Into the Desert

October 1, 2017

4 min read


Reconciling the spiritual and the physical during the holiday of Sukkot.

We had a guest this past Shabbos whose family has lived in Jerusalem for generations. Originally from Yemen, they settled in the Holy Land long before the existence of the state, before the government was mounting operations to fly the Jews of Yemen out. So how did they get there? We were curious to know.

“They walked,” she stated matter-of-factly.

“And how long did that walk take?”

“Six years.”

Six years!! And we complain about the length of the direct flight from LA!

Walking for six years. Across mostly desert – over 100 years ago. What must that have been like? What dangers did they face? What few possessions could they possibly carry with them for that length of time?

I can’t get them out of my mind, especially as I start to think about the upcoming holiday of Sukkot when I have to make the grand “sacrifice” and move out of my home into a “hut” in the backyard for a week. I actually don’t really move out since I sleep in the house but that’s the idea. We only carry with us what we need.

This idea exists in a dramatic tension with the other goal of the holiday – to make it joyous, festive, have elaborate meals and a sense of celebration. How do we reconcile the two? One moment I’m shopping online for new decorations to add to my sukkah, the next minute I’m thinking that the whole point is closeness to the Almighty and that He is all I need. One moment I’m planning menus (do we really need that elaborate strawberry dessert?) and shopping and cooking, and the next I’m focused on the ways in which the material trappings distract us from that relationship.

These seem like contradictory impulses but upon reflection they are not. They can work together as long as the soul’s desire precedes the body’s desire. As with anything in life, the question is what’s driving me, what’s the motivation? If the goal is connecting to the Almighty and focusing on the fact that He is the Ultimate Provider Who gives me everything I need and that those physical needs are actually very limited, then the rest can follow. All the external trappings – the decorations, the food, the plates, the clothing – are just tools in my service of God. They are the means, not the ends. That is the secret.

But I need to be honest with myself. Am I just indulging my material desires and proclaiming it to be in the name of Sukkot or am I truly focused on the spiritual goals and just using the material to achieve them?

This is not only true for Sukkot but for every holiday and, in fact, for everything we do. Did I buy those new dishes to enhance the beauty of Shabbos or did I use Shabbos as an excuse to buy new dishes? Did I buy that new dress to make a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s Name, when I am out in public or did I use the idea of Kiddush Hashem as an excuse to buy a new dress? These are the essential questions I am asking myself this Sukkot. These are the essential questions we must always ask ourselves.

In some ways it should be easier on Sukkot. It’s as if the Almighty has handed us the opportunity to merge the physical and the spiritual on a (sterling) silver platter. We leave all our possessions inside as we move outdoors to connect with our Creator. We eat outside, we sleep outside (well some of us who aren’t afraid of who else is outside on the streets of LA); we learn outside. We leave openings in the “roof” of our sukkah so that we can see the sky and feel surrounded by the Almighty’s presence. Sukkot is in fact the perfect holiday to merge the physical and the spiritual (although my neighbors who brought their air conditioner and television outside may have gone a little too far!), to recognize that we have all we need, that everything is from God and that if our goal is service of the Almighty, our physical needs are in fact very limited. It should be easier on Sukkot but these are big issues and there is a leap between awareness and emotional internalization. The work continues…

And now I have more work and yet another question: is my love of Eretz Yisrael so strong that I would walk six years in the desert or is it only sustained by a direct flight (ideally in business class)? The reality is probably somewhere in the middle but these are the questions worth asking.

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