As we began our evening prayers last night to open the festival of Sukkot, others came into the building for a meeting of their own.
For the better part of the last two years, we've hosted two different AA meetings--one that meets one evening a week and the other that meets on Fridays at noon. Since my years at the Bronfman Center at NYU, where one day I was approached by the campus AA liaison asking for use of space for a meeting, I have seen it as a personal commitment, like many leaders of religious institutions, to offer support to those in the community who struggle with addiction. It's important for many reasons, but most significant to me is that to one degree or another, each of us struggles with aspects of our personality or psychology or physiognomy that are hard to overcome. Addiction should be no different--God knows, there's enough shame attached to it already.
My own mind focused on the spiritual meaning of the Sukkah--its historic relevance--remembering the Exodus from Egypt and the Harvest Festival of Ancient Israel; its religious message--to serve God with joy and gratitude for the bounty of nature; and its spiritual message--that shelter and protection, fragile and temporary as they may in reality be, are blessings. And I thought of the varieties of ways that the synagogue is the seeking center for so many different people, in search of so many different things, I thought of the Temple in ancient Jerusalem, where pilgrims would ascend the steps on the Southern Wall as they prepared to enter into the courts of the most sacred place for Jews.
We prayerful supplicants were in the first floor chapel, inaugurating the season with song and melodies both ancient and new; and others entered our gates, ascended stairs to an upper floor, and also found strength in the idea that the whole is not only greater but stronger than the parts.
When I was in the bookstore on Sunday looking for a tallit for the kid's bat mitzvah, I bought Abraham Twerski's new book, A Formula for Proper Living: Practical Lessons from Life and Torah. Besides descending from a Milwaukee rabbinic dynasty, Twerski has been a path-breaking leader in melding rabbinic and medical practice in the aid of addiction, founding the Gateway Rehab Center, an important "shelter" or sukkah, for those in need of it.
The power of ritual--meetings or minyans--to create structure to face oneself and steadily, over time, to improve oneself, is a great gift. After all, it's not like a couple days of Rosh Hashanah and one day of fasting on Yom Kippur can wipe the slate clean for the year. So this week, when you pick up that lulav to shake, challenge yourself to think about what you really want to shake off and get rid of. Think about how spiritually you do need to engage your body in the act of bringing about the change you need--whether your body gets you to the gym or pool or the meeting or shul. Mindfully embrace the ritual not as a one time thing but as something you realize, deep in your heart, that you have to commit to, day after day after day. The sukkah is the sheltering structure that can symbolize that idea. You have to build it in order to inhabit its sacred space.