This year, as Sukkot rolls around, I’m thinking a lot about what it means to rejoice in our vulnerability. After all, we are commanded to rejoice on Sukkot (Leviticus 23:40)—as we spend time in temporary shelters that may make us feel scared and insecure rather than joyful.
This question takes on particular significance for those of us who have experienced some kind of violation. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, and the routine mini-violations of sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, etc., are all experiences that render our bodies and spirits unduly vulnerable to those who may not have our best interests at heart. For those of us who are just beginning to establish and protect our boundaries after a history of violation, abandoning ourselves to the open air may be the worst possible idea. A blogger on About.com recently described why it might be halachically legitimate for someone recovering from anorexia to refrain from fasting on Yom Kippur. Similarly, I can understand why someone recovering from boundary-related trauma might choose not to spend time in the sukkah.
However, I also think that Sukkot can be an opportunity to experience the act of opening in a safe, boundaried way. For example, consider the commandment to rejoice. As we recall from Tisha B’Av, it adds insult to injury when captors demand that their slaves sing (Psalm 137). Similarly, many of us, especially women, are often pressured to suppress our negative emotions because they are “unbecoming”—i.e., they are inconvenient for those around us. We are asked to distort our own reactions—which are often very central to who we are—in order to gratify others.
The commandment to rejoice can feel like this same type of violation—“Why should I rejoice when I am unhappy?” Those of us who meditate, especially, are likely to chafe under the commandment to feel a certain way, because we’re used to practicing full acceptance of all our emotions—we know from experience that the harder we try to hold onto an emotion, the less likely we are to actually feel it.
In one of the very first posts on the JMC blog, Yael shared the Rumi poem, The Guest House (click here). This is much more consistent with the Sukkot I want to have: a Sukkot in which the temporary dwelling, the guest house, lets everything in and out, and reminds me to let everything in and out as well. Perhaps this openness, this willingness to be with life as it is, in its glorious and painful fullness—perhaps this is the true experience of “rejoicing.”
I wrote more about this topic (and how it pertains to the custom of ushpizin, or inviting ancestral guests into the sukkah) in this week’s Torah Queery on the Jewish Mosaic website—you can check it out by clicking here.
Ri J. Turner is the Operations Manager of Nehirim: GLBT Jewish Culture & Spirituality. Ze is a frequent contributer to Jewish Mosaic’s Torah Queeries, as well as a student in the Kohenet Jewish Priestess program taught by Jill Hammer, Holly Taya Shere, and Shoshana Jedwab.
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