Feasts, Fasts & Fragility

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                                  And they found written in the Torah which the L-rd had commanded by Moses, that the Children of Israel should dwell in sukkot in the feast of the seventh month. And that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying, Go forth unto the mountain and fetch olive branches, and willow and myrtle and palm branches, and branches of thick trees to make sukkot, as it is written. So the people went forth and brought them, and made themselves sukkot, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the Temple, and in the street of the Water Gate, and in the street of the Gate of Ephraim. And all of the congregation of the people that had come out of captivity made sukkot, and sat under their sukkot: for since the days of Joshua son of Nun, unto that day had not the Children of Israel done so. And there was very great         gladness.                                                                                                                           -Nehemiah 8:14-17

 

As I write this, we are at the end of the great fall feasts of Rosh HaShonnah (the Hebrew New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Sukkot (the seven day autumn ingathering of crops – and peoples), Shemeni Atzeret (the time of rejoicing and praise) and Simkhat Torah (when the scrolls of the first five books of the Bible are completed and rolled back to The Beginning). It’s an emotional rollercoaster of personal introspection on how we lived our lives the past year. It’s a time of repentance and forgiveness – both spiritual and personal. It’s a time of great beauty as we bring in the fall harvest and decorate our little huts, sukkot, and live in them for a week. It’s a time of great rejoicing in the miracles of the past and present and the hope of the future. A time where we place our lives in the hands of the Almighty. A time when we realize (between all the feasting and all the fasting) the absolute fragility of our lives here on Earth.

Rosh HaShonnah was filled with joy for us. As usual, we spent the days prior receiving calls and well-wishes from and making calls to friends to extend greetings for the New Year. My synagogue attendance this year was way different than any other I’d experienced before. I didn’t want to leave my husband for too long, as he had just come home from the hospital the day before, so I attended services at the Mizrachi (those Jews from the Middle Eastern countries)/Moroccan shule down the street. Their liturgy was completely unfamiliar to me. Way different than the Ahskenaz/European style I was used to. Yes, I could follow along in Hebrew in the prayerbook, but all the chants were with different tunes. Many of the prayers were different, more upbeat, some prayers completely absent, many new (for me) additions. The worship (still segregated by sexes) was much more out in the open, with arms raised hands extended upwards; bowing and prostration; general exuberance. Obviously, I was out of my element, something I’ve grown used to since moving here – but all the women were more than glad to help me find my place and understand the rubrics – even without having to ask. Perhaps they spotted the confused looks on my face? The closest comparison I can make is this: a traditional Roman Catholic walks into a Greek Orthodox basilica…

The Day of Atonement is the one day in Israel where absolutely EVERYTHING comes to an abrupt and screeching standstill. The morning before, all the radio stations begin to play soft, introspective music. Songs of healing from past mistakes and songs of love and forgiveness (not necessarily Hebrew or religious) play quietly. By 3 pm the radio stations stop their programming  for the next 30 hours. Same for the television stations – unless there is a national emergency. All transportation stops and major roads and highways are blocked off and shut down. Even the airports close for Yom Kippur!

In the morning, it is just the sound of birds. Absolutely no noise. It seemed that even the neighbors’ voices and footsteps of people walking to synagogue are muffled on this holy day. So much peace!!!! No loud jackhammers or low, rumbling busses and trucks. No jet planes racing through the skies. Just silence. Glorious silence.

Yom Kippur was more of the same for me: paddling rather happily through unfamiliar waters with lots of help and encouragement from the ladies at the Mizrachi/Moroccan synagogue. It gave me time for introspection and comparison: these services represented my past year. My own personal health problems had been put temporarily on the back burner as we dealt with the triage mess of my son’s Crohn’s Disease and my husband’s cancer journey. We have navigated the murky waters of a healthcare system that is new to us. Paperwork. Bureaucracy. Doctors. Appointments. Social Services. Hospitals. Treatments. Surgery. Home care.  Old friends and family members have fallen away rather unexpectedly. New friends have been at our side to help us understand and cope with our situation every step of the way. There were those people who did not know what to say or do; even we had no words at times. It was always awkward. Yet we put our hope and trust and faith – all our anxieties and questions – into the hands of G-d. These were some of the things I meditated on during Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur here literally ends with a bang. Loud banging, to be exact. People come home from a long day of fasting, grab a bite to eat at home or at a community break-fast, and then grab their hammers and the banging starts. Until wee hours of the night, families are busy constructing their little huts, sukkot, in which they will eat, sleep and play for the next seven days. They appear in backyards, on balconies, in alleyways and streets. Restaurants build sukkot outside their establishments. Hotels have giant ones, big enough to hold tables for all their guests. It really is a sight to behold! My favorite this year, was the one erected at a bus stop.

During Sukkot, we remember the time immediately after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt; the miraculous eradication of Pharoah’s pursuing forces as they were swallowed by the Sea of Reeds; and the tremendous defeat of the Amelekites – after all these miraculous victories – we found ourselves in the middle of the desert, dependent upon G-d for absolutely everything. For water (the Almighty provided water flowing from dry rocks and Miriam’s miraculous wells). For food (He gave us quail and manna in the wilderness). For protection (He saved us from the hands of all our enemies). For a way to live (He gave us His Law). For direction (the Pillar of Smoke and Cloud of Fire to lead us).

