created at: 2013-09-18

I finished my run and approached my house, where I discovered pine boughs in a large heap—about three feet tall, 10 feet long, and five feet wide. In the heavy rain, their needles glistened as I soaked in the fresh smell filling the yard. The town of Brookline had kindly dropped off branches for our sukkah; I live at Moishe Kavod House of Washington Square, and our tiny upstairs porch will be hosting a community sukkah—perhaps 10 feet long and five feet wide. There were enough branches for a three-foot thick ceiling. The sukkah evokes the absurdity of life, but it is also a metaphor for the strength and structure of a peaceful home.

At least in metaphor, if not in physical reality, our sukkah hosts celebration with the absurd above our heads. A sukkah has to have a patchy ceiling through which its occupants can view the sky. Peering through its branchy roof each year, I often ponder the oddness of the moment. Here I am, living my life of perhaps 100 years (if lucky) in a universe 14 billion years old. Here I am, peering through the roof of a hut, at endless stars. Here I am, glued by gravity to the one planet we know of, with certainty, that hosts life. The sukkah itself is impermanent, and it reminds me that so are our actual homes, our communities, our lives, and even—in the long run—our planet. So what do we do here? We host communal meals, sing, and receive this life as a blessing.

So there I stood, out of breath, staring down at an immensely oversized delivery, and philosophizing to make sense of it. It is easy to overcomplicate things. Our human lives are so short, in a world so odd, that these moments remind me to focus on simple ways to live with structures that help me to receive the most from every relationship, and every day. Some of the most important tools are readily usable dialogue practices.

Just as the sukkah is a fragile structure with open walls, so our lives and families are fragile and ultimately finite. Just as the sukkah is strong and sturdy, hosting our meals and sleeping places during Sukkot, so can we develop strong structures within our own lives and family routines.

One example of a “dialogue sukkah” or conversational structure is non-violent communication. This tool asks its practitioner to follow a simple formula along these lines, during difficult conversations: “When you said/did ___, I felt ____, because I value _____. Could you please change ____, so that we are both able to move forward feeling ____?” This template asks the user to identify exactly what they heard, and how it made them feel. It is a tool for listening to others and compassionately responding. Tools like non-violent communication are a way to overlay structure over challenging moments, so that they become more readily navigable, and peaceful outcomes become likely.

Jewish liturgy calls on God to spread over us a sukkat shalomsukkah of peace. The sukkah holds us for eight days as partners in Creation, guiding us forward as we build peace in our homes and in our world. The sukkah reminds us of the absurdity of our condition, and allows us a stable, sturdy place to rest.