THE BLOG
10/02/2014 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Transitions: What I Learned Sitting in a Sukkah

Here's the thing about transitions: Most of the time you don't know you are about to go through it until it has already happened. I teach a course for first year rabbinical students - it is a History of Jewish Philosophy - and one of the first things I tell them is that nobody ever knows the name of the period of time they are actually living through until someone decides that that period is over. The one thing they did not have in the biblical period was a Bible. Once they had a Bible, then the biblical period was over; it could have a name, and it was called the "Biblical Period." But who knew when they were living through it? Nobody woke up in the late Roman Empire and said to their beloved spouse, "Honey, you know, I was feeling Late Antique last night, but it is definitely feeling Early Medieval this morning!"

We mark transitions generally, when it is too late to mark them, and then you can't do anything about it.

With the Festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), we mark a transition. The great gift that Judaism holds out to us it to be mindful of the phases of our lives, so that we don't rush through it, thoughtlessly, but we take a moment to step out of the rat race, to get up on the balcony (or under the Sukkah) to survey the scene a little, to be able to think about what it is we are going to need for the phase of life that is opening up before us, what is it we need to do to close the loose ends that are behind us. Times of transitions are like places of transitions. When you move from one place to another, you know that you have got to begin again. The challenge with time is that it does not come with a label. As we prepare to celebrate in our Sukkot booths, I want to offer us four opportunities for what we can take with us as we enter into this, or any transition. And these transitions I want to offer you are from the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible), all of which were used in moments of our Peoples' lives when they knew they were going from one to another phase in our national existence.

• The place I want to start is the Book of Joshua. As the Book begins, Moses has taken leave of the people of Israel, having died on the other side of the Jordan River, and it is up to Joshua to take the people across. What is the first thing that he does? Once they cross over the river into the Land of Israel, they take two large plaster stones and paint on them all the insights and wisdom of the Torah. Because if you are going to be making a transition from one stage to another stage, you had better wright down the memories you need for the journey. You have to be able to know who you are. You have to know what you stand for, to know your essence. For the People of Israel that knowledge has always been the teachings of the Torah. The people of Israel literally made the world's first 3D poster so that wherever they went in their subsequent wanderings, they could look and say, "That's what we're supposed to represent: these principles of righteousness, decency, compassion, and justice, define us in this land that we are about to enter. We need to post it, we need to read it; we need to take it with us."

• The second transition moment I want to share with you, very different in spirit, is that of King David finally being given permission to bring the Ark into Jerusalem. For King David it is not sufficient to delegate to someone else transporting the tablets and the Ark to bring them into his city. He insists on escorting them himself. How does he bring the tablets and the Ark into the city? By whirling like a Dervish, by dancing and singing his way into the city of Jerusalem. David reminds us that when you are going to make a transition into the next stage of life, do it with gusto; do it with joy. Don't worry that people are looking at you or what they might be thinking. They'll think their thoughts whatever you do. So enjoy yourself, because you only get to make the journey, once. From David, we get exuberance; we get the ability to dance your covenant into its home.

• The third example of transition I wanted to pause for a moment to think about is King Solomon, who builds one of the most glorious buildings in the ancient world. For those of you who are on the Tea Party side of things, he was definitely a Blue State kind of guy: Major taxes, huge government operation, forced labor, the works. As Big Government you could imagine. On the other hand, the public works were pretty significant and employment was really low. In any case, he built this magnificent building, gathers all the people around for the dedication of the temple, and what does King Solomon say? He announces, "No building can possibly contain God. If that's what you think you are doing here, then we have failed. This building cannot contain God. But what the building can do is serve for us as a source of concentration and inspiration. When we look to this building, our mind can contain God. And so we who focus on this place will be able to direct our prayers using this place as our springboard, as our place to attend and to remember." Robert Browning, the great British poet once wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" Solomon's reach exceeded his grasp. The Jewish People have always been a people whose reach has exceeded our grasp. We dream very big. The remarkable feat is not how often we fall short in success, the remarkable surprise in our history is how often we achieve the impossible. Solomon reminds us of that, while erecting that grandiose Temple can't possibly succeed at what people intended it for, nonetheless the Temple does preserve our people throughout the ages. So much so, that we still pray pointing to the spot where that building once stood, two thousand years ago. We still direct our hearts and our prayers towards that same spot, and we still pray for its restoration, even though most of us are not necessarily sincere in the literal intention of that prayer.

• The fourth and final example of a great transition in the Tanach is after the destruction of Solomon's beautiful building, when the Jewish people have already been banished, and they have been living in exile for 70 years. King Cyrus of Babylon invites the Jews to return to the Land of Israel. A hardy band of settlers returns to the now-backwater village of Jerusalem, and there they set about establishing the Second Jewish Commonwealth. The new returnees are surrounded by hostile forces throughout the territory, countless people who want them to fail, assaulted by people who try both military and financial means to bring about their failure. Ezra and Nehemiah, the two people who are in charge of governing at the time, respond by gathering all the people together, building a large pedestal on which the leaders can stand, and then from that spot they read aloud the entire Torah. As people hear these rules that had been up on the plaster in Joshua's day, which they had forgotten over the years, they start thinking they're in serious trouble. People start sobbing throughout the crowd. In words that should be inscribed on the walls of every synagogue, church, temple and mosque in North America, Ezra and Nehemiah respond to the people by saying, " For rejoicing in the Lord is your strength." You should not be weeping. If your response to your religion is guilt, or anguish or sorrow, then you are not understanding it right (or your clergy are perverting the light of holiness). The Torah is to be danced, celebrated, an abiding source of rejoicing. It is to be your strength to be able to delight in this heritage which is ours. It should make us live more passionately and more fully.

So what do we need as we stand on the precipice of a transition into this beautiful Sukkot Festival, at the start of a New Year; a year that has never existed before following a year that was among the most difficult of years? What do we need for the journey?

• Like the generation of Joshua, we need to post our principles and our standards so that all can see them. We need to be educated, so that we know what it means to be a Jew, and so that we can remember to live and abide by those standards wherever this year takes us.

• We need to remember like David to be exuberant; that to be alive is a great privilege. And if you are not enjoying yourself, you are wasting our time. So find a way to dance the time that you have. Whatever complaints we all have, whatever challenges we all have, this is your time to dance; there will be plenty of time to lie down afterwards.

• Third, we need what the great philosopher Walter Kaufman called, "humbition". Humbition is the combination of appropriate humility, and audacious ambition. We need to be personally humble, and have grand dreams of a world transformed; a world of justice, and compassion, and inclusion, and security, and decency.

• And finally, we need joy. And we need to remember that the core of our religion is a God who so loved the world that he created us to have something to love. And then, as if that was not enough, reached out to us in covenant to give us a way of cementing that love relationship and passing it from one generation to another.

Armed with these four gifts, we will be able to face the future and whatever it brings, and we will be able to say next year, when we gather again, that this year was very difficult, but we would not trade having lived it for anything in the world.