Eden Inside

(reposted from Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin's blog dated Oct. 4, 2012: http://blog.bjen.org/)

If ever there were an opposite of Eden it would be the Wilderness – the desert of Sinai.

Eden is a world of lush greenery, radical abundance, food for the picking, a thousand-fold return for a modicum of work, good weather, beauty all around, unity of body and spirit in a bounded place.

Wilderness is barren landscape, scratchings of life, threat of hunger and thirst, soil that will not yield even with the greatest of toil, the fearsome vulnerability of boundlessness and exposure.

Yet all is not well in Eden and all is not bleak in the wilderness. For despite all the beauty and ease of Eden, it must have been a rather boring place. All was given – there was little to do beyond a bit of gardening. There were no questions for there was no questioning; no curiosity for there was no mystery. Ease yielded dullness. Which is why it couldn't last. In an endless world of boredom and dullness, life equals death. No wonder the snake, the slithering symbol of curiosity and knowledge, finally won the day.

Beyond Eden, though, is Wilderness. It demands alertness, creativity, living on the edge of survival and celebrating every success. It means struggle and disagreement, threats and vulnerability. But it just those things that yield the greatest rewards of vibrancy, achievement, pride in work and a sense of purpose.

So, the Torah tells us, humanity traded givenness and security for discovery and striving.

Still, trading ease for imagination and safety for exposure is not the kind of bargain most of us would choose. Which is where Sukkot comes in, mediating between these two extremes.

Wouldn't it be grand if there could be a melding of Eden and Wilderness: a bungee cord of sorts that holds us and retrieves us when we venture too far; a safety net that catches us when we fly too high; a pliable, porous spiritual skin that stretches as we grow, allowing us to touch and experience the world beyond ourselves without losing our own boundaries and the integrity that defines us.

Such is the symbol and meaning of the Sukkah.

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come;" Leviticus 23 tells us. "Celebrate it in the seventh month.Live in booths for seven days: All citizens in Israel are to live in such shelters so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

Rabbinic tradition tells us that it doesn't matter what the sides of the sukkah are made of. They can be wood or stone, woven grass or the side of an elephant. For any and all of those represent the true walls, the walls of peace, the wings of God, the cloud of glory, that surround and protect us as we make our way through the wilderness of life.

The sukkah reminds us that though we cannot still be in Eden, Eden in some sense can still be with us. We cannot and will not give up the vulnerability of a vibrant, questing life, but, Sukkot wants to teach us, God's presence will wrap itself around us to escort us as we wander in the wilderness beyond. No wonder one of the main traditions of Sukkot is the mitzvah of hospitality. Included in this divine, mobile embrace are our ancestors, our tradition, our family, our friends. We do not travel through life alone.

Still, the sukkah is not impregnable. It is not bullet-proof or weather-proof or pain-proof. It is not all ease and abundance. It is, in short, not Eden. But it is the next best thing: a buffer that helps blunt the worst we must weather, a comforting cloak that envelops us as we move. And while we are asked to dwell in it only seven days, its presence travels with us wherever we go.

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