There’s an educational philosophy called “Understanding by Design”.
Flying in the face of the idea that the beginning is a very good place to start, the philosophy asks us instead, to start at the end.
The framework of Understanding by Design asks us to consider where we are going, and only then- to decide how to get there. Rather than focus on projects, Understanding by Design focuses on process. For anyone who has ever taught in a classroom—the hallmarks of this educational planning approach seem both obvious, and at times impossible.
The first step? Figuring out “what’s the big idea” that you want your learners to walk away with.
Secondly, evidence. How will you know that the learners really got it? What will students be able to do or explain that demonstrates their learning?
And then— finally- only after knowing where you will wind up, with evidence of that big idea: what’s the learning plan? What are the tools and tactics— the projects and the texts, that you will do to get there?
It’s a framework that asks the educator to go a step further than coming up with cool projects, or interesting discussions: it asks them to consider how their students will be transformed as a result of the lesson.
Once you get used to thinking with this backwards design process—it can easily become a lens through which you see the world.
It’s a way of thinking that asks us to consider the home that we will endow with joy and love and peace— and only then, to create the blueprints, pour the foundation, put up the walls, and the roof.
And so on this eve of the new year 5778, let’s work backwards. I want to suggest that it’s Sukkot, rather than Rosh Hashanah that we should be talking about. That is our spiritual destination- at least as far as the rhythm of this season tells us.
Rosh Hashanah is only the open gateway, beckoning us to move forward- to keep going. But Sukkot: Sukkot is where we are going.
I want to invite you to close your eyes for a moment, and to imagine with me:
YOU ARE WALKING THROUGH THE WORLD HALF ASLEEP. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and that you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that; these questions never even arise. It is as if you are in a dream. Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness. A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten… Then the great horn sounds in earnest one hundred times. The time of transformation is upon you. The world is once again cracking through the shell of its egg to be born. The gate between heaven and earth creaks open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are opened once again, and your name is written in one of them. But you don’t know which one. The ten days that follow are fraught with meaning and dread… Then, just when you think you can’t tolerate this one moment more, you are called to gather with a multitude in a great hall… For the next twenty-four hours you rehearse your own death…A great wall of speech is hurled against your heart again and again; a fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly until you are brokenhearted and confess to your great crime. You are a human being, guilty of every crime imaginable. Your heart is cracking through its shell to be reborn. …Every heart has broken. The gate clangs shut, the great horn sounds one last time. You feel curiously lighthearted and clean. Some days later you find yourself building a house; a curious house, an incomplete house, a house that suggests the idea of a house without actually being one. This house has no roof. There are a few twigs and branches on top, but you can see the stars and feel the wind through them. And the walls of this house don’t go all the way around it either. Yet as you sit in this house eating the bounty of the earth, you feel a deep sense of security and joy. Here in this mere idea of a house, you finally feel as if you are home. The journey is over.
That is how Rabbi Alan Lew began his book “This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.” Describing the sacred drama of this season, Lew reminds us that we begin with a house, and we end with a house. From now until Sukkot, we are living out this spiritual metaphor, journeying together from alienation, back home. Tomorrow, we will hear the blasts of the shofar, calling us to attention. Our prayers will grow more urgent over the days ahead, as we lay it all out there— praying, hoping, begging that we should know another year of goodness.
And then, as Rabbi Lew describes, we’ll move out from this sanctuary- from this enormous gathering- and we’ll build a house. Not a grand house— not a Beit HaMikdash, but a Sukkah. A ‘house that suggests the idea of a house without actually being one. [A] house that has no roof, with just few twigs and branches on top, but through which we can see the stars and feel the wind”
Sukkot is our spiritual finish line. It is the time of our harvesting- of reaping what we have sown, and building an imperfect and impermanent dwelling place .
Sukkot, is our “big idea”.
As learners— and we are all of us learners— we wonder, “how will get there”? What questions will we ask over the days ahead? How will we demonstrate that we’ve really integrated and learned these crucial messages?
If we “get it right” over these next 10 days, so to speak: if we really do the hard work of teshuvah- then, as our tradition directs us– we should build a Sukkah. A temporary dwelling place, where we can begin again.
The goal of these holy days is not change for change’s sake, but rather, transformation in the service of creating something new. This is our opportunity to build something new: something more humble, something more open, something more vulnerable.
That Sukkah, that imperfect and impermanent dwelling place is where this journey will lead us— it’s our spiritual destination.
But we know that the sukkah isn’t just a sukkah- the sukkah is a metaphor.
Like our very bodies, it is a temporary dwelling place. An external structure that we are meant to build, to inhabit, and then, to let go of.
The sukkah is a metaphor for all that we hope to create: shelter, a place to rest our heads and to break bread. It’s a place of safety and protection. A place that is just open enough to allow us to see God’s magnificent creation; to have our feet on the earth and to see the stars in the sky. The sukkah is a place of invitation- of limitless possibility: a place we can invoke the memories of those who came before us, hoping that our ushpizin, our guests, will remind us of what we hope to become.
I want to linger in that grand and wistful metaphor of transformation that Rabbi Lew so beautifully depicts: describing how “the walls of the grand house- Beit HaMikdash, [came] tumbling down. Homeless, alienated- we stumble around, seeking comfort- seeking shelter.”