We celebrate this festival not during springtime, when the horrible, unpredictable winter weather is over and the days are sunny, but at the beginning of fall. It is a time of complete unpredictability of climate. In Southern California, we used to joke that the only thing that was predictable was the Santa Ana Winds and subsequent brushfires blowing and choking us out of our little booths. Here in Israel, it marks the beginning of the fall winds and rains. Just as we finish putting up our sukkah decorations and have one or two glorious meals in our tabernacles, the world turns upside down almost literally.

This year, Max erected our sukkah solo. It was a rite of passage. He had helped his dad every year, but this year, he built it on his own. We were all quite proud of the accomplishment. I, once again, decorated in grand style, hanging my Leat Silvera Sukkah Walls (visit her awesome website!!!) and silk curtains… hand blown glass fruit and veggie ornaments  dropping down from the rattan roof/skakh. The table was set, fresh pumpkins and pomegranates adorning the table. The twinkle lights were up with additional hanging lights… my hand-tied vine wreaths adorned with willow and olive branches with added votive candles and silk ribbons. A couple good friends brought food and wine and we feasted the first night away- despite the oppressive heat wave we were having.

Early morning of Day Two, we packed John into the back seat and headed down to Sheba for our follow-up appointments with the doctors and nurses. Great news: the surgeon thinks he got most/all of the cancer and there was no apparent metastasis. Yay!!!! Way to go, Dr. Haikin!!! Way to go, G-d!!!! However, he will have to undergo another round of chemo and further testing. Just to be safe. Our bodies are so fragile. How much more can they withstand???? After a very long day, we packed John back into the backseat for the drive home. Stopping along the way, the hot, sunny day suddenly changed and it seemed the gates of heaven had re-opened. Lightning ripped through the sky and the winds began to blow. There was a huge drop in temperature and big raindrops started hitting our windshield. The sidewalks were awash in puddles and a small amount of flooding ran down the streets.

By the time we got home, dusk was upon us. The storm had passed, for the most part, but the closer we got to our neighborhood, the more downed branches and parts of disassembled sukkot we dodged that were lying in the streets. The main entrance to our neighborhood was blocked by police cars and a downed tree. Neighbors were milling about in the street. The power to our street and the one below ours was completely out. According to the policeman who lives next door, the winds rushed through the wadi (huge gorge/ravine) below us – we live on the side of a mountain – that it created a vortex. A small cyclone (he actually used the word tornado) had skirted long the side of our mountain. A tree had fallen across a power line. Neighbors’ roofs were torn off or badly damaged. People lost satellite dishes and rooftop water heaters. We did a cursory check of our house. Our patio furniture on the balcony was strewn all over the place and jettisoned below. There were lots of tree limbs scattered everywhere, and, of course our sukkah was ashambles. Thank goodness Max had the foresight to fasten it down and to the sides of the house or it would have been a total loss! We were blessed. Without power for 3-4 hours until well after dark, but all was intact.

The next morning, I went downstairs to inspect…. and spent the entire day cleaning up a few broken items, and mopping up the dust that had settled deeply into even crevice. But we were blessed. Neighbors told us they felt their whole houses shaking and the noise was so strong several people thought it was an IDF jet in severe distress. It had all sprung up and happened so quickly. And there was substantial damage – but not unfixable – on our street.

All I know is this yearly reminder of the frailty of life (see my past blogpost last year, Frailty) continues to be made present wherever we go. Our sukkot blow away. Our bodies, our lives are temporary, sometimes they fail mid-use. But just as the Shekinah, the glory and promise of G-d physically dwelled with the Children of Israel in the midst of the wilderness, the Shekinah can dwell within us in our fragile sukkot. That Spirit can be still and small or manifest in the strongest ways. It’s up to us to seek it out, to allow it to shine in all its glory as a light to a hurting world.

I want to take this opportunity to express our gratitude and love to those who have showed us tremendous support: my husband’s friends from work have been (amazingly) with us to bolster him with encouragement when we most needed and least expected it. To all the folks back home who sent letters and cards. It’s nice to know there are praying people out there lifting us up as we pray for them. Thank you to Gino, Della, Angelique, Roland, Tsippy, Josh, my old rabbis, Bill, Mike, Lee… for the emails and calls. To Marc and Carolyn for all their help, especially with Haggis. To Sinead and Giacomo for their daily calls and offers of help. To Carola, my peerless prayer partner and Torah Talk sister. And Yolanda, who’s been there like me – for her prayers and advice and my midnight phone calls. For Judy, a continual source of inspiration and strength in impossible times when it looks bleakest – your smile and words – what can I say? For Paula, always ready to put down her busy schedule to help us. For Gabi, who helped us with translations….endless translations. To Efrat and Hanan, our protectzia in more ways than one. And to my dear friend, Galit, always there to provide information on navigating the system, for the latest on medical research, for translation, for constant prayer, and for lending an ear to my whining. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And to anyone else I missed. Our special angels. We appreciate all your care and concern.

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