Impermanence As A Foundation of Gratitude

Our sages teach: Who is rich? One who rejoices in their portion. (Mishnah Avot 4:1) We all have so much to be grateful for. And many of us intentionally practice gratitude by keeping our attention on the blessings we do have, instead of focusing on what is missing. For me, the difficulty in staying present with the blessings in my life comes when my hopes or expectations for a certain reality to exist dissolve or are shattered. In the moments of loss – whether for a hoped for outcome, or a certain image of myself, or an important relationship – it can be difficult to keep my attention on the good when grief and disappointment dominate the scene.

The holiday of Sukkot comes to teach us how to live with gratitude and loss, and to find joy in the tension between the two. And it brings this tension forward in the two different ways the Torah presents the holiday. On one hand, the Torah brings Sukkot to us as a harvest festival – a Hag HaAsif – A Holiday of Ingathering. As it says in Deuteronomy 16:13: After the gathering from your threshing floor and your wine-press, you shall hold the Feast of Booths for seven days. One of the reasons why our schach – the roof of our Sukkah (or our ‘Booth’ or temporary dwelling) needs to be made of organic material and we decorate the Sukkah with fruits and gourds is because it reflects the bounty of the earth. Dwelling in our Sukkah for seven days amongst our harvest tunes us in to what the blessings we have – it tunes us in to gratitude. And at the same time, the schach – the organic roof material needs to be dead, and in a process of decay. According to Jewish law, it is not permissible to have a sukkah with the roof of a live tree or bush that is rooted in the ground. Even as we are grateful for our bounty, we need to see around us in a very concrete way that it will not last. The cut flowers are enjoyed for a limited time. The ripe fruit has its moment for enjoyment and then it begins to rot. Life is impermanent – not only is it always changing, but it is always in a state of death and decay. We can never get back yesterday. Loss is always present.

While the Torah presents this agricultural theme of Sukkot as universal – all people share in the harvest, it also is a reminder of the unique journey of the Jewish people. In Leviticus 23:42-43, the Torah says: All Israelites shall dwell in sukkot, in order that future generations will know that I had the Jewish people dwell in Sukkot when I took them out from Egypt. I, the EverPresent, your God. Sukkot becomes the dwelling place of the wandering Jews, who on their journey from slavery to the promised land can only depend on God for their survival. They don’t own land, they don’t own anything that can provide security and certainty. We rely on many external elements to give us a belief in security and certainty. Our homes, our bank accounts, our loved ones all give a sense of rootedness in the world. And then, when life tragedy strikes – we lose a job, a loved one, or discover an illness, we are left rudderless, afloat, with little direction. Sukkot comes to remind us that even with our sense of ownership – that we have things that will keep us safe, we are all wandering like the Jews in the desert where anything can change, where anything can die, where we can lose it all, and behind the illusion of ever-changing forms, there is always the Divine Presence. Where this presentation of Sukkot starts with change and loss – wandering in the desert with nothing, its message is that through it all, we are always held by Divine Care and Presence.

Remember the long way that the EverPresent God made you travel in the desert these past forty years…The clothes you wore did not wear out, nor did your feet swell these forty years…beware, lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the EverPresent God who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible desert with its snakes and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from a flinty rock and who fed you manna in the desert. (Deut. 8:2-4, 14-15)

Being able to embrace the awareness of impermanence – that everything changes, that everything passes is the key to keeping our attention on the blessings that are always present. Yes, sadness and grief will be a part of our experience. It hurts to lose something or someone that we have held tightly. When we can embrace the reality of change – of death and decay, we will still feel the sadness of loss, but we will not be consumed by it. We will not be trying to recreate what we once had with a person or a situation. We will not live in the past and constantly attempt to bring the past into the present. Instead, even as we grieve, we will open to the new moment, to the new blessing, to the EverPresent One who shines through it all.

On the holiday of Sukkot, we take up the four species – plants from the Land of Israel and shake them in all directions on each day of Sukkot (except Shabbat). What all these plants have in common is various degrees of life-giving water. The etrog (citron fruit) needs a lot of water to grow, but then stays fresh for a long time. The hadas (myrtle) stays beautiful and fresh throughout the festival not because it needs a lot of water, but because it holds a lot of water. The tamar – the date palm branch needs very little water to grow, but is very sturdy. And finally the aravah – the willow grows near a river and holds very little water, so it wilts easily throughout the holiday. We will encounter various degrees of “water” of life giving energy, of Torah, in everything in life. Sometimes it will be full, juicy, and beautiful, like the etrog, and sometimes we will encounter situations and people who hold very little water, like the aravah – the willow. We shake all of the species together to affirm the presence of water in all of them. In every person and in every situation, there is the life-giving Godly spark, there is Torah, if we are willing to be present to them.

4 thoughts on “Impermanence As A Foundation of Gratitude”

  1. Beautiful. We just lost a courageous man who faced enormous physical challenges and built a life based on community and family. This article came at just the right time.

  2. Kavod, This is a beautiful piece and meaningful to me. Thank you for your insight. I will share this with friends whose sukkah brings me such joy every year. Also with Lara.
    Wishing you Chag Sukkot Sameach, Caryn Huberman

  3. What a beautiful, spiritual message! How and I read it together and we marvel at your deep faith! Recognizing that all is impermanent allows us to better accept all that happens. You are masterful with your words. You also are learned and caring. A great combination for a rabbi❤️

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