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Sukkot teaches us to live with uncertainty

The Jewish New Year of 5781 began with a serious COVID challenge: How can we, as Jews, celebrate our traditions and participate in holiday services during a pandemic, which requires us to limit gatherings and to physically distance at six feet apart and wear masks — outdoors?

Given that we can’t do what we have done in the past, what happens when the traditions that have always anchored and connected us to G-d and the community become seriously compromised because of the genuine risk to health and life that engaging in them might cause?

This year, many of us attended Zoom services and had limited holiday meals with our “pods” or “germ families.”

We accepted it as the responsible and necessary response to the pandemic even though it may have made us feel more isolated.

Hopefully, next year we will all look back and say: “Remember last year . . . ?”

Five days after Yom Kippur, we celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, the seven days when are commanded to build and dwell in temporary huts, representative of the impermanent structures that sheltered the Jews while traveling in the desert for 40 years.

We decorate the walls with paper chains and hang fall fruits from the s’chach (the sukkah’s roof) as we enjoy our meals in the open air.

Before COVID, we happily dined in the sukkah with family and friends, inviting guests (ushpizin in Hebrew) to share in the joy of the holiday. But how can we celebrate Sukkot in a COVID world?

The pandemic has forced many of us to go inward; to remain sheltered in place, to limit our activities, to refrain from touching, hugging, being with others.

But Sukkot beckons us to go outward; to dwell and dine outside, to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the world around us.

Sukkot provides us with a profound lesson about surviving uncertainty. The sukkah, itself imperma- nent and fragile, never fully protects us from the elements — we are vulnerable to rain, cold and wind.

In essence, this holiday is an annual reminder of the fragility and precariousness of our existence in the natural world.

But Sukkot is described as zeman simchatenu, “our time of joy”; it is the season of happiness and we are commanded in Deuteronomy to “rejoice on [the Sukkot] festival . . . and you shall have only joy.”

How do we understand this paradox?

How do we hold two seemingly inconsistent emotions: fear and uncertainty with celebration and joy?

Sukkot liberates us from the material world of desire while directing us to the spiritual world of faith. It commands us to be happy in the midst of not-knowing because we will find that we have what we need when we put our faith in G-d.

The marvel of the Jewish experience is that throughout the ages, we have been able to survive tremendous uncertainty while simultaneously maintaining faith and the ability to rejoice.

Faith has been the antidote to fear and an anchor in times of political and religious chaos. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, faith is “spiritual courage of a high order.”

In the end, faith is the courage and tenacity to live with uncertainty, to dwell with vulnerability in the open shelters of our existence, and to put our trust in G-d, family and community not just to survive, but to evolve and find joy.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Columnist | Reflections

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