The Art of Dwelling: Creative Prompts for Sukkot 5781/2020

INTRODUCTION:

סוכת (Sukkot) is an annual, weeklong holiday that has been celebrated since Biblical times. Known variously as חג הסוכות (Chag haSukkot) - the festival of temporary dwellings, חג האסיף (Chag heAsif) - the Harvest festival, and זמן שמחתינו (Z’man Simchateinu) - the time of our rejoicing, Sukkot is an embodied, joyful celebration of life in all its fragility, impermanence and beauty.

The temporary dwellings--sukkot--that the Israelites built in the wilderness were understood to be physical shelters built on land and also to represent a metaphysical entity known as the ענני הכבוד (ananei hakavod)--clouds of God’s glory--that traveled with the Israelites through the wilderness. Today, Sukkot-- both the structures and the holiday--continue to serve as physical and metaphysical access points for meaning making, creativity and connection. Sukkot is an entryway to the joy of impermanence, the beauty in ephemerality, to the spirits of our ancestors and the power within us to view the whole world as sacred.

At JSP we invite you to make art as a way to meaningfully connect to the holiday and its themes and to explore what resonance and meaning these themes might have for our lives today. We’ve designed a series of prompts to support reflection, spark insights and bring pleasure. You can use these prompts whenever you’re ready, before, during or after the holiday. The themes transcend the specific holiday and the creative process is an endlessly vital force.

With blessings for a meaningful and joyous holiday!

PROMPT #1: CELEBRATING IMPERMANENCE

Framing: On Yom Kippur we rehearse our death as we let ourselves encounter the truth that “our lives are but a passing shadow,” that we are given the gift of this life for but a brief moment. This powerful encounter with our own ephemerality is meant to awaken us to feel the blessing of being alive, the gift of each moment as it passes. Coming five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot invites us, quite literally, to dwell in impermanence - and to find the joy, beauty and comfort that awaits us there.

Built outdoors, a sukkah needs to offer shade to protect us from the harshness of the sun, yet must also be open enough to see the sparkle of the stars. A sukkah must be sturdy enough to last all seven days of the holiday, but impermanent enough that a gusty wind could knock it down. A very temporary, makeshift structure, a sukkah must be dismantled and rebuilt each year, yet year after year we decorate and beautify it. A sukkah is a sacred space that embodies the beauty of impermanence. As we dwell within the sukkah’s ephemeral walls, we have the opportunity to celebrate, sanctify and find beauty in the impermanence of our lives.

Materials

  • Tote bag or basket

  • Small objects found in nature

Art Prompt

  • Take a walk outside

  • See if you can soften your gaze to look at the world through eyes of gratitude and enchantment

  • As you walk, gather stones, leaves, petals, sticks and other natural objects that you find on the ground

  • Find an open space and lay out what you’ve gathered

  • Admire and offer gratitude for what you’ve found

  • Create an offering to the Universe with what you have, arranging the items you have found in a way that is pleasing to you

  • Come back in a day or two and see how your offering has changed

  • Admire and offer gratitude for that as well

Reflection Questions

  • What was it like to look out through eyes of “gratitude and enchantment”? What behaviors did you employ to see things in that way? How, if at all, did this change what you saw?

  • What was it like to gather fallen items? Was it easy to find things that you wanted to pick up or did it feel like there was nothing there for you? Did this change throughout the course of your walk?

  • What was it like to create your offering? To leave it where it was and walk away knowing it would change? What was it like to return to it? How was it different?

  • What might it mean in your life to celebrate or to sanctify impermanence?

PROMPT #2: ELEVATING THE ORDINARY

Framing: “On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take the fruit of the goodly tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40) These items, collectively known as “The Four Species” (arba minim) are gathered together in honor of the holiday. Each day of the holiday we shake them in six directions (N, S, E, W, up and down), simulating the sound of rain as we call upon the Divine to bring the rains in their proper time. Two of the items are described in vague terms (“goodly” and “leafy”) so the sages identified two specific trees-- citron (etrog) and myrtle (hadas)--to standardize the set.

Apart from being singled out for the holiday these four species are not considered particularly special, or even unusual. What happens when we focus our attention on something “ordinary” and see it as special, or even as holy - when we find sanctity in the ordinary, extraordinary, beauty of the world? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “This is one of the goals of the Jewish way of living: to experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures, to feel the hidden love and wisdom in all things.” How might our lives change if we saw every aspect of the world - from the majestic to the mundane - as sacred?

Materials

  • Timer

  • Ballpoint pen

  • Pencil

  • Scrap paper

Art Prompt

  • Set your timer for 15 minutes

  • Create using only these three basic materials (paper, pen, pencil)

  • Start by making marks on the page

  • Continue embellishing and elaborating in a way that is pleasing to you until the time is up

Reflection Questions

  • What was it like to work with such basic materials? Like a good challenge? Frustrating? Freeing? Boring? Something else?

  • Did your relationship to the materials change as you went? If so, how?

  • How might working with what you have (rather than what you wish you had) be helpful in this time of challenge and change?

  • What might it mean to rediscover sanctity in the “ordinary” aspects of your life?

