How Big is Your Brave?

VAYIKRA 22:26-23:44
BAMIDBAR 29:12-16
5 OCTOBER 2017 / 15 TISHREI 5778
With thanks to Sara Barellies: Brave  

How big is your brave? 

We woke to the threat of rain, but it was the morning after Yom Kippur. After full immersion in the spiritual, my wife, Liddy, and I were both ready to take action in physical space. Today, on Sukkot, we read from Vayikra and Bamidbar. Both describe Sukkot observance, and in Bamidbar we hear that we are to live in booths so that we will remember that God brought us out of Egypt. Rain or shine, it was time.

Sukkah time. 

“Rain gear recommended!” I texted our friends.
“And anyway,” Liddy pointed out to me, “the girls learned to ride bikes in the rain. They’ll be fine.” 

The girls. Among our sukkah-building guests this year would be three members of the Karen refugee family we have been mentoring since last March - the mom and the sisters: 13 and 10. Their dad would be sleeping off the night shift. In truth, we don’t know much about them, or about their lives before they arrived in Minnesota. We know their mother lived and ran from war for a couple decades – decades - in Burma and met their father in a refugee camp. We know they lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for another couple decades, and that both girls were born there. A couple decades plus a couple decades. It’s not lost on me that those years add up to about forty. We know they waited ten years to get a refugee-status visa to come to the United States. We know they arrived with no English.

We also know that the girls know all of the sounds of all of the words to “Let it Go!” from Frozen. The younger sister has a thing for Disney princesses. And bugs. The older sister is drawn to purple and music. Put a ribbon stick in her hand and she becomes a dancer. Having never done it before, in less than an hour, both were riding their way through the neighborhood on donated bikes. We know the look of happiness and contentment on their mom’s face when her girls are happy. Baruch HaShem, we’ve seen that look often. 

How big is their brave? Really big. It’s not that I think they are brave because they came to Minnesota. It’s how they are here that is brave. They are open, they soak up new experiences, they reach out, they accept help, they offer help, when they learn a new English word they try it out, and they are so ready for every opportunity to feel joy. 

Obviously, we Jews aren’t the only people who have experienced risk and uncertainty, but risk and uncertainty have been at the heart of Jewish history, and we are implored by our tradition to remember that. Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) taught that our sukkot were to remind us of our past so that, at the very moment we were feeling the greatest satisfaction at living in Israel – at the time of the ingathering of the produce of the land – we would remember that we were once a group of refugees without a home, living in insecurity, never knowing when we would have to move on. Sukkot, taught Rashbam, is integrally connected to the warning Moses gave the Israelites at the end of his life about the danger of security and affluence:

Be careful that you do not forget Adonai your God … Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget Adonai your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery … You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” Deut. 8: 11-17

Perhaps that is why today – on Sukkot - we are again reminded:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. Lev. 23:22

The frame begins in the negative, but turns positive to - “you shall leave them.” Leave them. You might think you need them, but you don’t. Be just. Have faith. Be brave. 

Brave. This whole season takes bravery. We’ve just come through a month and ten days of repenting for our transgressions, for doing teshuvah, for seeking to return to our right path. On Yom Kippur, we temporarily left the material world behind and elevated our body to the place of our soul. Today we bring our newly cleansed and clarified soul back down to where our body usually spends its time. How will we live here as our truest selves? That won’t be easy, but we have our sukkahs to help us. Our sukkah is a place where everything we do from eating and drinking to sleeping and shmoozing becomes elevated and sanctified. We get to transition back into our daily life through the gateway of Sukkot.

And isn’t it remarkable? This holiday during which we build vulnerable, impermanent structures, expose ourselves to the elements, and push our renewed – possibly a little fragile – selves back into the world, is also called zeman simchatenu, our time of joy. 
We challenge ourselves to sit “under the shadow of faith” - the Zohar’s description of the sukkah (Zohar, Emor, 103a), aware of our experience of uncertainty at every level of our existence, and – rejoice. That is spiritual courage. That is some very big brave.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches, “I have often argued that faith is not certainty: faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. That is what Sukkot represents.”

We live in unpredictable times. Lately, life may seem to many of us more unpredictable than ever. What can we do? Just like our Karen friends, we can, and we should, be brave. We can be open, soak up new experiences, reach out, accept help, offer help, when we learn something new put it to good use, and ready ourselves for every opportunity to feel joy and bring joy to others.

Chag Sukkot Sameach!