You can picture the daily scene: A father yells in anger as his daughter comes home in the middle of the night, after hours of drinking. The entire household touched by her alcoholism, they begin to isolate from some friends, tell protective lies to other friends, and close down emotionally to one another.
Until one day, something is triggered, perhaps she hits rock-bottom. It becomes clear that they cannot continue on this path. That night, upon hearing his daughter approach the front stoop, he turns the handle of the door and opens it, this time in silence. By opening the door in a new way, something becomes unlocked with each of them. This father and daughter decide that real repair will demand a painful exploration into the brokenness that exists in their family (story adapted from Recovery from Codependence: A Jewish Twelve Steps Guide to Healing Your Soul, by Rabbi Kerry Olitsky).
Since last year, when in my Yom Kippur sermon I shared illustration above, I have heard from more congregants about their personal experiences. I always feel honored when congregants entrust me with their story, and that is particularly true when I hear from people who are struggling. A considerable number of congregants are dealing with addiction, are in recovery, are supporting loved ones in recovery or are mourning a loss of someone who did not survive an addiction.
Whether or not you are directly linked to addiction, the lessons of recovery offer a powerful message for all of us moving through the Days of Awe. Recovery, much like repentance, embraces the notion that we can change the course of our own lives. The 12-Step Program includes the examination of past deeds, making amends, and making a searching and fearless moral inventory. Recovery sounds a lot like Yom Kippur.
Yet the power of the metaphor does not end with Yom Kippur. What is the very first mitzvah enjoined upon us, following the conclusion of Yom Kippur (after breakfast, of course!)? We hammer the first nail into the sukkah! Beginning just four days later, the festival of Sukkot extends for us the messages of recovery in particular, and of vulnerability in general.
Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, explores the meaning of the sukkah in his book This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, which we are drawing from in our RS Jewish Meditation (Fridays at 5pm). Rabbi Lew explains: the sukkah is not a house; it is a bare outline of a house. “The sukkah, with its broken lines, its open roof, its walls that don’t quite surround us, calls the idea of the house to mind more forcefully than a house itself might do. And it exposes the idea of a house as an illusion. The idea of a house is that it gives us security, shelter, haven from the storm. But no house can really offer us this.” With the sukkah, we don’t just contemplate our vulnerability, we physically experience it. Its message is clear: no architecture can protect us from disorder, struggle and fragility. No shell can shield us from our truth. Much like recovery demand one make a searching and fearless moral inventory, the open sukkah urges us to boldly move past illusions.
When we behold the sight of the sukkah, we are to internalize the insistent message of tradition: there is no escaping the fragility of life. That is why, beautiful though it may have been, the indoor sukkah on our sanctuary’s bimah could not capture the essence Sukkot. We are thrilled now, to have an outdoor sukkah that helps us to fulfill the mitzvah and the spirit of the custom. I am so grateful to the Men of RS for helping us to experience both nature and fragility in the symbol of our sukkah!
As for the fragility we experience every day of the year, our congregation seeks to offer support. Under the leadership of Julie Wolman, our evolving Caring Community continues to find ways to support and nourish congregants who face health challenges or loneliness, and understands that each of us will at times, find ourselves in that position of vulnerability. For congregants who are parents of children struggling with addiction or recovery, we plan to offer a new opportunity. Twice a month RS will host a support group for parents, RS member or not, Jewish or not. The group will be informed by the wisdom of the well-established Caron Treatment Center. Please contact me if you are interested.
Many thanks for Robert Fiebach and to Emma Fiebach for sharing their moving articles and helping us to mark September as Recovery Awareness Month. This year, when building the sukkah, I will be inspired not only by the notion of life’s fragility but also of Emma’s brave message about building and rebuilding. Many thanks to Lee Herman, Betsy and Bob Fiebach for taking leadership in our congregation’s efforts to support our members.