28 September 2012
12 Tishrei 5773
As I walked the halls yesterday, I encountered one of our seniors walking to class. I briefly stopped to engage him in what I expected to be a routine conversation. Instead, I learned more than I expected to about him and his outlook on life.
I knew that this student is a serious athlete who practices intensely for many hours a week outside of school, so, I asked how his practicing is going. “Not great,” he responded, “In fact, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to practice from now on.” My look of sadness and surprise prompted his explanation: “It’s my shoulder. I am likely going to need surgery.” I felt terrible. Having dedicated so much time to a sport during my own college experience, I had a sense of what his hopes might be and of what an integral part of his life and identity this sport is for him. When I responded with sympathy, his next comment surprised me. “There are sicknesses that are a lot worse than a bad shoulder.” He put it so simply and matter-of-factly. In the midst of both physical and emotional pain, during a time of high school (senior spring) that is already prone to heightened adolescent narcissism, this young man rose above himself and, in the face of his suffering, responded with both gratitude and tremendous perspective on his health and on life.
This student’s unusually mature ability to discern a large thing from a small thing reminded me of a Sukkot D’var Torah I recently read given by Rabbi Norman Lamm in 1960, entitled “On Doing Without.” (http://brussels.mc.yu.edu/gsdl/collect/lammserm/index/assoc/HASH5ac4.dir/doc.pdf)
Rabbi Lamm comments on the Talmudic debate over the reason given for the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah on Sukkot. The Torah tells us that we should dwell in sukkot because, in God’s words, “I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of Egypt . . .” (23:43) Two Talmudic sages appear to disagree over whether this line is referring to literal sukkot, in which B’nei Yisrael actually dwelled as physical protection from the desert or whether it is metaphorically referring to “ananei hakavod – clouds of glory” which represent God’s divine, spiritual protection from harm. Rabbi Lamm ultimately suggests that these opinions complement each other but what resonated most with me was his suggestion that the literal sukkah, in which we are commanded to dwell, stripped down of the frills of our permanent existence, “shows a man how to live on a minimum subsistence level—even in a hut, without a roof over your head—and learn that it is possible to survive that way, too. It teaches that there are many things you take for granted and assume are absolutely indispensable that you can actually do without. It is possible to survive even without a house, a home.”
After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, on which we summon in ourselves the fear of the fragility of our lives, Sukkot reminds us that we need to keep things in perspective. Venturing out into the sukkah gives us the opportunity to simplify, strip down, and ask ourselves the question that Rabbi Lamm poses: What things can I live without? And, conversely, as we appreciate even the impermanent protective structure around us and, for the spiritual among us, the sheltering presence of the divine in our lives, we also can ask ourselves, “What can I not live without?”
My student became my teacher yesterday as he implicitly shared his answers to these questions. His comforting words about his shoulder were a powerful and inspiring reminder that if we, too, want to live with gratitude and perspective, we should ask and answer these questions as often as possible. Sunday night, at our first meal in the sukkah, seems as good a time as any to begin.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Marc Baker