Friday, October 02, 2009

Holiness and the Temporary

The festival of Sukkot (or, the Feast of Tabernacles) begins tonight at sundown. The holiday marks the 40-yr period during which Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert before entering the Promised Land. For this reason, the idea of temporary dwellings becomes literal, and a family will build a Sukkah in which to reside--or at least eat meals--during the holiday.

The prayer that is said over meals eaten in the Sukkah--Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu leisheiv basukkah--is translated as "Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who enriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to dwell in the sukkah."

There is holiness in the temporary.

But there is also something magical about the temporary. At least, there was when we were children. How many times have we observed young children building tents in their bedrooms out of blankets and comforters, laughing with delight as they then crawl into their own magical spaces? I remember how my younger brothers used to build "forts" in their bedrooms or outside in the backyard. These spaces were small and temporary, but they were special.

And I also remember how, many years ago, I taught a Sunday school class of 30 6-year-old children, and during the holiday I helped them build a Sukkah in our already crowded classroom. The children, who moments before had been out of control--and who, the week before, had turned their Torah scroll crafts into swords with which they would demolish each other--seemed to somehow sense the special-ness, the holiness, of the temporary space, and immediately became quiet, looks of awe on their little faces. (Then again, I was probably the only Sunday school teacher in the history of that church to sneakily teach the little Christian children to build a Sukkah!)

As adults, we get to a point where we stop creating these magical, temporary kinds of spaces. We search for something more stable, something that will be around forever, that can't easily be knocked down. We forget that there is holiness even in the temporary.

I wonder if this also translates to emotional and relationship spaces, not just physical spaces. Is there something holy about the friendships and relationships we maintain with people for only brief periods of time? Do we destroy their magic by asking more from them than they can give?
Addendum to the original post: More paintings like the one featured above can be seen at the artist's website.


Monica said...

The image used above is copyrighted, Nathan Moskowitz 2007.

Casey said...

You know about the culture of "Burning Man?" -- apparently they all meet out in the desert, take LSD, and build temporary art installations and ride unicycles and stuff all weekend and then, when they leave, they make sure to leave without a trace. Not a single scrap of litter, or so the internet says. Once a year.

Too crazy for me. But that's the new spirituality, I suppose. Nice to know that it has some things in common with the old.

Vicki said...

Very interesting, Monica! Your comment at the end about the Christian church did clarify things for me when I saw you talking about teaching Sunday school. I couldn't understand what Jews would be doing in Sunday school!

Kevin said...

"Is there something holy about the friendships and relationships we maintain with people for only brief periods of time?""

Great--yes--but might we expand this insight to all relationships?

Let me try an analogy for a minute, in hopes of showing how this expansion might go, by connecting your notion of temporality and holiness to ethics.

How about this: some adults I know seem incapable of enjoying the aesthetics (I would even say 'ethics') of airports. They (obsessed with homes real or imagined) seem tuned out to the strange confederacy I feel with all these people in constant motion--people who, like me, must be elsewhere soon. Think of the strange intimacies which seem natural only to fleeting instants--say, when one is at the departure gate bar, waiting with someone who, like you, is alone and on his/her way to some far-flung place. In this environment of flux, something very good often happens--a kind of club for the alienated forms, enjoys an amazingly strong temporary nucleus, then, keeping its integrity, dissolves in an hour, paradoxically leaving you feeling more connected--or again, when one's flight sits on the tarmac, and there you are, 'in this together'--a comradery which is somehow dependent on the fact that, in an hour, everyone spills out and moves on--a community of exiles—-for an hour one has the intimacy known only to ex-pats, all about to return to a country also not their own. Anyway--all this feels as if there were an intimacy only possible under the shadow of some pending alienation—a clan made up solely of those who have “confessed that they were exiles on the earth...")

You use the word ‘holiness’; you tie it to the Feast of Booths—a celebration of holiness and temporality—or, perhaps, the contribution of temporality to holiness. But given what you say, it seems reasonable to go further—to ask: Is holiness, then, just this kind of intimacy indigenous to airports? Is ethics? (Levinas certainly says yes--we are intimate because we are irretrievably alienated—otherness is the condition of ethics--"alterity becomes proximity"). If so, Monica, can't you conclude something stronger than 'there is holiness, even in the temporary'? You might say that there is temporariness of a certain sort without which nothing strikes us as holy; you might say that stasis--stability-- kills our sensitivity to holiness and (so?) each other. (If we have all the time in the world, why does it MATTER whether I reach out to you at this moment--for there is always another in which we may connect. There IS 'world enough and time'--always--which surplus cheapens the time of our meeting. Here, eternity is the enemy of ethics--odd.)

My point, I suppose, is that airports suggest something important about ethical relations--call it 'holiness'-- and the crucial role of our temporality. The suspicion is that permanency kills poignancy--in particular, that poignancy we feel towards each other, which is only possible on the horizon of an inevitable end of our time together. You will soon not be here--and I am drawn to you NOW by this pending scarcity. Death here, I suppose, is departure--and we are all hunched over our drinks in low light, talking softly, waiting for delayed flights at the airport bar.