As we leave 5777 behind us— that description feels particularly apt. The year past has left us all feeling a little unsteady, perhaps alienated— seeking comfort and shelter. All of us—individually, and as a community, are just trying to get home.
This leads us to one last aspect of the Sukkah metaphor, that I believe is crucial to how we will move through the days ahead and that is this:
We cannot have Sukkot with having had Tisha B’Av. We can’t start again without letting go. The old house is no longer. The walls have tumbled down, and we are starting again.
This will be hard work. So, let’s get real about why we are here tonight. The true and honest reason that we know our souls needed this time and space, here, now, together:
I believe it’s because somewhere inside, whether we can name it or not, we know that the work we have to do is crucial, it is a spiritual necessity.
I believe we are here, as Lew writes, to
“recite this ancient service given to us by the Divine Physician as a medicine for that condition, and that condition is this: This is real. This is very real. This is absolutely inescapable. And we are utterly unprepared. And we have nothing to offer but each other and our broken hearts. And that will be enough.”—
I know that many of us do feel this way— completely unprepared. Looking back at the past year, since we stood together last Rosh Hashanah— a lot has happened. We have witnessed a seismic shift in our nation. We have struggled with the implications of a national conversation that often feels far away, as we have begun to think about how to take care of our neighbors. At the same time, we have wrestled with self-protection, as barefaced anti-Semitism has reared it’s truly ugly head throughout our country. It’s hard to ignore a growing sense that what we are seeing, hearing and experiencing is surreal.
To riff off the title of Rabbi Lew’s book— this year has been surreal, and we were in many ways completely unprepared.
And yet, in the conversations we have had together, the moments spent together in prayer, song, and protest—in the learning we have done together, I have little doubt that we know what is real— and that is why we are here.
We know that racism is real. We know that anti-Semitism is real. We know that the chasm between rich and poor in our country is real. We know that climate change is so very real, as evidenced by the devastation rained upon Houston, the Carribean and Florida over the past weeks.
We know that fear and anxiety are real in the sickly feeling we have when we watch or read the news.
We know that pain is real: we know that the diagnoses and disruptions to our lives and our families is real. We know that the death and loss bring a pain that is unlike any other.
But here is what else I know is real:
• Awe. Awe is real. I know awe is real because I have literally seen it on your faces. Just last month, one of you was generous (and tech-savvy enough) to share your experience of the total solar eclipse that took place. The video that one of our Hevreh members posted showed him, a father with two of his children, sitting on a hillside somewhere in the “path of totality”. Watching that video, there was no better word than “awe” to describe it. Awe is in the way that they sat on a hillside, eclipse-safe glasses ready, and then— as the moon made it’s way in front of the sun: “There it goes! There it is! “Oh my god! Oh my god!”. They clapped. They whooped and hollered, and got up— moving further back up the hill as they watched—and then, probably my favorite part of the video: they hugged. I have no doubt that those exclamations of “Oh my God” were literal. Those moments when we witness wonder and creation in our natural world pull us out of our heads—and remind us that we are a part of something bigger. • Joy. Joy is real. Joy is different than fun— it’s not the same as excitement, and doesn’t always mean we’ll like it. Joy shows up equally at the gym, as in the classroom or under the chuppah. Joy is the look on the face of the young man who stood on this bima last week, when he finished chanting his Torah portion, beautifully. It’s in the announcements of old love, new babies and important accomplishments you share each week during our Shabbat tradition of “happy things”.
• Love. Love is real. I know love is real because I have seen it in the way you show up for each other. Love is the time you take to tell a story to a grieving widow, showing her a side of her husband that she didn’t know before.
Pain and fear, love, joy and awe— it’s all real. In a time when the surreal and the unbelievable compete for our spiritual energy— these are the things worth bothering about.
That is the “big idea” of these Days of Awe: to know that where we are going is a place where pain and fear, love, joy and awe all live side by side. The Sukkah—that dwelling place we will construct is an apt metaphor: at it’s core, the Sukkah is a place that reminds us that freedom is hard work. The Israelites, encamped in the wilderness constructed the very first Sukkot on the other side of the Red Sea— having escaped slavery, but not yet having arrived in the Promised Land.
This is our “once a year opportunity of a lifetime”: A chance to heed this call- to start from the ground up, laying a foundation of joy, and love and awe— building our way into the new year with peace, justice and compassion.
I think we are better prepared for this task, than we might realize: Tonight we start drawing the blueprints for our own metaphorical Sukkahs, and we start asking ourselves the important questions: will be build a house of love? A place for joy? Can we build it on a foundation of awe that allows us to shut out fear?
How will we demonstrate we really got it right? How will we know we’ve learned this precious lesson?
When we know, deep down in our kishkes, the truth of that Ecclesiastic wisdom. When we can accept and really live out those words, written by Kohelet that we read over Sukkot: To everything there is a season, and to every time, a purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to sow. A time to kill, and a time to heal. A time to break down, and a time to build up.
Tonight we begin the journey, knowing that the Sukkah— that fragile and precious dwelling place, is our destination.