Rachel Sharansky Danziger

Building sukkahs in the sky

Every year, come the end of Yom Kippur, I grow wings.

“Shema Israel,” I chant with the congregation, but my soul shouts its own words into the heavens. “I am free,” it sings. “My shackles lie broken below, confessed away, Kol Nidrei’ed into oblivion. Mine are the wind and the open skies. I can be the person I want to be, do the things I want to do. Nothing stands in my way, and I can fly now, free of yesterday’s mistakes.”

The shofar’s call fills the world, and everything within me soars.

And then, inevitably, I crash.

The world and its shackles are quick to reassert themselves. The same old routines and setbacks and shortcomings are still there to drag me down. The open, straight road towards my goals which I envisioned when my spirit soared comes back to taunt me. “Feeling free while leaving the material world behind is all well and good,” it seems to say as it narrows and curves and grows complicated. “Let’s see how far you can get with your wings bound by the mundane, shall we?”

My goals — so clear and almost tangible on Yom Kippur — grow distant, and my confidence bleeds away. How am I ever supposed to achieve them?

* * *

Our sages knew the risks of crashing. They urged us to mark the end of Yom Kippur by starting work on our sukkahs. As a child, I thought of it merely as a way to start “collecting” mitzvot now that our slate is clean. As an adult, I see the psychological wisdom beneath the legalistic advice. “Go,” our sages tell us, “and engage in one small act of positive creation. Take that first step on the road to being the people you dreamed of becoming when you prayed and fasted and soared. Do so now, before the enormity of the undertaking — and the routines of daily life — have time to crush our resolve.”

This advice translates well to many realms of life. Whatever our goals, it’s easier to work towards them once we take that first positive step. But what if we are already disheartened? Where can we find the energy to believe in ourselves, with all the potential of failure ahead?

* * *

Three years into my graduate degree, these questions were foremost on my mind. The various questions and sources and ideas that were supposed to become my masters thesis lay hopelessly tangled in my head. I saw no way forward, no way to forge ahead.

“Don’t focus on the next step just yet,” my mother-in-law suggested. “First imagine the day you will hand in your completed thesis. Imagine it in detail: the smell of the freshly printed papers, the stairs leading up to the office, the giddy excitement in your steps. Then, when you actually believe that such an ending is possible, trace the route from today — to that day.”

She was right. My imaginary sense of accomplishment boosted my confidence, awakened my determination, and carried me through the rest of the project.

Perhaps, I thought then, imagining our goals as accomplished is what Sukkot is all about.

On Sukkot, we have the opportunity to create our dream houses. Our real, permanent homes can’t be altered so easily. Our lives clutter them with half forgotten mementos and design attempts, pragmatic compromises and sheer mess. Whenever we want to change anything, we have to slowly work through years and sometimes decades of history and practical considerations, not unlike our attempts to change ourselves.

Sukkot gives us a once-a-year opportunity to dream big, be bold, and design our dream spaces with no real-life baggage to drag our dreaming down. Like my imaginary completed thesis paper, our sukkahs are not bound by the normal hardships of daily life.

And maybe, like my imaginary paper, they can give us the strength to start the slower, harder journey across these hardships, as we implement our vision of a perfect home in our permanent abode.

I am speaking of more than home decoration, naturally. I am speaking of all the goals and ideals that seem so close on Yom Kippur, only to appear unreachable in the grim light of the next day. “Start building your sukkah right away,” our sages said, and maybe they meant more than our physical booth. Maybe they meant building also our visions of the future, our sukkahs in the sky.

Maybe Sukkot invites us to imagine our newly set goals as if we already achieved them, right there in the vulnerable time between Yom Kippur and the rest of the year. That relationship we vowed to improve? That trait we decided to tame? That project we decided to complete? Before we can actually have a go at them, perhaps we need confidence boost only our imagination can supply.

In the next few days, Jews around the world will shop for fabric and wood, palm fronds and nails. They will give free rein to their creativity and imagination, and build temporary homes.

Sukkot invites us to do more than that. Now is the time to indulge ourselves, and dream of all we wish to accomplish this year. Now is the time to dare and dream in broad brush strokes, without fear, without worrying about the obstacles ahead. And maybe after basking in these dreams for seven days, we will gain the confidence to bridge between the heights of Yom Kippur and the pitfalls of real life. Maybe then we will find it easier to translate our larger-than -life goals into daily plans and routines.

Maybe then we’ll find the strength to take that first, difficult, step.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and educator who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, history, and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and other online venues, and explores storytelling in the Hebrew bible as a teacher in Matan, Maayan, Torah in Motion, and Pardes.
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