Daniel Raphael Silverstein
Rabbi, educator, meditation teacher and MC/poet.

Sukkot: Embracing Embodiment

Sukkah at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center

As we prepare to enter the festival of Sukkot, I feel an enormous joy and relief welling up inside of me. For many of us, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur hold a certain intensity and pressure, and Sukkot comes as a welcome breath of fresh air.

This transition has been expressed through the generations in many beautiful ways. The great kabbalist R’ Isaac Luria uses the following verse from the love poetry of Song of Songs (2:6) to describe this journey as a spiritual experience:

His left hand was under my head,
His right arm embraced me.

The “left hand” refers to the forces of judgement and severity, which are central to the liturgy and rituals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For R’ Luria and other kabbalists, these forces of judgement and severity, however challenging they seem to us, are actually holding and supporting us, and preparing us for the next step of this process – the embrace of the “right arm” of unconditional love.

An embrace is something physical that involves our entire body, just like dwelling in the sukkah. Indeed, the kabbalists teach that the walls of the sukkah represent this loving Divine embrace, and the roof of the sukkah represents the Divine Mother hovering above us like a mother bird protecting her vulnerable chicks.

During this season of Teshuvah (return to our highest self or Divine Source), our efforts to improve ourselves may have included some struggles. In an ideal world, we would always undertake such struggles with the utmost kindness and wisdom. We would bear in mind a fundamental rule of Jewish mysticism – that every part of us is Divine and that even our worst mistakes contain holy sparks of positive intentions which can be elevated through our compassionate awareness.

However, many of us are prone to forgetting that even our imperfections are Divinely perfect. We may have inner voices that are not 100% loving, and – not suprisingly – we might sometimes believe what they say. In other words, in the process of trying to become better people, we may have given ourselves a hard time. Instead of trying to heal and integrate our wounded or shadow parts, perhaps we have tried to suppress or eliminate them.

R’ Abraham Isaac Kook views this as one of the dangers of the Teshuvah process. He describes how, as a result of us trying to wean ourselves away from certain behaviors or character traits, we might weaken our innate desire and passion for life itself. By saying “no” to particular details of life, we have risked adopting a fearful, aversive orientation towards life itself.

The good news, he says, is that we are given a remedy for the weakening effects of Teshuvah – the embodied celebration of Sukkot:

Therefore, days of sacred joy, of delighting ourselves, restore our positive desire to its rightful place and the force of its pure vitality. And then our Teshuvah will be complete. (Orot HaTeshuvah 9:10)

Within the Divine hug of the Sukkah, we are invited to embrace ourselves, in all our messy humanity. All of our parts, all of our yearnings, all of our inner and outer experiences are welcome here. We wave the Four Species in the six directions of this physical world. As well as suggesting our embrace of our place on this spinning blue and green ball, our mystics understand these six directions as corresponding to the full range of our emotions.

May we breathe deeply and allow ourselves to receive the loving embrace of the Sukkah.

May we enjoy her all-accepting hug of every part of us.

May we merit to fully receive the light and joy of her protection.

About the Author
Daniel Raphael Silverstein is a rabbi, educator, meditation teacher and MC/poet. He lives in Israel with his family, where he directs Applied Jewish Spirituality, an online portal which makes the transformative spiritual wisdom of our tradition accessible to all who seek it.
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