Road Trip Harvest

Sukkot Drash 5776

הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ

Hazor'im b'dim'ah b'rinah yiktzoru. 

Who sows in tears reaps in joy.

(Psalm 126:5)

Tonight is a night of hallel.

A night of praise, of gratitude. We sit here, in the waning days of Sukkot. It is the time of our harvest, when we gather in all that we've cultivated, all that the weather has allowed, and feel grateful.

And I am feeling singularly grateful tonight and all this week. I just returned from a particularly magical journey. I flew to Chicago the morning after Yom Kippur. There I picked up my mother's car, which has been a subject of speculation since she died. Because everyone wants a car that was only driven by a little old lady going to church on Sundays. In her case it was the diner for breakfast, but the principle holds true. But I have the same blind attachment to that car as I have had to everything in my mother's house, and so, unable to part with it, I decided to bring it back here to California.

So I collected the car in Chicago, and my husband and I set out on a cross-country trek. I've never done this drive before. The northern route, through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, ending up in a Nevada town rather optimistically named Jackpot, and from there home on Wednesday. This trip included two states I'd never set foot in and my first-ever visits to Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands and Yellowstone.

So I am keenly aware of the joy and wealth of new experience that I harvested in this week's yield. New vistas. Discoveries. Good time together. We crossed the Great Plains, reading aloud a cautious and conscious combination of Lakota stories and Willa Cather. We binged on Krista Tippett's "On Being" podcast, getting dewy-eyed at the words of poets and thinkers, finding inspiration at 75 mph.

We were overwhelmed by the sheer force of nature. Big skies. Sudden storms. A night of driving under the chupah of the Milky Way, hundreds of miles from the nearest electric light, with the lunar eclipse unfolding over our left shoulder.

We spent two days in Yellowstone, which I kept calling Yosemite, perhaps because Yosemite has the word Semite in it, although truthfully, Yellowstone sounds much more like a Jewish name, changed from Gelbstein at Ellis Island. Yosemite, sorry, Yellowstone was tremendous. I'd never been around so much geothermal activity, with Old Faithful as the most humdrum of the lot. Pools, geysers, cauldrons, bubbling mud bowls. The sulfur breath of sleeping dragons, snoring under toasted meringue earth. And even in those most forbidding pools of searing, bitter water, there was life. Algae in gold and green and pink, turning the white volcanic ground into delicate Helen Frankenthaler paintings.

I found myself noticing the ways in which culture and nature have interacted. On one extreme was Mt. Rushmore. After a brief moment of excitement at seeing this famous thing that has been on postcards and highway rest stop placemats my whole life, it quickly came to look like a wound, a gouge, on the landscape. Whenever I tried to look at the sweep of the beautiful Black Hills, my eye kept getting drawn inexorably back to the white spot that was Mt. Rushmore, humanity declaring that its ephemeral governments outweigh the enduring hills.

In contrast, Yellowstone seemed to be much more about leaving nature to its own devices while giving us some access to witness it close up. I found myself grateful to the anonymous people who designed and built the network of wheelchair-accessible boardwalks that enable you to wander through this geothermal Eden without damaging it, or without damaging it so much. I appreciated how the designer would have had to be part architect, part educator and part aesthete. I was grateful for the tremendous beauty of this place, and for the opportunity to have, for a few minutes, front row seats.

But enough geology. The wildlife! We saw prairie dog towns. Pronghorns and elk. A single mama bear with her cub. In South Dakota we met feral burros that would crowd around cars and poke their muzzles into the windows in hopes of a junk food fix. We saw thousands of bison, huge and ungainly, their enormous heads the size of a 12-year old, and so much mass resting on their front haunches that their smaller rear limbs started looking to me like training wheels.

My appreciation of nature did not end there, but extended to things I learned about my husband's nature. For instance, that no matter how many herds of bison we had already seen, he will invariably elect to pull over to see the next herd, meeting each wave with equal scrutiny and delight. Similarly, if there is one more geothermal pool, and we have only seen 30 of them, why would we not opt for 31?

It was a wonderful trip. Short and packed. And Sukkot is a great time to be outdoors, and I loved bringing in this experience as the last of my harvest for the year.

Because my harvest contained other stuff as well, not all of it this much fun. It contained important if difficult learnings. For instance, a realization, after 8 years of leading High Holy Days, that the 10 Days of Awe will always, for me, be preceded by the 20 Days of Doubt and the 10 Days of Despair. And this, I finally learned, is my creative landscape, not a deviation from it. A hard learning but, I hope, a good one.

I harvested other important learnings this year, things about parenting, about loss, about second chances and new beginnings. I learned new things about learning itself. My harvest this year included many kinds of fruit. Some tasty and ripe. Some not so much.

But it could have been otherwise. So many others harvested bitter produce this year: loss of loved ones, loss of homes, loss of work, loss of health. We all experienced powerlessness over things happening in our families or communities or elsewhere in the world. And all of those can be bitter things to find growing in our fields.

But here's the thing about harvest: it doesn't all have to taste good, and it doesn't need to be processed all at once. No one reaps a field of grain and turns it into challah the same day. Some things might take years to figure out where they came from and what role they might play. No, the harvests of our lives don't require immediate action; they don't require instant insight. They just demand our consideration, our notice.

That is why this holiday of Sukkot has us move out of our homes and into the fields to live in the flimsiest of structures. So that we can get close to our harvest. Not the labor of it, but the wonder of it. Because good or bad, the harvest is wondrous.

There are very few requirements for how a sukkah may be built. But one requirement is that through the roof we must be able to see stars. And once we know that we are supposed to be able to see stars, how can we resist looking? How can we resist raising our gaze and seeing the vastness?

Seeing stars through the roof is an invitation to what the Kabbalists call mochin d'gadlut, expanded consciousness. We spend our year caught up in all the particulars of our lives. Because our lives require so much attention and action. We describe ourselves as swamped, as trying to keep our heads above water, as buried under a pile of work, as overwhelmed. We constantly describe our vantage point as being smaller than and underneath the facts of our own lives.

But wait - look at the stars! Or the moon in eclipse, hanging brown and bulbous against a wash of galaxy. How can it not bring a kind of hush, a kind of liftoff, an aerial view of our landscape? Looking at our life, even briefly, from above; getting out from under it to breathe the crisp night air above it; to look at it with some distance, some dispassion, some compassion. This is mochin d'gadlut, the spacious mind that Sukkot, that the very architecture of thesukkah, invites us to try out.

From that great height, we can notice how extraordinary our lives are, even in their mundane particulars. We can see the strange bedfellows of joy and sorrow, hardship and jackpot, love and loneliness, sickness and health, challenge and blessing that populate our maps. In mochin d'gadlut we can see how remarkable this life is in all its complexity, and be free, for that moment, from the need to fix a thing.

So while this holiday is still upon us, let us bring in our harvests and see what's there. What will feed us now. What maybe should get canned or milled or pickled and put in the pantry, so that sometime later, at the right moment, we might discover it as the perfect ingredient, the salt or sweet of a future feast.

Chag sameach.