Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

October 15, 2014

Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics

For the first time in memory we hosted a lot of people who had either not been in a Suka for decades or in some cases had never been in a Suka. To see and experience the Suka through their eyes was an insightful exercise.

We often talk the talk of the Suka. How we our leaving our homes, the comfort and security of sturdy walls and a solid roof for the flimsy hut and see-through covering of the Suka. How we are placing our faith in God. How we are leaving the material comforts for a simpler existence.

How many of us say and hear these ideas, but really feel it? I think that for many people, they are used to the Suka. They are accustomed to its wonder.

This Sukkot, as our guests walked in to our humble shack in the back of our resplendent home, I witnessed a transformation. I witnessed a metamorphosis of our guests from people concerned with their day-to-day cares, to people living a spiritual experience. It is hard to understand and harder to describe, but I will attempt nonetheless.

Technically, our Suka is a pitiful structure. A pieced-together rusted frame with wide strips of cloth that was attractive twenty years ago. A sagging bamboo mat roof with low-hanging paper-chain adornments that forced our taller guests to bend. Six naked light bulbs (energy efficient ones at least) with overhanging wires brightened the hastily built Suka and highlighted the color of the many Hamsas (Kabalistic hand symbol) that the handicapped kids from the Kehila contributed to the Suka. In the corner, was the artistic masterpiece for this year: An original hand-drawn representation of the 7 Ushpizin (Ancestral Guests), outlined by Tamara and colored by our kids. Besides the 7 Ushpizin, were 7 Ushpizot (7 female biblical characters) that Tamara introduced to Uruguay and spoke about each evening.

But despite the objectively dilapidated dwelling, our guests only saw and experienced beauty. The comments were unanimous “What a beautiful Suka!”

I tried to understand, what was the beauty they were experiencing? Why was there a spirituality in the air and in their eyes that wasn’t there before? What is it about a Suka that creates such an effect?

I think that part of it is visceral and is based on the laws of Suka construction. The prime rule is the composition of the roof. Vegetative based, creates more shade than sun, but allows enough space where one could see the stars at night. Also, it cannot be too high. It must remain within normal viewing range. You must always be able to see and therefore sense the naturally ethereal roof over your head. The roof itself cannot be covered or obstructed in anyway. It must have complete access to the heavens. You feel at the same moment two contradictory sensations – covered and exposed. It’s an unnatural and unusual sensation, which must engender some spiritual stimulus.

Then there are the walls. It’s a temporary structure meant to stand only a week. Few invest in anything significant. You leave your house to go outside and into the Suka. On one hand you are in a structure, on the other hand you are outside. Again, contradictory stimulus. Am I outside or inside? I imagine this stirs the soul as well.

Finally, and perhaps least legislative but most important are the decorations. The law does not prescribe dimensions, colors, content, minimum height or placement for decorations. By law, a Suka is Kosher without any decorations. But it is the part that in many homes is the most worked upon. We brought with us from Israel a two-meter wide painting on fabric of ancient Jerusalem that adorned one of the walls. Tamara reserves an entire day for the children to work on art projects to hang on the ceiling and walls. The investment of time, creativity and love is out of all proportion to the time actually spent in the Suka.

People sense that. And on some innate level are shocked. There is a dissonance. The effort that is more appropriate, more associated with something more permanent, placed in a very temporary setting. Are we here to stay or are we going already? That is the final push to awaken a soul.

All of this happens in a fraction of a second. All of this happens at the subconscious level of the senses. The designed impact of contradictory physical messages on our senses overrides our natural operating mode. Am I protected or am I exposed? Am I inside or am I outside? Am I staying or am I going? These very basic existential questions bring our spirit to life in a sudden and powerful way – and we may not even notice it. It can lead to a surprising joy.

That is the Existential Paradox by Design as Impetus in Spiritual Mechanics.

Chag Sameach.

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