- Rabbi Mordecai Finley Ph.D.
Nature and Spirit: Thoughts on Sukkot
(adapted from 2016)
I am one of those who accepts the idea of “natural religion.” This belief does not mean the worship of the natural world. Scholars use the term to mean that religion grows out of human nature.
There are many people, perhaps you, who feel that life is imbued with the “numinous” – a unique spiritual quality, encountered outside of us or found within us. Sometimes just sitting alone, sometimes in conversation with family or friends: you suddenly feel that the quality of the moment has shifted, almost as if the air pressure has changed.
Much of what we call religion is the coalescing of these moments into communal experiences, then into rituals so that the experience can be relived.
Think of Sukkot, the holiday in which we find ourselves now. Farmland is often found some distance from the hamlet where people lived. Walking back and forth each day to and from these distant fields and orchards during harvest would be unfeasible. Farmers found it more convenient to build a temporary hut, perhaps covered with some of the cuttings found on the ground around that day’s harvest. Some farmers just went to sleep when it got dark. Other lay awake a little while. Perhaps sitting quietly just a bit, overwhelmed with gratitude for a plentiful harvest. Perhaps looking up at the stars through the small gaps of the foliage overhead, and then looking around at the stunning, moonlit beauty of the fields. Looking over at the other huts, housing sleeping family and friends. Sitting there, filled with gratitude and love, and a knowing of the great Presence.
Some people who believe that there is God and who also experience the numinous in deep ways have a natural need to express awe and gratitude toward that experience. Imagine some small hamlet in which those people who experience the numinous know who each other are. They share a longing and a language of wonder, hoping to capture the beauty of those moments in words, poetry, song, music and dance so that the beauty can be re-evoked.
Perhaps the more tactile ones put together a careful assemblage of the local foliage, not as a tool for shaping the world, but as a tool for signifying that Divine Presence. Not everyone understood what those people were saying and doing, but many did.
Natural religion remained as revealed religion entered. Polytheism gave way to monotheism, but the natural human need to experience the Divine does not change.
Sadly, for most of us, the holiday of Sukkot is a residue of times long gone. In order to experience its origins, you have to activate another powerful human tool: the imagination. Whether you do this in a Sukkah or not, consider sitting outside for a bit and gaze at that Harvest Moon (always apparent during Sukkot). Imagine being overwhelmed by the bounty, enjoying the easy company of people sitting around the fire in the midst of the camp.
As you sit outside, contemplate what is inside your abode. Probably way more stuff than you need, but nevertheless, lots of miraculous artifacts. Music collections and musical instruments. Books and photographs. Things that bespeak the love in your life, mementos of places you have been. Try to distill all that largesse into the few things that symbolize more than anything the bounty in your life. Perhaps, in that quiet, you will feel the spirit passing through you.
Perhaps during these days, you can make sure to gather with some family and friends for a festival meal or just a quiet moment in the Sukkah, or maybe you go back inside and just phone, text or video chat with some special people. Create a digital Sukkah.
Contemplating the material bounty and beauty outside of us, the spiritual plenty within us, and the love and generosity of those dear to us, can cause us to ache with the heaviness of the spirit.
Of course, we have to get back to life. The Sukkah comes down. We hope, though, that the pause inside the beauty of that moonlit hut, the numinous will be anchored in our souls.