Way back in July 1990, when my daughter Katie was two years old, Ellen turned to our little girl and said, "Tell Daddy something he doesn't know." Katie whispered, smiling shyly, "Today is Mommy's birthday." Can you say doghouse?
While I've never been quite so absent-minded as Professor Brainard (in Flubber and The Absent-Minded Professor), I have been known to get involved in the "importance" of my work and miss the importance of my marriage. Lucky for me, part of Ellen's portfolio is "angelic, forgiving spirit."
As she and I now approach our thirtieth anniversary, I very willingly proclaim to the world my exceptionally good fortune at having been selected by her for salvation and grace those many years ago. And despite my worst efforts, she continues to insist that I remain in her life.
Ray LaMontagne, whose music has been heard in Rescue Me, The Devil Wears Prada, and Grey's Anatomy, sings, "I tell you what we're gonna do. You will shelter me, my love. I will shelter you." That, I believe, is an enormous part of what marriage is-shelter. So when I read this week's parashah, Emor, and encountered the passage on the celebration of Sukkot, marriage came to mind.
In Leviticus 23:39-41, God commands the Israelites to observe Sukkot by taking up the lulav and rejoicing. Then, in verses 42-43 we read: "You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God."
Through the centuries, our rabbis have been intrigued by the phrase, "I made the Israelite people live in booths." In the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 11b), we learn that while Rabbi Akiva understood the sukkot to be the shelters built by the Israelites in the desert, Rabbi Eliezer believed they were Clouds of Glory- the pillars of cloud and fire that appeared above the Mishkan during the desert wanderings, guiding the Israelites and affording them protection. Rashi sides with Rabbi Eliezer: "The Clouds of Glory are more likely deserving of commemoration than the booths in which the Israelites dwelled during their sojourn in the desert" (Rashi on Leviticus 23:42).
While I understand Rashi's having chosen Rabbi Eliezer's supernatural interpretation over Rabbi Akiva's natural one, I can't help but wonder where God's Glory was really found? Was it In the awe-inspiring pillar of cloud? Or was it in the humble sukkot, a community built by slaves fleeing into a desert?
The way I figure it, God can whip up a pillar of cloud or fire any ol' time. But people building community? Looking after each other, tending to their sick, sharing their meager resources to protect one another from the harshness of life in the desert? If we're seeking God's Presence in our world, we need look no further than men and women seeing to one another's welfare.
The desert is all around us, all the time. Its shifting, sweltering sands are never far from our doors, and a sandstorm can engulf us at any moment. The purpose of life is to hold the desert at bay-to build sukkot that will provide us with sanctuary and permit us sufficient safety so that we can rest, even learn and grow, hold one another and love, despite the harshness in the world.
Sukkot-our booths of refuge-abound. Everywhere we look, we see people laboring to protect life from harm and to make it joyful. These are the sukkot we build: security, nourishment, comfort, education, exercise, social enjoyment, and social change. When we provide these, for ourselves and for others, we build sukkot that are "deserving of commemoration."
No sukkah offers greater protection than marriage against the vicissitudes that threaten our well-being. "Marriage joins two people in a sacred bond. It demands that they make an exclusive commitment to one another and thereby takes two discrete individuals and turns them into kin. Few of us work as hard at the vocation of marriage as we should. But marriage makes us better than we deserve to be. Even in the chores of daily life, married couples find themselves, over the years, coming closer together, fusing into one flesh. Married people who remain committed to each other find that they reorganize and deepen each other's lives. They may eventually come to the point when they can say to each other: 'Love you? I am you!'" (David Brooks, "The Power of Marriage," The New York Times, November 22, 2003).
Now that's a sukkah!
But there's a reason we marry beneath a chuppah, which is not at all unlike a sukkah. The chuppah symbolizes the home, the shelter and refuge that is created by the bond of love and the goodnesses we selflessly give to one another because of that love. But the chuppah is fragile, and so is marriage. It needs to be cared for.
There isn't room here to explore the many ways in which marriage can be nurtured and watched over, so I encourage you to read Dr. John Jacobs' "Seven Lies about Marriage."1That's a great place to begin tending to the well-being of your own sukkah. The desert is a tough place to live; it's an honorable deed to ask others for help.
A couple, married for many years, had weathered some stormy times, but had now come to their worst blowup ever. One partner got so mad, she pulled her suitcase out of the bedroom closet and started packing. "What are you doing?" the other demanded. "I'm leaving!" Without a word, he too took out a suitcase and began filling it with clothes. Confused, she asked, "Where are you going?" To which he replied, "If you're leaving, I'm going with you!"
"I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt," and I've been helping them to build strong, sheltering sukkot ever since. May it ever be so for ourselves and those we love.
- See John W. Jacobs, M.D., "Seven Lies about Marriage," excerpted from All You Need Is Love and Other Lies about Marriage (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004) at iVillage Special Offers
Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.
Earlier in this parashah, the Torah describes who is excluded from serving as a priest and offering "the food of his God" because of physical disabilities (Leviticus 21:17-21). This troubling passage makes the image of the sukkah all the more poignant: the sheltering of each Israelite in a sukkah, deserving of protection and safety, is contrasted with the exclusion of those who are different.
Rabbi Dreskin helps us understand the sukkah through the institution of marriage as a way to shelter ourselves and one another against all life brings. When we think of the sukkah as our booth of refuge, we envision a space where we are safe, welcomed, and free to joyfully celebrate. While we have a responsibility to tend to the well-being of our sukkot, particularly when it comes to the well-being of our marriages, the same is true for tending the sukkot of our families, our friendships, and our community.
Today we hear plenty in the news about civil marriage still being narrowly defined and limited. How wonderful would it be to live in a world in which all couples and families enjoy the right to civil marriage without question! As Jews, when we think about these sukkot, dwelling spaces where we care for one another, we have an opportunity to think about those who feel excluded or less welcomed. We as a Jewish community can help bring the sukkah of marriage, the spaces where we are protected and joyful, to all who desire it. Instead of allowing some to be excluded from the sacred, may we seek to include and welcome.
Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus is an associate rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Emor, Leviticus 21:1–24:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 912–938; Revised Edition, pp. 817–845;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 723–746"