Delivered at The Community Synagogue (Port Washington, New York), on Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot (Friday, September 28, 2018).
A few years ago, on a Sunday morning, I sat in a coffee shop hard at work on a paper for rabbinical school. I don’t recall the assignment, but I do remember something that happened while I was there.
I happened to be sitting at one end of a long, communal table. As I attempted to focus on my writing, a father and his son, probably around two years old, sat down at the other end. The dad sipped his coffee; the boy munched on piece of pumpkin bread.
Then, over the morning ambiance of milk frothers and background chatter, I heard the father ask his son, “What do you want to do today?”
The boy looked up from his snack and, with a smile, said, “Play!”
How wise was that two-year-old! And how I wished to shut my laptop, forget my finals, and go find my own way to play that day.
This Shabbat, we find ourselves in the midst of our most playful holiday: Sukkot. This week we build outdoor temporary shelters from natural materials, we eat in them as if they are our homes, and we shake the Lulav and Etrog.
In other words, we build stuff with sticks we found outside, we have make-believe dinner parties, and we wave some fruit in the air. Sounds like play to me!
We call Sukkot Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our joy. More than for any other time of the year, our tradition invites us on Sukkot to be happy. And it couldn’t come a moment too soon: just days after Yom Kippur. That is the most solemn day of the year for many of us, when we contemplate our own mortality, consider our wrongs, and remember those who have died. These are all important parts of life, but Sukkot comes along to remind us that playfulness and happiness are important, too.
According to Maimonides’ laws about the lulav, one who gets in the way of their own happiness on Sukkot is liable for punishment. That’s how great a mitzvah joy is on Sukkot.
Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, says play is what lifts us out of the mundane parts of our everyday lives. He compares play to oxygen: it’s all around us, but it goes unappreciated until it’s missing.
Sukkot is a breath of fresh air. Let’s make Judaism playful.
There are three elements of play, as described by Stuart Brown, that I want to focus on: that it’s done for its own sake, that it engages our whole bodies, and that it takes imagination. Sukkot hits all three.
Play is for its own sake. There’s no end goal when we build a sukkah or shake the lulav outside the context of their own game. We do these things just so that we can do them.
Throughout my life, I have tried my hand at a number of instruments. I started piano lessons when I was four years old, played the recorder for elementary school music classes, took up the clarinet for 6thgrade band, and bought a mandolin in college. But none of those grabbed me like the guitar.
I grew up listening to my dad play guitar, and I decided to learn to play in 7thgrade. I took a class at school and started practicing at home from my dad’s copy of Great Songs of the 60’s—the first song I learned was “The 59thStreet Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Simon and Garfunkle. The next summer, I went to Jewish camp for the first time and saw the songleaders up in front, leading us in prayer and singing. I fantasized about being a camp songleader. So I bought a copy of the camp songbook and brought it home.
I spent the next years playing through the books in the basement, teaching myself the chords to Bob Dylan as much as to the Barechu. The goal of becoming a songleader stayed in my mind, but it faded. I just fell in love with the vibrations of the guitar, the way its sound could fill a room and swallow me up, the way I could make a full chord of six notes sound with a single strum. Slowly, I taught myself to sing along.
Nowadays, I don’t play guitar for its own sake as much as I used to; sometimes it feels draining rather than energizing. But the most joyful experiences of prayer I have today, whether I’m leading or following someone else’s lead, transport me back to that feeling of playing guitar in the basement. It’s purely for its own sake, swallowing me up in sound.
Play is a break from the goal-oriented stance we take in so much of our lives. It’s not about meeting a deadline or performing perfectly. It’s about messing around and messing up. It’s about forgetting ourselves and sometimes our worries—getting lost in the experience.
There’s no such thing as a perfect sukkah, no way to “win” at Sukkot. We build a sukkah and shake the lulav for their own sakes—just to see what it’s like.
Play engages our whole bodies. A lot of Jewish life involves minimal movement; but not Sukkot. We literally shake our sillies out with the lulav, and we put our right foot in (and left foot and hands and heads) to the middle of the sukkah like the Hokey Pokey. We use our bodies; that’s what it’s all about.
In his book called, appropriately, Play, Dr. Brown describes the life stages of the sea squirt. Sea squirts are ugly creatures, he says, which start out looking like tadpoles and end up resembling tubular sponges or worms. They are, however, one of our most ancient relative on the great family tree; in their tadpole-like stage, they approximate what the first chordates may have looked like 550 million years ago.
