Have you ever been homeless?

I have!

Spiritually I mean. For most of my life I wandered in my own personal wilderness. I lived in one temporary dwelling after the next, never feeling at home — with me nor the world around me. The sense of inner security and stability evaded me for the first 50 years of my life; as well as the sense of some kind of permanence that could sustain me through all the peaks and valleys that accompany a person’s life journey. Thinking back, how could I have experienced anything different from a life defined by survival rather than authentic living?

I never knew when it would be time to move on again, but always knew that wherever I pitched my tent it would be only for a moment. I had no rock to lean on, my footing was always on soil that was prone to one earthquake after another. I experienced homelessness — mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

“For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths. In order that your generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” Leviticus 23: 42-43.

This verse is the source for the mitzvah of “leshev b’sukkah” — dwelling in the hut-like booth — for seven days each year.  During the week of Chag HaSukkot — the Festival of Sukkot — we make the sukkah our official home. However, in order for a sukkah to be considered a proper home for the holiday, it must specifically be a temporary dwelling, more like a hut than a house. While its walls may be sturdy, its roof cannot. This reminds us that when our ancestors left Egypt and journeyed in the wilderness for 40 years until crossing the Jordan River into the Land of Israel, they lived in sukkot, temporary dwellings.

But is this mitzvah only to ensure that we do not forget our history?  May I suggest that this mitzvah, as with all, enables us to nurture our connection with the Shechinah — the Divine Presence — within us.

One can only imagine how this newborn nation must have felt after having lived in slavery, to have been freed, and to now be traveling in a wilderness, living in one temporary hut after another. Never knowing where the next resting place will be must have been so frightening and cause for alarm.

Similar to my journey for the first 50 years of my life, yes. In some ways yes, but in the most essential way, not at all. What in fact is the one difference that defines my living in temporary dwellings as a state of homelessness and the Children of Israel’s living in temporary dwellings as not? It has to do with the spiritual space within their sukkah, one that was not present in mine.

The Talmud in Tractate Sukkah 11b and the Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim, Chapter 625, suggest that the sukkot — the booths/huts — were actually the ana’nei ha’kavod — the six clouds of glory — which surrounded the Children of Israel from all sides to protect them from the harsh desert heat and hot winds. Therefore part of fulfilling this commandment is to ensure that one’s sukkah offers more shade than not. The Zohar refers to this shade as tzillah d’mehemnutah — the shade of faith — the protection and comfort one feels in knowing and realizing that HaShem is really the ultimate source of our protection and security.

As I began my journey to authentic living I realized that even what I perceive as a physical permanent dwelling really is not. In fact, everything in this physical world is temporal, temporary and transitory. Security, stability and a sense of permanence derive more from the spiritual space we choose to inhabit, rather than a strong physical structure. Choosing to live a life that honors one’s soul, one’s spiritual center and the Image of the Creator in which each human being has been created allows us to live in our temporary dwellings enveloped by the ana’nei ha’kavod, dwelling under the tzillah d’mehemnutah.

Many of us in fact are abundantly blessed with living in what appears as permanent homes, homes within which we feel secure and safe. And yet it is our faith and trust in our Creator that anchors us; it’s our faith and trust that is the very rock we can lean on at all times; it’s our faith and trust in that pure spark within us which is eternal and permanent that allows us to stand on firm ground, weathering the desert heat and hot winds in life. While we don’t physically see the Clouds of Glory protecting us, when we sit under the shade of faith we can sense the blessing of the Divine’s protection.

Fourteen years ago I decided to enter the spiritual Sukkah that my ancestors dwelt in during their journey in their wilderness. At times, I may find myself leaving my spiritual Sukkah, but it is always there, ready for me, inviting me and encouraging me to re-enter and dwell in its protective space.

For seven days each year, our Creator invites us to recapture this moment, to refresh this experience, and to renew our shade of faith.

Each year we have seven days to remind us of how tenuous and fragile the blessing of a permanent home within oneself truly is. We will once again be reminded of where we came from — from people who wandered from place to place until they finally arrived to that special place they would call home.

May we all experience Chag Sukkot Sameach —  a joyous holiday — and may we open our hearts — in the spirit of “loving one’s fellow as oneself” — to those around us who wander in their own spiritual wilderness as they seek to journey home as well.

About the Author
Yiscah Smith is the author of Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. A documentary on her life, I Was Not Born a Mistake, will be out fall in Israel and North America. She lives in Jerusalem and teaches at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and in her home in Jerusalem.
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