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Sukkot I 5783     October 10, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Sameach

     The founder of the Hasidic movement, The Baal Shem Tov, tells a story that I first heard from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. It is a story about a King who is a master of illusions. He wants to be very close to the people of his kingdom, but more than that, he wants the people of the kingdom to be close to him. So, he devised a plan. He built around himself a great castle-illusion. There were illusory walls and doorways and towers. There were chambers and courtyards and passageways. And in front of each one the king placed illusory treasures of every kind. Bags of money, trips to Florida, and having a beautiful body. Then he proclaimed that throughout the land that he wished to be found. All the people came to the illusory castle but one by one they gave up searching for the king and they settled instead for some illusory treasure. Until, at last, the king’s son came. He saw that it was all an illusion and that his father was in plain view, sitting on a folding chair in the middle of a great open field.

      Rabbi Kushner calls this a strange story and I have to agree. Can we imagine a world where everything is an illusion? As is common in Hasidic stories, the king represents God. That God wants to be close to us and wants us to be close to God. So, God creates this world, but this world is an illusion. All the treasures of this world, all the places of this world, all that we desire in this world, they are all illusions. And we the people give up searching for God because we are happy enough with the illusory treasures. And what makes this even stranger is that what we really are seeking, what will really change our lives, what is most meaningful in this world is not really hidden at all. God is in plain sight, on a folding chair in the middle of a field where we can’t miss him. We just can’t see through the illusions.

     Sukkot is designed to help us see through the illusions. This small congregation today, after the large turnouts we had for Yom Kippur, just a few days ago, represents, I think, those of us who wish to see past the illusions of this world. Everyone wants to change and be a more spiritual and caring person, but many people don’t know where to begin. They can only see a world where the good people come in last. It is a world where the people manipulate the system, take advantage of others, shout the loudest, these are the people who seem to get the rewards of life, the money, the prestige, the rewards that society gives to those who are successful, no matter if they do it honestly or not. I don’t want to denigrate those who play by the rules and are successful in life. These honest people do have a lot of accomplishments that they can be proud of. But in the end, it is all an illusion. We look at all that we have and realize that it has no real meaning at all.

     Sukkot takes us outdoors; it takes us away from our fancy homes, fancy furniture, and fancy lives, and has us sit in a sukkah, a flimsy hut, which does shade us from the sun but has little effect on the wind and rain. Wind blows through the walls and rain drips through the branches on the roof. The late Rabbi Alan Lew, in his book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared” writes, “The forms from which we derive comfort and security may well be an illusion, and may well be a shell that stands between us and our experience. But they are an inescapable illusion, and inevitable shell. Form is an inevitable part of our spiritual landscape. We can’t live apart from it. But once a year, after several months of reconnecting with the emptiness at the core of form, we leave the formal world behind. We sit in a house that is only the idea of a house, a house that calls attention to the illusory nature of all houses. And there is a joy in this, a joy born of the realization that nothing can protect us. Nothing can save us from death, so it is no use defending ourselves. We may as well give up, and there is a wonderful release in this giving up.”

     People always tell me that it is a shame that there are so many Jewish holidays in one month. That in the first three weeks of the year, we have five holidays. When this is all over, we won’t see another Jewish holiday until Hanukah. Why don’t we make things easier and spread all these holidays out?

      These holidays are together because they fit together. Rosh Hashana is the Coronation of God as Ruler of the Universe, the admission that we are not in control of our world at all. On Yom Kippur we rehearse our own death. We don’t eat or drink, we sit in white clothing that is symbolic of the shrouds we place on the dead. We see our lives as leading us astray and pointing us to a meaningless death. And then comes the joy of Sukkot. We did not die after all. We still live. That alone is a reason to be happy. Sukkot is a harvest festival; we celebrate that we have what we need to get through the dark, cold days of winter. We are ready for the famine that will last until spring. This indeed is reason enough for joy at this season of the year.

     The problem is that we are in danger of going back on all that we have learned over the past holidays. We are still not in control of our lives. We still live with the realization that death will someday come for us, and it will come sooner than we want and sooner than we expect. We have come back from the dead and we find that everything is just the same. The forms of our world are still the stuff of illusions. That is not what a near-death experience is all about. Once one has flirted with death, one never can see the world the same way again. Fans of the Harry Potter books understand this. In the world of Harry Potter there are thestrals, invisible horses that pull carriages. The only people who can see them, are those who have watched someone die. Once we have been touched by death we are never the same.

     So. we leave our homes, and go out and build for ourselves, what Rabbi Lew calls, “a house that is only an idea of a house.” Any resemblance is strictly unintentional. We don’t need our homes or our stuff. We have a new appreciation of what life means. We know now that much of our life is an illusion. We see the thestrrals. We see what we never could see before. There is nothing wrong with all the stuff we own. But now we realize that it means far less then we once thought.

     We have a new perspective on what is important. We hug our children and grandchildren more. We see our spouse in a new light. We see friends that we never really realized were real friends and other so-called friends, as just being an illusion.

    But most of all, we find that we can easily experience God; that God is no longer some abstract old man up in heaven. We experience the divine that exists within all things, we see that the entire world is holy. We see that all we might want from life is right in front of us, sitting on a folding chair in the middle of an open field.

     And finally, we experience real joy. It is hard to imagine that joy can come when everything we value has been revealed to be an illusion, but this kind of joy is different. There is a car commercial that I have seen lately that has two beautiful people driving a car through the desert. Suddenly a guy appears in the back seat to tell them that the car they are driving is really rare and it could be worth a lot of money. The actors up front only want to know that if they get a new car, will they still be able to look beautiful? As they get out of the car and look out into the distance, the wind blowing through their hair, the guy from the back seat comes up to them and asks, “What are you looking at?” because there is nothing there to see but sand.

     That is the joy that we are asked to enjoy in the world of commercials. These are the illusory treasures that we take when we give up looking for God. But there is a different kind of joy that is what Sukkot is all about. It is the joy of being out under the stars. It is the joy of being with friends and family as you nurture the relationships that make a difference. Sukkot is about the joy that comes when we know that we are really, truly alive, and God has given us another chance to live. We no longer fear death, we have been there. We now know the real joy of laughter, the joy of peace and the joy of living a life of meaning.

     Sukkot belongs right here on the calendar. We are not asked to look into the sand in the distance, we are called to look up to the stars. We are called to know the real joy that life has to offer. And maybe, maybe, just maybe, we can really change our lives for the better, forever.

     May God help us see past all the illusions of life so we can know the true joy of living as we say, … Amen and Hag Sameach

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