Sunday, October 16, 2011
The Safest Place in the World
Take a moment and go inside and ask yourself a question: When was the last time you really felt safe? I don’t mean ‘safe’ in the sense of ‘not in a war zone.’ I mean, when did you feel totally safe. Ultimately safe. Existentially safe in this life? Can you think of a time at all? Try as hard as you can to find a place, a time, a memory, when you knew that kind of safety, that kind of blissful security. If you’re anything like me, you might have a hard time locating a specific memory. Some of us may not be able to think of a single memory at all that fits this criteria. It’s a funny thing to contemplate, because somewhere inside, we feel like we must have had an experience of being cosmically safe, but it’s hard to find a memory that directly points to one experience of it. I can tell you that when I think about this question, I can’t find a particular story in my life like that; it’s more of a feeling about my relationships through my life. I’m particularly drawn back to my early childhood. I have memories of being held by my parents and grandparents, keeping me safe. I have other memories, ironic memories of feeling safe. I remember the very first time the woman who would be my wife took my hand for the very first time—it was a moment when everything else about my life felt anything but safe, but in that moment of her taking my hand, in that reassuring touch, there was a moment—however fleeting—of infinite safety. I suspect that most of us can, if we try hard, find similar kinds of memories; memories not so much of stories or anecdotes, but fleeting moments, moments of feeling close to another, moments that might have little to do with the outer circumstances of our lives, but rather more to do with a feeling of connection, of love, of spirit itself… Today is Sukkot. It’s a fitting holiday for this moment in our yearly journey: we have come through Yom Kippur. We have prayed and pleaded for our well-being—our very safety—in the coming year. We emerge humbled from the experience. And Sukkot itself arises from the profundity of the Yamim Noraim with a message of Simchah, of joy and celebration. It’s a wonderful counterpart to what we have just come through. But Sukkot is rich and complex in how it calls us to celebrate. We celebrate and rejoice on the razor’s edge between security and insecurity. If Yom Kippur weighed on our hearts, and maybe even brought us to tears about life’s insecurity, then Sukkot brings us to music and laughter in response to the very same insecurity. Like all the most profound messages of Judaism, Sukkot is paradoxical. We know entirely well that some of us might not be here this time next year to rejoice—vehayiyta ach sameach, and You shall be so joyful, despite this truth! What kind of crazy alchemy, what kind of black magic is this that our deepest existential insecurities become the silver platter on which we place our cup that runneth over? Indeed, Sukkot goes to extreme lengths to drive the message home of Yom Kippur. You think your life is so secure in your nice climate-controlled house? Well then go outside and gather some rickety wood and cloth and build a sorry excuse for a dwelling, with a bunch of leaves for a roof. You think the life you have is going to go on forever? Try to think that while eating lunch in the Sukkah, when one stiff wind can topple the whole thing right over! veHayiyta Ach Sameach! And you shall be so joyful even with all of that! Are we crazy? Actually, we’re not crazy at all… We have come through quite a few months in the history of the world. The Middle East has changed overnight. Israel’s standing in the world is all the more isolated. Here at home, our economic future looms with dreadful uncertainties. This summer in Washington, we survived an earthquake followed by a hurricane in a matter of days of each other. Last month, we commemorated ten years since the day those two towers—those two symbols of American might and strength—suddenly, so unexpectedly, came crashing down. Is it really crazy on Sukkot for us to leave our secure houses, to leave our fantasies about our own power, and to acknowledge the True Reality; to acknowledge that we’re really not running the show here, that we don’t know what’s coming, that we don’t know how much time we have left? Sukkot, in many ways, is the final acknowledgement of what we woke up to on Rosh HaShanah: that this life as we know it, is not secure. And the world around us shows us, it’s not just on Sukkot, but all year long, that it’s true. We never were in control, we never actually have perfect security in this world. Vehayiyta Ach Sameach! But you must be so joyful! Why? Because—and here’s the great and wonderful paradox of Sukkot—we may never be perfectly secure, but we can be safe! Ultimately safe! Cosmically safe! And the reason for this is because the safety that I’m talking about is not material safety. It’s spiritual safety. It’s just like those memories of feeling safe I asked you to remember. If you go deep enough inside, you can ‘remember’ feeling ultimately, spiritually safe, even if you can’t conjure a specific memory. And the reason for this is that it’s not a memory of a thing at all. It’s the memory of the knowledge of the soul. There’s that beautiful midrash about how, before we were born, we could see from one end of the universe to the other, but then, moments before birth, an angel comes and says ‘Shhh!’ and we are born not remembering all the deep soul-knowledge that we once had. Perhaps we can’t put our finger on it directly, but we know we once understood. And now in our lives, we can understand once again, just for fleeting moments—in the loving touch of a parent to a child, in the safe embrace we experience of our beloved. In those moments that flash by, we somehow know that we are so much more than all the troubles and trials and circumstances that limit us, that challenge us, that seem to threaten our security. For an instant, we come to know that somewhere, deep in our souls, there is a stillness, a peace, a Presence that no life-circumstances can touch. In fact, we discover in those moments that all the insecurities of our lives are hevel, a breath, a mere whisp of air. In those moments of feeling safe, which are really moments of true love and true connection, we understand that who we really are is beyond birth and death itself. We sit in the Sukkah to bring ourselves to remember who we really are. We are not this stuff that withers and is blown away on a breeze. We sit in that Sukkah and it doesn’t matter how beautifully we decorate it: nothing compares to the infinite beauty of our loved ones’ faces shining in the shadowed light of that Sukkah. Nothing can compare to the blessings of who we are, and what we have in each other right here, right now. We realize that however insecure and fleeting this world is, this whole passing and fleeting life of ours is a treasure because we get to spend this moment here for each other. And this achingly beautiful moment that is passing is so perfect, so joyful, because it reminds us that what we really share can never go away. VeHayiyta Ach Sameach—and so, how can we be, even in this fleeting and insecure world, anything but joyful in the face of the Ultimate Truth, in the faces of our beloveds, holding our hands, sharing our undying love. May each of us find the place where are safe this year in our Sukkot. May we come to realize that it doesn’t dwell in our Sukkah at all, but in the truest place of our souls. Chag Sameach!