The Wilderness, Part 1

Published in Cairns, religious art journal, 2015


Ancient: Leviticus 23:39, 23:41-43

Spoken Introduction by Rose: “This is a reading from the book of leviticus, which is undoubtedly the least exciting book of the Bible.  If you ever thought, ‘I’ll just read through the whole Bible,’ I bet you stopped in leviticus.  It is the third of the 5 books that make up the Torah, and it comes after Exodus.  This is important because it is in Exodus that the people wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  And in Leviticus, the people have reached home, and God is providing them with laws to reestablish a functioning community.  As I’m sure all you Torah nerds know, God speaks to the people through Moses.

Leviticus 23:39, 23:41-43

Now, the 15th day of the 7th month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall keep the festival of the Lord, lasting seven days; a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the 8th day…you shall live in booths for seven days; all that are the citizens of Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that i made the people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Modern: Sukkot Chag v’Chesed, by Rabbi Noah Kushner

Spoken Introduction by Rose: “This is a special time in the Jewish calendar.  This is the time of the high holidays.  For the last 10 days, the Jewish community has been celebrating Rosh Hashanah, or The Days of Awe. This is a time to seek reconciliation with those that we have wronged, including ourselves.  On the 10th day comes Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, when one gets right with one’s God. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, when one asks for forgiveness for all the wrongs they’ve done. This is a time of deep personal cleansing.  Yom Kippur ended last night at Sunset. And what comes now in the Jewish calendar, but a full week of joy.  Today until thursday, Jewish communities all over the world will be preparing for the festival of Sukkot by building Sukkahs, or booths, in their yards.”

Sukkot Chag v’Chesed, by Rabbi Noah Kushner


Even the opening of an umbrella constitutes the creation of a designed space.  Simple and temporary as it is, an umbrella shelters us from the rain.  And anyone who has been caught without one knows there’s a big difference between being underneath an umbrella and being exposed.

A Sukkah is also designed to be simple and temporary and yet has the power to completely alter the space.  A Sukkah is the outdoor “booth” that we are instructed to build in leviticus, that we live in for the seven days of the festival.  Tradition laws teach us that we cannot just move to an airbnb or a summer house and have it count as our dwelling in a sukkah.  No, the majority of the sukkah has to be built just for the purpose of building Sukkahs, just for those 7 days.  And it must be an open structure: we must be able to see through the roof to the stars overhead.

Why do we live in these temporary, open structures at the very moment when we have already made ourselves so vulnerable during Rosh Hashanah?  It could be that spending day after day outside gives us enough time and space to get perspective.  Without a secure roof over our heads, but surrounded by community, we realize that what protects us and brings us joy is not only reinforced walls, or locks on our doors, but our openness to relationship with each other and God.”

Sukkah decoration made by Rose and her sister-in-law.

Sukkah decoration made by Rose and her sister-in-law.



Once a year, the Jewish calendar rolls around to Sukkot, a holiday about survival.  Sukkot is when you leave your own home, and live in a temporary one for a week, that you built, called a sukkah. But Sukkot isn’t just about surviving the week, it’s about surviving, period.  It’s about surviving the wildernesses that we encounter in our lives.  

Across all of the strains of Judaism, the point of the sukkah remains the same.  As the darkness of night fades away, all that remains are warm glowing faces, lit by candlelight.  When you make a sukkah, you’re not just making a little house in the backyard out of sticks and blankets, you’re building a temporary home like the ones that housed your ancestors as they wandered in the wilderness of Exodus, in search of comfort for 40 years.  And when you sleep in the sukkah, you’re not just camping, you’re remembering that your family slept in temporary homes, building them each night and taking them down in the morning, in a daily pattern of being lost and isolated.  

When you sing the songs in the sukkah, you’re not just having fun, you’re telling a story of oppression: that your very family was taken from their homes and enslaved in a foreign land, and that they had escaped.  And when you’re in the sukkah, you’re not just chillin’, you’re looking into the eyes of the people with you, and saying, if it came down to it, we could survive any wilderness, you and I, together.  

The Exodus story is a story from a different time, with a different people, but we need sukkahs now, because we are in the wilderness, too.  Just like the people in Exodus, we are trying to find comfort, trying to live in a world where we are often lost and isolated, and we, too, are struggling to thrive in a society that is chasmed with iniquity.  

I don’t know if you’ve been to St. Louis, but I know that when I got there, what I saw was a certain kind of hell.  I know this is the wilderness, because people are living in temporary homes, some built each night and taken down come morning.  I know this is the wilderness, because people are wandering through the city, in search of comfort, telling stories and singing songs of oppression.  I know this is the wilderness, because people were taken from their homes and enslaved on foreign soil, and escaped, and are still in the wilderness of north St. Louis.  

