Reflections on Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah

Maya Zinkow just finished her 13th summer at camp. She spent four years as a Rosh Eidah and is currently in her second year of Rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is spending this year studying in Jerusalem.

Reflections on Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
by Maya Zinkow

This week’s Dvar Torah is dedicated to the campers and staff of URJ Camp Newman, and to my parents, Elka and Misha, whose Jewish camp experience in Northern California inspired my own love of summer camp.

I’m reading the news from the comfort of the סוכה/sukkah I helped build; its nylon walls blowing in the breeze, its wooden frame screwed and zip-tied together, the סכך/schach above me offering a glimpse at the blue above. It is, truthfully, a precarious structure. It is built on the porch of a friend’s apartment, and I nearly fell over the railing as I laid bamboo over wobbling wooden planks last week, just hours before the יום טוב/yom tov began. It was assembled efficiently and will be taken down in the same amount of time. But here, in the midst of סוכות/Sukkot, it offers itself to me as a shield from the fiery realities of today’s headlines.

I woke up to the news that the campus of URJ Camp Newman, the Reform Movement’s camp serving Northern California, was nearly completely destroyed by the wildfires currently raging in the region. When I was born, my father was concluding his tenure as the director of UAHC Camp Swig, another Reform Movement camp that has since closed its gates but whose community was absorbed into the Camp Newman family when its campus was sold. Though my visceral sadness stems from this familial connection I feel toward the Jewish camp community of the Bay Area, there is a sadness and fear I know we all feel at the thought of our own summer home being swiftly taken from us. Our camp community relies on the people and relationships who make it up: first and foremost, thank God no one was hurt.  Once we acknowledge that no human life was damaged at Newman (though that cannot be said for the destruction throughout the region brought by this and other fires), we can accept how valuable we perceive the inanimate objects that make up our camp to be.  The thought of waking up to learn that the physical space of camp – our cabins, our plaques that hang along the בית עם/beit am walls as markers of time, and the glorious natural environment of our Wisconsin Northwoods – had been wiped out by fire is almost too devastating a thought to contemplate. It is a reality our colleagues and the community of Camp Newman are currently facing, and our thoughts and hearts are with them as they mourn this loss.

During the joyous festival of סוכות, we are meant to move our lives outside and surrender ourselves to the fragility of nature. סוכות are at once protective shelters yet totally vulnerable to the elements. There is, however, a catch: if it rains we are no longer obligated to dine or dwell in the סוכה, a rabbinic recognition that nature’s realities might dampen our שמחה/simcha, our joy. This safeguard didn’t stop my siblings and me from layering up to sleep in our family סוכה as children amidst fierce Minnesota sleet, but the message is clear: the moment our joy and contemplation of God’s eternal presence turn to fear and discomfort, we are permitted to seek more permanent shelter elsewhere. Regardless of our dwelling place during these seven days, we are meant to spiritually dwell on the ever-present סוכת שלום/sukkat shalom, shelter of peace, that God provides us. In doing so, we realize that there is nothing under the sun that is truly permanent. Our homes, from Puerto Rico to Florida to Houston to Santa Rosa, can only offer us an illusion of eternal security in the face of nature’s sometimes beautiful and sometimes terrifying power.

As we near the end of סוכות, our hopes for good weather turn to prayers for rain. On Simchat Torah/שמחת תורה in Israel and on Shemini Atzeret/שמיני עצרת in Jewish communities across the world, we will recite תפילת גשם/t’filat geshem, the prayer for rain. I will cry out to God, perhaps louder than I ever have, to bring a rain that might fight the flames raging not only in California, but across our utterly broken and wounded world. In Man is Not Alone, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel comments on the relationship between nature and spirituality, carefully drawing a distinction between human power and human piety:

“In the dimension of the holy the spiritual is a bridge flung across a frightful abyss, while in the realm of nature the spiritual hovers like the wafted clouds, too tenuous to bear man across the abyss…Words do not stem the flood, nor does meditation banish the storm. Prayer never entwines directly with the chain of physical cause and effect; the spiritual does not interfere with the natural order of things. The fact that man with undaunted sincerity pours into prayer the best of his soul springs from the conviction that there is a realm in which the acts of faith are puissant and potent, that there is an order in which things of spirit can be of momentous consequence.”

We’ll pray, not in place of action but in partnership with it. We’ll pray because we need the shelter of tranquil transition before we spring into helping, into offering resources, into making phone calls. We’ll pray because somewhere deep inside, we still believe that our words might touch the Divine ear, the Master of the Universe, the One who commands the wind and brings down heavenly rain. We’ll dwell in the place of prayer even as we are carried into the new beginnings of בראשית/b’reishit, Genesis, perhaps before we are truly ready to start anew.

Sometimes we are blessed to raise funds and to plan, to create new spaces where our children can grow as Jews and as people. We at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin have taken on significant building projects in the last few summers, and in this moment when a fellow camping community is experiencing such devastation to its physical space, not to mention our friends at Camp Ramah in the Rockies who themselves experienced a fire to one of their beloved buildings last summer, we realize that we cannot take our camp facilities and the opportunities to expand and enhance them for granted. More than anything else, the news from California teaches us that it is ultimately the friendships and meaningful relationships that create the space of camp. Our סוכת שלום is built in each other and in the values that hold us together, values of education, social responsibility, מצות/mitzvot, and תורה/Torah.

Before evacuating, the staff of Camp Newman was able to save the ספרי תורה/sifrei Torah that were housed there. No matter what nature brings, no matter if the fires of the world continue to rage or if we are able to contain them with a cleansing rain, we are compelled to roll our scrolls back and continue the story. This שמחת תורה and שמיני עצרת, I will hold the community of Camp Newman in my heart, along with the whole of our vulnerable universe, as I pray for rain beneath the shelter of my טלית/tallit.

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