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Enhancing Sprituality with the Succah
By Nina Amir
How the Blessings and Rituals for a Succah Provided Meaning and Spirituality
I don't think of myself as a particularly special Jew or even a particularly special spiritual seeker. I often call myself an "everywoman," believing the struggles I face religiously, spiritually or otherwise are similar to most other people's struggles. Thus, it follows that many other Jews must have struggled -- or may still be struggling -- with the same religious and spiritual issues with which I have struggled myself. Walking into a sukkah one year, however, I found a way to ease this struggle. Indeed, the emptiness that I felt while performing the mitzvot, or commandments, associated with this holiday led me to a series of steps that now make not only my Sukkot experiences both meaning-full and spirit-full but my other Jewish observances as well.
Like me, many Jews today play what I have heard called "The Meaning Game." They want more than the empty observance of lighting the Shabbat candles and saying the blessing simply because they are "supposed to." They also play what I call "The Spirituality Game." They want their observance of Jewish holidays to be both meaningful and spiritual. They are searching for a Judaism that has meaning in its rituals and which provides a spiritual path for connecting with God.
Each year the holiday of Sukkot reminds me of what I need to do to make any Jewish ritual, prayer, holiday, or observance both meaningful and spiritual or, as I like to say, "meaning-full" and "spirit-full" -- for it was from my attempts to observe this holiday in such a way that I realized the steps I needed to take to accomplishing this. My shaking of the lulav shook up my consciousness of what it takes to have a meaning-full and spirit-full ritual or prayer experience.
I learned most of what I know about Judaism and its rituals, prayers and observances as an adult. In my desire to be more religiously observant, I found I had much to learn about even the simplest traditions, and as I studied and practiced I also struggled with how to make what I was doing have meaning for me and be a spiritual practice at the same time. For example, on Shabbat I did all the things I was supposed to do baked Challah, lit candles, said blessings, went to synagogue, yet I found myself devoid of feeling while doing so. As I extinguished the Havdallah candle at the end of Shabbat, I thought, "Something is missing."
I knew these rituals were what I was "supposed to do," but I wanted my participation in them to create a sacred space, to make me feel spiritual, to help me achieve a connection with God. Instead, I was just going through the motions. I was involved in an empty practice.
One year, in an effort to make my Sukkot experience a meaning-full and spirit-full one, I decided to spend some time researching why Jews perform the mitzvah of shaking the lulav. I learned that Jewish mystics believed the lulav with its three species represents our body (eyes, mouth and spine) and the etrog our heart. Therefore, when we hold both and shake them in six directions we pray to God with our whole being and acknowledge that the Divine Presence exists all around us. Plus, after repentance and teshuva on Yom Kippur, we offer this prayer with a pure soul, a soul cleansed of all its transgressions. The act of waving becomes an aid in bringing the person offering the blessing closer to God.
"Ah ha!" I thought. "Now this has meaning for me and the potential to be a spiritual experience." I mistakenly assumed that since I had found meaning in my understanding of why we do what we do on Sukkot, that the experience of shaking the lulav and saying the blessings in the sukkah would, therefore, be meaningful.
What I didn't realize was that for this to be so for me, for me to experience my sukkot blessings and lulav shaking as meaning-full and spirit-full, I would have to remember all this information and hold the intention of praying with my whole being while I shook the lulav and remember how to shake the lulav and hold the etrog correctly all at the same time. Since I only had the opportunity to perform this ritual once a year, however, I was not very comfortable with the ritual itself. I was eager to fulfill the mitzvah of shaking the lulav, but, once the lulav and etrog were in my hands, I realize I had forgotten exactly the right way to perform this ritual, and the words of the blessing had flown out of my mind.
"How do I say the blessing again?" I asked. "Do I shake this way or that way first?" My rabbi happily guided me through, and as I put the lulav and etrog down, I thought, "There, I did it." However, I walked away feeling that something, again, was missing. I had gone through the actions but they had again been hollow.
This experience stayed with me for a long time, and I remembered it each time I was faced with my daily or weekly empty rituals and practices. Recalling that I had at least found some meaning in knowing why Jews do what we do on Sukkot, I decided to discover the "why" behind some other Jewish practices. And I found that if the "why" of some rituals, such as lighting candles on Shabbat, had personal meaning for me, I was much more inclined to actually follow through with action. Finding meaning in Jewish rituals and practices alone, however, did not foster a personal connection between me and God. It didn't create a spirit-full experience.
So, I added another step. I decided to become so familiar with the "how" of our rituals and ceremonies that I could go through the motions without needing to think about what I was doing. If I could perform them in a rote fashion, I discovered I was free to concentrate on the "why" of what I was doing. At that point, I could think about what I wanted to achieve with my prayers and actions. I could add kavanah (intention), and I could have a personal experience with true meaning. I could feel the depth of the prayers and rituals and have them provide the vehicle for my personal connection to God. The actions began to feel spiritual and the experience began to be spirit-full. At that point, I knew I had found that for which I had searched for so long in my Jewish observance the "something more."
Each year on Sukkot I am reminded of this process, of the steps I need to take to make my rituals and prayers, my Jewish observance, meaning-full and spirit-full. And over the years I have refined and added to these steps. Since I never will have a chance to say the blessing in the sukkah and shake the lulav more than once a year, each year I relearn or deepen my understanding of the "why" and practice the rituals and prayers so I am ready to go into the sukkah with the ability to create a truly meaning-full and spirit-full holiday experience. And each year as I hand the lulav and etrog to someone else, I offer a personal prayer of gratitude for this particular holiday, which showed me how to find personal meaning in my observance and to have that observance forge a personal relationship with God. Indeed, the sukkah, a temporary dwelling place, had provided me with an enduring way to make all my Jewish observances both meaning-full and spirit-full.
Nina Amir, an acclaimed author, journalist, editor, and speaker, focuses her work on Jewish spiritual and mystical subjects. Through her writing and teaching she helps people live their lives fully, manifest their dreams and desires and create meaning-full and spirit-full practices and rituals. Her two most recent book projects are, Setting a Place for God, The Jewish Woman's Guide to Creating Sacred Space and Sanctuaries in Time and Celebrity Nosh! 90 Jewish Celeb's Share the Dish on Their Favorite Recipes. You can contact her by visiting www.purespiritcreations.com.
from the October 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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