Workshops, seminars and courses that inspire full-hearted living

Playing with Fire: Sukkot’s Ancient, Shamanic Roots

I spent last weekend at a joyous and inspiring Sukkot retreat at the new Lev Shalem Institute with master teachers Rabbi Jonathan Kligler and acting coach Carol Fox Prescott.

On Friday night, Rabbi Jonathan described the fire ceremony that is perhaps three thousand years old (and was described in writing from the first century CE), in which musicians of the high temple in Jerusalem played harps, flutes, lyres, trumpets, and cymbals while the priests juggled flaming torches—up to eight of them at one time—before the men and women who came on pilgrimage to the temple to celebrate Sukkot. It was the ultimate gala, known as The Festival.

Then, on Saturday night, we sat on the grass in the dark, under the starless sky, to watch two visitors perform a ritual (which is part of their own spiritual life) in which they juggled flaming torches to the sound of drumming, much as the temple priests had done. As the torches drew arcs of fire against the sky, I felt exhilaration, joy, awe, and fear all mixed together. The ceremony was an ancient, shamanic ritual that awakened feelings far deeper than words; and my knowing that one of the jugglers had been quite badly burned a few weeks ago only heightened the intensity of my whirling emotions.

Sukkot is more than a joyous harvest festival; and our retreat was intended to bring us to its unfamiliar and deeper meaning as the spiritual culmination of the purification process that begins before Rosh Hashanah and continues through Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. Ideally, we have been cleansed of all the ways in which we have fallen short in the course of the year, letting go of all the fears and cravings that lead us to dwell in what-should-have-been and what-is-yet-to-happen, able instead to be present to the miraculousness of each moment, as the source of creation flow through us and all the world.

And so, I watched the men dancing and suddenly understood that the priestly juggling of flaming torches was the Temple’s ritual re-creation of the encounter with the flame of the burning bush, with the fire that gives its name as I AM THAT I AM or I AM BECOMING WHAT I AM BECOMING.

All life, including that of the trees and grass, unfolds within the flame of that Mystery, part of the infinitely complex matrix of creation, of all that is and was and will be. Each of us is but a tiny flame within this matrix, infinitesimally small, and at the same time playing the unique role that each of us plays, affecting the totality of all that is in ways we can neither predict nor imagine.

“Not a sparrow shall fall….”

We dance with the burning bush, with the Mystery, all the time; and everything comes to us ultimately from the its fire, from the Mystery that inspires both love and awe. Whether or not we know it, this is what it means to be alive.

It’s just that we usually don’t notice.