In their youth, sea squirts have very basic spinal cords and brain-like cell clusters. They spend their early days exploring the ocean and growing. But once the sea squirt becomes an adult, it attaches itself permanently to a rock or the hull of a boat. The passing current brings along enough nutrients for it to survive. Brown calls it the couch potato of the sea. It no longer needs its brain to explore its surroundings, so its brain dissolves.
Brown says that physical movement of any sort is a way to bypass our mental defenses and jumpstart play. “Motion is perhaps the most basic form of play.” Just think of the smile an infant shines when she pulls herself up on her feet for the first time. The sea squirt “has a brain only when it is moving through time and space… We are alive when we are physically moving.”
That’s why we dance at parties and why we play sports. For me, it’s 20 to 30 minutes of yoga every morning. A little bit of movement puts some play back into our lives.
Sukkot is just the invitation we need to let ourselves do something goofy, not worrying about what we look like. When we move, we feel a little more free.
Play takes imagination. When we enter the sukkah, one of the things we’re supposed to do is imagine what it was like for our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness between leaving Egypt and arriving to the promised land. The book of Leviticus says this is precisely why weare supposed to eat our meals in our sukkot for a whole week. It’s reminiscent of the central invitation of Passover: that each of us comes to see ourselves as if we, ourselves, went out of Egypt.
There’s another, lesser known custom of Sukkot that even more explicitly requires our imagination. It’s called Ushpizin, which means “honored guests.” According to mystical tradition, certain biblical heroes join us in our sukkahs each day of the holiday: people like Abraham and Sarah; Moses, Aaron, and Miriam; King David; the prophet Deborah. Some people even leave an empty chair or two around the table in their Sukkah for this very purpose. The point is to invite these honored guests in, to imagine them among us, and to feel blessed by their presence.
In that vein, I’d like us to engage our imaginative faculties right now. This is a version of an exercise I did on Tuesday with our teens in POWTY and MPOW—a riff on the custom of Ushpizin. I am going to invite each of us to close our eyes, and think of people we want to invite into our personal sukkot, people whose presence we want to bless us.
Who is someone from the Torah or a famous Jew you want to invite into your sukkah?
Who is one of your ancestors or a member of your family you want to invite into your sukkah?
Who is someone you admire or see as a role model, who you want to invite into your sukkah?
Finally, what is one positive quality you bring into the sukkah, with which your presence blesses others?
You can open your eyes.
When we activate our imaginations, we allow our own needs and desires to come forth, unmediated by others’ expectations. Dr. Brown describes it this way: “[With] a pinch of pleasure, it integrates our deep physiological, emotional, and cognitive capacities. And quite without knowing it, we grow. We harmonize the influences within us. Where we may have felt pulled in one direction by the heart and another direction by the head, play can allow us to find a balanced course or a third way.”
Imagination is healing. Imagination leads to growth. Sukkot invites us to step outside our typical modes of thinking and imagine new paths forward.
That little boy at the coffee shop was on to something. How different would our lives be if we asked ourselves every morning, “How am I going to play today?”
Sukkot has weird and strange rituals. It forces us outside our normal, guarded ways of doing things and says to us, “Come on, play outside for a little while. It’s a mitzvah!”
Sukkot may be z’man simchateinu, the special time of our joy, but we do it—and ourselves—a disservice if we relegate playfulness in Judaism to this holiday alone. The three aspects of play Sukkot cultivates extend beyond the walls of the sukkah. Here are three corresponding ways Sukkot gives us permission to be playful every time we gather for prayer or Jewish practice:
- Do it for its own sake. Don’t worry about messing up or getting the words right. Try it out and see what happens, and feel free to improvise.
- Put some body into it. Let yourself clap or sway with the music. Close your eyes and listen or sing along. Forget about looking goofy, and lose yourself in the moment.
- Use your imagination. The words of our prayers, as they’re written in the book, are just the starting point. Let yourself wonder about what lies beyond, behind, or within them. The prayers are poetry; we should read them as metaphor. And just-as-real-a-prayer is whatever bubbles up inside our hearts and minds along the way.
Yom Kippur says life is short. Sukkot says life should be playful. Let’s embrace the invitation to explore, to embody, to imagine. Let’s make Judaism playful.
Moadim l’simchah. May this be a time of joy.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Lulav 8:15
Brown, Stuart L., and Christopher C. Vaughan. Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. Avery, 2010. Page 6.