As I was putting the finishing touches on our Sukkah last year, I did something careless. Even though I heard the voice in my head that said, “Josh, put on work gloves,” I didn’t. And when the voice said, “Josh, if you don’t put on work gloves, you’re going to get a splinter while you’re moving a 2×4,” I still didn’t. And, inevitably, as I picked up the very last 2×4 to put on top of the Sukkah, I got a splinter. (“Told you so,” said the voice. “Piss off,” said I.)
This splinter proved to be both pretty large and pretty deep. I couldn’t pull it out with my fingers. I tried tweezers, didn’t work. I soaked my hand for 10 minutes in warm water, still nothing. It didn’t hurt too much and we had a lot of other things to do in preparation for the holiday, so I decided to wait it out and let the body do its magic. It would come out eventually.
That night we started Sukkot with a wonderful dinner with my cousin and her husband in our sukkah. My wife, Natalie, always does an amazing job of decorating it, and my youngest son, Toby had also contributed his own illustrated contemporary ushpizin, which included his personal heroes, like Golda Meir and Frida Kahlo. It was a beautiful evening.
The next morning I took some time to meditate in the sukkah, and then took out my arba minim, the palm, citron, myrtle and willow that we shake together in the other major observance of the festival (and which we generally refer to in shorthand as lulav and etrog).
As I sat, I tried to bring my attention to my sense of interconnection and interdependence: with the natural world all around me, just beyond the boundary of the sukkah and even composing its very roof; with the loved ones whose presence was evoked by all those pictures; with the trees and plants that had produced these four species in my hands; with the Creator who animates and connects it all.
Then I said two blessings. The first was the blessing over the lulav, being mindful of the gift not only of all these things, but of the fact that we have this ritual through which to be aware of that gift. And then, the shehechiyanu blessing, mindful of the wonder that I could be here, right now, to again perform this ancient ritual.
And then I performed it: lulav in my right hand, etrog in my left, I brought them together. I slowly extended my arms out in front of me, toward the rising sun, then brought them back slowly to my heart center. I did that again. And again — three times.
Then I did the same to my right, toward the south, slowly out and in, from the heart and out to the world and back again, three times. And then three more times behind me, to the west, and to the north. Then above me to the sky, and below me to the earth.
Six times three: 18 times, I extended these four species from my heart to the world and back. I embodied the interconnection, I felt it, I felt myself deeply grateful and profoundly humbled.
But then…there’s also reality. Remember the splinter? It had now been over 24 hours, and it still wasn’t coming out, even after more soaking and attempts with the tweezers. I started to think I might need to go to a doctor to remove it. (The little voice returned: “Really? You have to go to a doctor for a half-inch splinter?!” “Yeah, yeah, little voice,” I said.)
At this point, trying to distract myself from my hand, I took our dog, Phoebe, for a walk. Our usual Shabbat and holiday route takes us past the house of my dear friend and colleague, Rabbi Sam Feinsmith, his wife Sarah-Bess Dworin (known as SB by her friends), and their daughter. And Phoebe knew exactly what to do. She pulled me right into their yard, where I found SB and her daughter in their sukkah.
During the course of our visit, I mentioned my pesky, and increasingly painful splinter, and SB suggested I try soaking my hand with Epsom salt. When I got home, I found some (rose petal scented—delightful), took out the bowl, and soaked. After five minutes I checked my hand. I pushed gently and, voila, the splinter came right out. Finally, relief.
But more than relief: I had a realization in that moment. The whole splinter experience had embodied the interconnection expressed both by the lulav and etrog and by the sukkah itself. I had tried and tried to get my splinter out on my own — soaking, tweezers, even contemplating cutting open my skin to get it out. But when I got out of my own way and went out into the world with the dog, the route led me into an open sukkah with a friend who had the wisdom I lacked and needed — wisdom which led to the relief of pain and the healing of my hand.
Sukkot is our holiday of harvest, of abundance. The sensations I experienced while shaking the lulav in the sukkah — interconnection, gratitude, humility, generosity — are present all the time, but so often we don’t give ourselves the time to dial into them, even in the midst of all this abundance. That’s why we have this holiday, to give ourselves the spaciousness of time to dwell in those middot, those aspects of our experience and character.
So our practice for this week is to shake the lulav and etrog. If you have one, great! If you can’t get your hands on a set, that’s okay too — just imagine yourself holding the four species in your hands.
You may have missed it in my description earlier, but the essence of this practice is very simple: Slow down, give yourself an extra minute or two, and really be present. Take a few deep breaths before you begin.
Stand holding the four species together in front of you, facing toward Jerusalem (if you need it, use the compass app on your phone). Take a moment to notice the plants in your hands. Observe their beauty, their variety, their textures. Note how they feel. How they smell.
If you’re holding the four species, say the blessing: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat lulav: Blessed are you, life-force of the universe, who has made us holy with your invitations to connect, and who invites us into this practice of holding the lulav.
As you say this, close your eyes and bring to your consciousness the thousands of years, and millions of people, who have engaged in this sacred practice — your own ancestors and spiritual ancestors. You might feel a connection with them.
Then, when you’re ready, slowly extend your arms out and shake the plants you’re holding. Notice the sound of the rustling. Notice how it feels to inject energy into these leaves. And then slowly bring your hands back to your heart, connecting that energy and vitality outside of you with the energy and vitality that’s inside you. Almost like a breath–out, and in. Now, do it a second time — extending out, shaking, back to the heart. And a third time. Out, in. Out, in. Out, in. Three cycles of extension and shaking, three cycles of breath.
Next, do the same thing–three cycles — but turning to your right rather than directly in front of you. Out, shake, in. Out, shake, in. Out, shake, in. Then behind you, to your left, up, and down.
Take your time. You’re not in any rush. To do this with intention costs you perhaps two minutes more than doing it by rote. But those two minutes can be so enriching!
Notice what you feel. It might be a sense of connection. Aliveness. Embrace — you embracing the world, the world embracing you back. It might be a sense of abundance. It might be something else. There’s no right way to feel, just notice what’s coming up, and try to revel for a moment in this truly indigenous spiritual practice of the Jewish people.
Blessings for the journey, and chag sameach, have a wonderful holiday of Sukkot. I hope you’ll join us next time.