
Take for example the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. Usually, it’s only a once-a-year occurrence when we leave our brick-and-mortar homes that we are normally protected by, and enter into the vulnerable outdoors.
This is meant to be temporary. A magical one week of bonding and dining under, and peeking through, the s’chach.
In the sukkah we are more exposed, the barrier between us and nature, removed. Flimsy walls now make up our home for one week.
One aspect of Sukkot is that it gives us perspective. It reminds us of what is important in our lives. It strips away all those material extras and reduces us to our essentials, to living the essential in our lives.
Upon reaching the conclusion of that special one week of Sukkot, we don’t casually exit this sanctified modern day “pod” that symbolizes the ananei ha-kavod, the cocooning clouds of the desert. When we take leave of this space that we created for one week, we express a special and poignant prayer of departure upon leaving the sukkah’s intimate embrace.
The idea is to re-enter our normative homes now fortified and renewed by the sukkah’s simplicity, carrying with us a more tangible sense of dependence and surrender in G-d’s arms.
But what about this year? What about celebrating Sukkot within a pandemic, when all non-essentials have already been stripped away, and our whole existence has become intensely mindful of what is essential, of how very limited and humbling our physical material existence is?
What about celebrating Sukkot amidst a time when the only way to socialize with others has become exclusively in the outdoors? This has been the sole way we have been interacting socially ever since our lockdowns.
It almost seems like the one week experience of Sukkot and some of its attendant meaning have been with us for a long time now, since last spring, perhaps diminishing the purpose of this experience.
Yet, nonetheless, when you add it all up: eating out of doors till now, socializing out-of-doors till now, feeling so acutely dependent on G-d — so many of the COVID lessons we are learning and living daily — Sukkot it is not.
On the one hand Sukkot can feel artificial and diluted because of COVID. On the other hand, Sukkot can also feel that much more meaningful. Holding the four species in our hands, decorating the sukkah with the same decorations we’ve hung from year to year, hearing the melodious kiddush recited again amidst the pungent pine, laughing and singing long into the night, cupping our hands around a hot mug of apple cider, and welcoming the spirits of our famous familiar ushpizin — along with the spirits of our departed loved ones — pandemic or no pandemic, these and so much more are still uniquely Sukkot.
But no doubt, just like all the other holidays that we have been celebrating throughout the COVID, Sukkot will no doubt feel very different, too.
As we celebrate this Sukkot, the holiday of harvesting, of the gathering of the crops that we have created and yielded in our lives, I look back and wonder about what my cumulative and personal crop of COVID will turn out to be.
Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News