PROMPT #3: INVITING IN ANCESTORS

Framing: The custom of inviting our most revered ancestors to join us in the sukkah is known as Ushpizin, “honored guests.” It is taught that the sukkah generates such intense Divine energy that the spirits of our ancestors don’t want to miss out on the celebration. Traditionally, we invite biblical ancestors to dwell with us in our sukkah, but we can expand the concept of ushpizin to include family members, historical figures, or mythic ancestors who have helped shape our lives or who helped pave the way for us to be more fully who we are in this world. Through art making we are able to “transcend linear time,” in the words of JSP Senior Advisor Dr. Pat B. Allen, and connect to those who have gone before us. What might it be like to draw on the spirit of an ancestor - to honor their memory and invite in their guidance during this time of challenge and change?

Materials

  • Any drawing, painting or sketching supplies

  • (Optional) collage materials: old magazines, gluestick, scissor

  • Piece of paper to create on

Art Prompt

  • Recall an ancestor whose presence you want to invite into the sukkah.

  • Reflect on these questions: what qualities did this person embody? What gifts did they bring to the world or to your life in particular?

  • Invoke this ancestor by abstracting their essence - through color, image, shape, words, invite their memory onto the page.

  • Write their name somewhere on the page when you are finished.

  • Hang this piece up in your sukkah or some place in your home where you will see it.

Reflection Questions

  • Whose memory did you reflect on? Were you surprised by the ancestor that you chose?

  • What thoughts, feelings or memories came through as you created?

  • At a time when the future is uncertain, what wisdom are you in need of from those who came before you?

PROMPT #4: FINDING JOY WHERE YOU ARE

Framing: Of our celebration of Sukkot the Torah instructs, “Visamachta vichagechav’hayita ach sameach - You shall rejoice in your festival... and you shall have nothing but joy” (Deuteronomy 16:14-15). The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson taught, “The joy of Sukkot grows out of the soul-searching of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.” Rather than looking backward at who we’ve been or forward at our hopes and commitments for the future, Sukkot asks us to become fully present, and to find joy right where we are, wherever that might be. Joy, according to Rabbi Alan Lew, is not the same as happiness. Rather, it is any feeling fully inhabited, including sadness and grief. Joy is found in becoming present to what is true for us in any given moment.

Materials

  • Timer

  • Any drawing, painting or sketching supplies

  • (Optional) collage materials: old magazines, gluestick, scissor

  • Piece of paper to create on

Art Prompt

  • Set a timer for 20 minutes

  • Allow yourself to be drawn to a color/material/brush to begin with

  • Start by making marks on the page and follow what gives you pleasure

  • If something you’re doing no longer feels pleasurable, switch it up and try something else while staying within the bounds of the experience

  • Continue for the full amount of time

  • Notice everything that the experience brings up for you

Reflection Questions

  • What was it like to have the only instruction be to follow pleasure? Did it feel easy or difficult to know how to begin?

  • What were the signs that something you were doing no longer felt pleasurable? How did you know when to switch it up and try something new?

  • When were you able to be most fully present during the experience? What allowed for that?

  • What might it mean in your own life to allow yourself to “fully inhabit a feeling”? Can you imagine this bringing joy?

Materials

None

Art Prompt

  • Choose a mundane activity in your daily life - folding laundry, washing dishes, paying bills, making breakfast, getting dressed, walking the dog, etc.

  • Approach this activity with the intention to go above and beyond the basics required, to turn your full love and attention to the act at hand. Make it beautiful.

  • Notice everything.

PROMPT #5: BEAUTIFYING THE EVERYDAY

Framing: There is a religious injunction to beautify the sacred work we do in the world, known in Hebrew as הדור מצוה (hiddur mitzvah). Literally translated, this means “beautification of the commandment.” The concept derives from a rabbinic commentary on a line from the Song of the Sea, sung by the Israelites as they crossed out of Egypt and onto the shores of freedom. In the Torah we read that they sang out, ”Zeh eli v’anveihu!” “This is my God whom I will glorify!” (Exodus 15:2). Commenting on this line, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmael draws a connection between the Hebrew word used for “glorify” —anveihu— and a Hebrew word for “beauty” — naveh, reading this line instead as “This is my God, whom I will beautify!” In R. Yishmael’s read, among the first words on our lips as we shake off the sea water and unfurl into freedom are those expressing a desire to beautify God.

What could it mean for humans to “beautify God,” R. Yishmael wonders. We beautify God, he determines, by performing the mitzvot (commanded acts) beautifully. It is no surprise that in his description of hiddur mitzvah, R. Yishmael draws a direct connection to the holiday of Sukkot. The first on his list of mitzvot to be beautified are lulav (a palm branch) and sukkah. The concept of hiddur mitzvah invites us to enhance, to go above and beyond the basics of what is required in a given situation, and to turn our full love, attention and creativity to the act at hand.

Reflection Questions

  • What was it like to approach a regular, every-day activity with the intention of going beyond the basics required? A good challenge? Daunting? Fun? Something else?

  • In what ways did this intention change how you performed the action? What did you do differently than you usually would?

  • How did you feel afterward?

  • How might expanding the concept of hiddur mitzvah beyond what are traditionally considered mitzvot be useful in your life?