But, it is in the wilderness that the Israelites met their God.  For, the Judeo-Christian God is on the side of the meek, the weary, the enslaved, the displaced, the poor.  In these biblical stories, any time that anyone is in the wilderness, God sidles up right alongside.  Moses, Hagar, Jesus: the wilderness is where these people meet God.  It is in the struggle, in the isolation, in the discomfort of it all that God shows up.  

Yes, God was with the Israelites in the wilderness, but! their God did not liberate them.  Even though they must have begged to be liberated, even though they must have cried out to their God for 40 years for their anguish to end, their God did not liberate them.  

Their God did not liberate them because their God was not a liberating God.  Their God was not a God who swooped down and wiped away hardship, because that’s not the nature of things. Because, if God were a liberator, then that would mean that God chose to liberate some and not others.  And any God who liberates some and not others is a God that we don’t want to have anything to do with.  People who are homeless do not just get out of homelessness miraculously, people who are depressed do not just wake up feeling better.  People with illness in their families do not often get that miracle, because, despite how we are thought to think of the Judeo-Christian God, this God is not a liberator in the complete sense.  Thinking of God as a complete and sudden liberation denies the fact that there is a steadfastness with you in the wilderness.

What their God did do, simply, help them survive.  When the people were in the wilderness, their God was with them, every step of the way.  When they cried out, what did their God do, but listen. When their enslavers were pursuing them, what did their God do, but part the oceans “so they could walk on dry ground.”  When they were starving, what did their God do but rain food from the sky.  What did their God do?  Their God sent them little comforts, wood and blankets to make their sukkahs, little respites that could keep them going until they got to where they wanted to be.  Their God became the sukkah each night. For their wilderness journey, and on all wilderness journeys, the nature of God could be nothing more than a temporary home.   

Now, I understand that God can be a complicated character for some of us, but even if we don’t fully agree with this depiction of God, we can use this story to inform our beliefs.  And what we do fully believe, all of us, is that human goodness is a real, and powerful agent in this world.  That there is real power in the hands of our beloved community.  

So what we can take from this story about God, is that we, too, can be like the sukkah.  We can be the little, temporary homes that help people survive.  Notice that I did not say that we can be liberators of other people, but what we can do, is help each other survive.  People are surviving in north St. Louis because they have become the sukkahs for each other.  Just like our churches, which are little, temporary homes, spaces of respite, where we can look into each other’s eyes and say, “I will help you survive.”  Where we say, “I will not blame you for your struggle.”  Where we can say, “I see that you’re not able to flourish because you are oppressed.” Where we can say, “I can’t save you, but what I can do is be alongside of you.”  

And our own souls can be little temporary spaces of respite, little sukkahs in the heart, where another human can take a breath and remember that there is something so sweet and comforting as the love that flows between us.  

I have a memory, of my mother.  We were driving to Kansas, the whole family, to see my grandma. And my mom was having a hard time.  Something was going on at work.  She kept doing this thing with her shoulders where she scrunched them way up and jutted her neck forward as she drove.  I remember I tried to make a joke, and it was like she didn’t ever hear it, which is very unlike her.  She was like this on the first day of driving, and then all through the night at the motel, and then all the next day of driving – she held her body in this terrible position.

We finally got to my grandma’s house, and we went in.  My grandma was behind the kitchen counter, and my mom beelined it for her.  And once she was close enough to her own mother, her whole body relaxed.  She practically melted onto the counter.  She pretty much laid her whole upper body across the surface and reached her arms over her head, and laid there, next to her mom.  I had never seen my mother’s body do this.  Basically, I had never seen her body the way her body is when she needs her mom.  And I understood almost immediately that this was her child body.  She may as well have climbed into my grandma’s lap.  My grandma put a hand on my mother’s back and said, “You’ve been working too hard.”  

This moment stands out to me, because my mom is my home.  So, I had never thought that she would need a home of her own.  And in that moment, I understood just how profoundly we can shelter each other from the wilderness.  We can put a hand on someone else’s back and just say, “You’ve been working too hard.”  We can look into someone’s eyes and say, “What can I do to make this hard time easier for you.”  And it might seem like it doesn’t matter, but it does.  We ought to let ourselves be like those faces in the sukkahs, a warm and glowing face that lets all the shadows of the wilderness fade away, if only for a moment.  We can’t liberate each other, and we can’t solve everyone’s problem.  But we can help each other survive.