At the beginning of the pandemic, I started to take pictures of the outdoor restaurant structures that I saw. I find them interesting. They share a common goal of creating outdoor dining space, but beyond that they vary in structure and design. They remind me of Sukkot. The liminal spaces we inhabit to remember how tenuous life is, how we we are not impervious to the elements or the world around us. A sukkah is an in between place, a small structure we create in wandering times. It is sometimes the beginning of a new life, yet we practice hospitality, sharing what little we have.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg created AI versions of a mishkan to tell the story of Exodus 40, of the mishkan’s construction. It made me think of the pictures I have taken.
My fourth and fifth grade students are into Minecraft, a game that involves building. Over the course of the pandemic, we integrated it into zoom learning. It was a fun way to learn, and to be able to play and cooperate together remotely. They built structures we talked about, like sukkot, a Mishkan, a menorah, a synagogue, etc. They taught me that the built world is just that- built- & it can be built again differently.
We recently read the parsha Kedoshim, which instructs us to leave the corners of the fields for the poor. It also instructs us not to insult the Deaf or place a stumbling block before the Blind. It is describing the actual construction of an equitable society.
This pandemic is a mass disabling event. We will have to build a new world designed with disability and illness in mind. A new world based in universal design and access.
My uncle Don passed away this past fall. His celebration of life was held in an old barn, so as to be in a ventilated space during a pandemic. With some lights and decorations it was a truly stunning ritual, a way of honoring him in itself. Without a pandemic, this improvised work of art would not exist.
Judaism has a concept called hiddur mitzvah, which means that ritual objects and sanctuaries should be beautiful so as to reflect and honor their purpose. To me, this means that they should be accessible to everyone.
As the poet Andrea Gibson says, “You keep remembering the first time you saw a bird’s nest. Held together by an old shoelace and scraps of a plastic bag. You knew that the home of a person could be built like that.”
A rabbi I admire once said encampments of unhoused people are neighborhoods- what a miracle it is that we make community in the ways we can. That we find a way to be together. That we extend the canopy of our dwelling the best we can, whether that canopy is over zoom or outdoors.
My students learned in a tent outdoors for the first few months of this school year. I encouraged them to think about it like a tree house or a sukkah. We have an opportunity to be creative when so much is out of our control. A classroom can be anywhere.