Sunday, November 20, 2011

Taking Refuge in a Sukkah of Faith

Sukkot is the Festival of Joy. This holiday, which occurs during the harvest season, is a time to be thankful for the blessings our Creator has given us. According to our tradition, a hidden aspect of Sukkot is our celebration of faith in God. When we dwell under the shade of the Sukkah, we show that we live our lives under the shade of God’s protection.

On the holiday, we sit in the Sukkah not only during the day, when the sun is shining, but also at night, when it is dark and sometimes cold. On Sukkot, we acknowledge that God is with us not only during times of abundance – the sunshine – but also during difficulties – the times we feel a chill. Even then, we believe that His protection and care surround and shield us like a Sukkah. We trust that, “…He will hide me in His Sukkah on the day of evil; He will conceal me in the concealment of His tent…(Psalms 27:5)”

The synergy of joy and faith

What is the connection between these two themes of Sukkot, joy and faith?

Without faith happiness is elusive. The stresses of life will overshadow abundance, spoiling joy. Even if life proceeds smoothly, worries over the future will distract from appreciating the present.

Authentic faith leads to gratitude and joy. It enables us to revel in the gifts of our Creator, without letting challenges dampen our spirits; we acknowledge that difficulties are also gifts (in ways beyond our comprehension). With faith, we are not consumed with fears about the future. We relax in the knowledge that, “God is my shepherd, I shall not lack (Psalms 23:1).” Whatever we need to fulfill our purpose, our Creator will give us; whatever we need to handle our challenges, He will provide.

The mistaken view that life is random robs one of meaning and happiness. Because God created you, your life has value and purpose; just by being alive you fulfill a part of God’s plan for you. God is your Father in Heaven and guides each moment of your life for your highest good. He cares about you, loves you and wants you to come close to Him. When you realize this, you will be filled with deep peace and joy.

Our angle of perception plays a pivotal role in determining our happiness. Imagine two people living in the same Sukkah; one bemoans the creature comforts he misses, the other delights in the mitzvah. Each moment, we have the choice of either resisting what we do not like, or opening up to the opportunity and Divine love within every experience.

How to serve God

One might assume that the optimal way to serve God and build His Sukkah is by constructing a sturdy and weatherproof structure. Yet, such a Sukkah is invalid; there must be cracks in the roof for the rain to enter. Similarly, one might assume that the optimal way to serve God is from a place of abundance, e.g., health, wealth, a large family etc. Yet, if our lives are currently not that way, then right now, that is not how we are meant to serve Him.

The definition of a life well lived is when we take the pieces that make up our lives – especially the broken parts – and elevate them, building for God our unique Sukkah. By using our current situation to come close to God, we invite Him into our Sukkah – into our lives. It is through the cracks in our Sukkah – the jagged parts of our lives – that God’s glory, dwelling within us, most intensely shines out of, illuminating the world.

Even if right now your life appears to be in tatters and resembles a patched together Sukkah, that too is for your good, that too is holy. Do not be ashamed or try to run away from your problems; be present in your Sukkah – in your life – and celebrate it for the joys it holds. By accepting your life the way it is, you unite with God, who gave you your present challenges. Then you will feel fortified by the strength of His presence and able to plan for a better future.

Worry or confidence?

We choose between two attitudes. One is filled with worry, where we ask, “What will be? Will I be able to handle it?” The other is filled with calm confidence, where we trust that God will be with us at all times, giving us whatever we need in each moment.

With faith, we anticipate and look forward to God’s help, which frequently comes in unpredictable ways. With this perspective, there is a relaxing of tension, a willingness to take judicious risks and leave our comfort zone. We are ready to face uncertainty fearlessly, with the courage that comes with trusting in God.

King David compares one who has faith in God to “…A suckling child beside its mother…(Psalms 131:2)” Imagine an infant resting after being nursed. How do you think the infant feels resting on its mother’s lap? When we realize our Creator is guiding our lives and we unconditionally accept His will, that peaceful feeling of complete reliance and contentment can be ours.

After making reasonable efforts – prayer included – trust that whatever happens to you will be for your eternal benefit. With faith, wherever you find yourself in life, you will be able to relax into your Father’s support, surrounded and protected by a Sukkah of faith.

The four species

On Sukkot we embrace and shake the four species: the Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim and Aravot. Like the Sukkah, perhaps the four species also symbolize the fusion of joy and faith. Joy is found when we let go of resisting the life our Creator has given us; when we accept and embrace every aspect of our lives, that which is pleasurable – symbolized by the Etrog which is tasty and fragrant – as well as that which is painful – symbolized by the Aravot which are neither tasty nor fragrant.

The Lulav comes from date trees which are tasty but not fragrant. The Hadassim, are fragrant but not tasty. The four species therefore contain four possible combinations and symbolize the four types of life experiences: Whether we are able to “taste” the benefits in the present or only “smell” the benefits which are down the road.

There are experiences which are like the Aravot, without taste or smell: We see no benefit in them, not now and not in the future. These moments are the true tests of faith: Will we become despondent and bitter? Or will we draw strength from the knowledge that God, in His infinite wisdom, is guiding our lives for our ultimate good?

Do not hold the Aravot by themselves – focusing only on the bitter aspects of your life. Join them together with the Etrog, Lulav and Hadassim. When you appreciate the blessings in your life, your difficulties will become easier to bear. In addition, when you focus on all the good that God has done for you, it will be easier for you to have faith that from God comes only goodness, that even your challenges are for your benefit.

Perhaps another reason we hold the four species – the four types of life experiences – together as one is to underscore our belief that every aspect of our lives, both the bitter and blessed, come from God. We shake the species in all directions, symbolizing our willingness to be led by God in any direction He chooses. Our will is to do His will, even when it’s difficult, even when it’s painful.

During the prayer service, while embracing the four species – and as we embrace life – we recite the verse from Psalms (118:1), “Give thanks to God for He is good, for His kindness endures forever.” Wherever we go, we go with God, and there, His kindness awaits us.

After we awaken to God’s Kingship on Rosh Hashanah, and cleanse ourselves of sin on Yom Kippur, God invites us into His Sukkah.

The happiness we feel on Sukkot is much more than simple gratitude; our deepest source of joy is what God means to us and what we mean to Him.

Our repentance, prayers and acts of charity which prepared us to come closer to God and enter His Sukkah, bring Him tremendous satisfaction. In fact, the elation we experience on Sukkot stems not only from our joy over our closeness to God, but also from the awareness of His joy over our closeness to Him. To illustrate, when a husband senses the love and joy his wife feels over him, this intensifies his own love and joy over her. Each spouse nourishes the love and joy of the other, until their devotion merges and they become as one.

When repentance removes the spiritual barriers caused by sin, our sensitivity to God’s intense love and joy over us increases, which heightens within us those same feelings for Him. Embracing the will of our Creator enables the flowering of this love and joy; we become one with God, in a state of total devotion and utter surrender.

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