Ten-HUT! Standing still on Sukkot

Ten-HUT! Standing still on Sukkot

After the sedentary liturgical experience of the High Holy Days, the more active quality of Sukkot observances is a welcome and refreshing change.  First, we build our succah — a process customarily begun (at least symbolically) the very night Yom Kippur concludes.  We decorate the succah, then we take our daily meals out to be enjoyed in it.  Synagogue worship, too, is rife with physical activity. Each day’s worship includes Hoshanot: we move around the sanctuary (or personal worship space) in procession, holding the lulav and etrog — the “four species” (palm, myrtle, willow, and etrog) which we are commanded to take each and every day of the festival (with the exception of Shabbat). While technically we fulfill the mitzvah of lulav as soon as we pick it up (taking it into hand), it is universally customary to shake (or wave) it vigorously, reflecting the rich kinesthetic traditions of the holiday (see Leviticus 23:40; Berachot 30a; Succah 42b).

Generally, the four species are shaken after reciting the blessing for the mitzvah, and then again during certain verses of the celebratory psalms of Hallel. Common practice is to shake the lulav in six directions. Just as when we are in the succah, thus we surround ourselves with the mitzvah, a reminder of the Divine Presence that ever surrounds and shelters us.

Not surprisingly, traditions vary as to the precise timing and procedure for the shaking, known as na-anu’im.  They vary even within my own household. I follow the procedure prescribed in the Shulchan Aruch (OH 651:10) and repeated in the Mishnah Berurah (OH 651:47): to shake or wave the lulav to the east, south, west, north, and east, up, and finally down, in that order.  Assuming you are facing East (the typical posture of prayer), that means the lulav is waved to the front, to the right side, to the back, to the left, up, and finally down.

The custom of Jerusalem, based on the practice of the great kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (and therefore adopted by those with a more mystical bent), is to wave or shake the lulav to the south, north, east, up, down, and west (again, assuming you are facing east, that means to the right, to the left, to the front, up, down, and to the back.

My wife follows the Lurianic/Jerusalem method. Vive la différence! The order of waving/shaking is a matter of custom (minhag): you fulfill the mitzvah with either procedure.

The custom of stopping the waving, and holding the lulav quite still, whenever intoning God’s name during recitation of Hallel also is universal.  We stand at attention as we invoke God — when we say “Adonai.” I have always found these brief moments of stillness and calm to be among the most meaningful, mindful, inspiring, and wise of the entire Sukkot experience. As much as we welcome the movement and heightened activity of Sukkot, we are reminded by these moments of stillness that it is through precisely such conscientious calm and willful serenity that we are most apt personally to experience the Divine Presence.

Pausing for God’s name during the na-anu’im is a fleeting moment of Sabbath peace in the midst of a frenetic festival.

How many prophets and thinkers and refined souls have learned and shared this lesson!

First, Elijah: “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong storm-wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the storm-wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)

God removes Elijah from his role as prophet for his inability to grasp the value of gentle calm and stillness.  God was not in the storm-wind, nor in the earthquake: nor, Elijah learned the hard way, in his bombastic prophetic pronouncements and persistent professions of zealotry.

“Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley conveyed much the same wisdom: “Uncontrolled, the hunger and thirst after God may become an obstacle, cutting off the soul from what it desires. If a man would travel far along the mystic road, he must learn to desire God intensely but in stillness, passively and yet with all his heart and mind and strength.”

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi similarly observed: “You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.”

So, too, poet Maya Angelou: “In the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.”

It is no coincidence that the spiritual value of calm and stillness finds expression among the very last words of prayer prescribed each day.  In concluding kriyat Shema al ha-mitah (the bedtime recitation of the Shema), we quote Psalm 4:5 — “Stand in awe and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” The verse is customarily repeated three times, lest we miss the point.

This Sukkot — zman simchateinu, “the season of our joy” — by all means find that joy in the building, the decorating, the dining, the marching, the shaking, the waving, and — come Simchat Torah —- the dancing!  But remember to revel in restfulness, to savor the stillness.  This Sukkot, may we cherish the opportunity – even if but for a few fleeting moments – to come to attention, to be vibrantly alive in repose, and, in the quietude, to strive with all our heart and mind and strength to hear the still small voice of God.

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