The View from the Sukkah

Posted on September 29, 2023 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

In his book, Why Religion Matters, Huston Smith, uses a powerful image to describe the importance of religion in human life. “Imagine yourself in a bungalow in North India,” writes Smith. “You are standing before a picture window that commands a breathtaking view of the Himalayan Mountains. What modernity has done, in effect, is to lower the shade of that window to within two inches of its sill. With our eyes angled downward, all that we can see now of the outdoors is the ground on which the bungalow stands. In this analogy, the ground represents the material world,” while Mount Everest is the world of the spirit. We have lost touch with the transcendent, he suggests, not because we have disproved its existence, but because “we have merely lowered our gaze.” (1)

In a review of Smith’s book, the Rev. Wayne Holst sites the interview that Barbara Walters conducted with Monica Lewinsky regarding her affair with President Clinton. In the course of the interview Walters had asked Ms. Lewinsky if she believed that she had sinned. “Lewinsky appeared taken aback,” writes Holst. “She hesitated and then answered, “I’m not very ‘religious.’ I’m more spiritual.”

Reflecting on these two statements, Smith’s and Lewinsky’s, it occurs to me that the problem with lowering the window shade is not just the matter of what we fail to see on the other side. It is also about what we do see. When the shade is pulled down, the window becomes a mirror in which we see only ourselves.

So much of contemporary spirituality is flawed in precisely this way, in my opinion. It is an obsession with the self, with how we feel, that borders on the idolatrous. Lewinsky’s reflection is, admittedly, an extreme example, but not a unique one. A spirituality that admits no sin is one that has no moral compass, no point of gravity, as it were, that defines right and wrong. Religion, especially Judaism, teaches that God is the ground of a universal ethical imperative. Lowering the shade on God’s commanding presence blinds us to the reality that there are ultimate rights and wrongs in the world. Our failure to live by God’s moral law results in sin, no matter how spiritual we may feel.

The Festival of Sukkot, which draws us out of our places of familiarity and comfort to the sukkah, can well be understood as a dramatic exercise in pulling up the window shade. It helps us to lift our gaze beyond the confines of our narrow perspective to see the miracle of God’s presence in the universe and the realities of the world we inhabit.

Dwelling in a fragile hut, exposed to the elements as our ancestors were during their wanderings in the Wilderness of Sinai, is meant to remind us of those who lack the security of a permanent shelter — the hundreds of millions of refugees in our world, and the thousands of homeless people who languish on the streets and in the shelters of our wealthiest cities. Our annual sojourn in the sukkah is intended to move us from the self-centered security of our creature comforts to the higher purpose of comforting God’s creatures who suffer deprivation and displacement.

May our celebration of sukkot renew our vision of the world that God created and our place in it. May it remind us of our fragility and elevate our sensitivity to those who are most exposed and vulnerable. And may it inspire us to tap the wellsprings of our compassion to bring healing to the broken and succor to the needy.

Chag sameach and Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck