What Sukkos Teaches Me about Liberating Myself from Myself

As a mother, my struggle with living in the moment has probably robbed my kids of some euphoric, care-free Pippy Longstocking-type moments in their childhood. You mean you can’t just throw up the flour and do a little dance in the kitchen while baking with your kids? Grab umbrellas and galoshes when you notice the rain? Stop the dishes, the laundry, and the food prep and go join the kids on the trampoline? Forget the to-do list and go apple-picking just because the sun is shining?

Years ago, I was in the kitchen of Rivka Malka Perlman, the colorful life-coach out of Baltimore, who had just allowed — in fact, encouraged — her kids to tie shmattas to their feet, dip them in a bucket of soapy water, and glide across her kitchen floor. Yes, a veritable Pippy Longstocking — and I’m referring to Rivka Malka, not her kids.

I have embraced the reality that I am not that kind of mother — or person. I like things to be clean as the result of my cleaning lady’s efforts. I like crossing off items on my lists during my quiet time when the kids are all out of the house. It is those moments when I try to regain my footing in creating some semblance of structure and order to my life. Like I’m in control best when no one’s around to “distract me.”

I know I have a few lessons to learn. That life happens when the kids are around, not in the silence of my living room with my to-do list and the telephone as my companion. Stuff still has to happen and get done, but I shouldn’t need solitary confinement to make sure it does.

I find it fascinating that opportunities to learn these lessons are presented to me most obviously during the beginning of the school year which coincides with the yamim noraim. Starting school again is all about getting back into structure, both for kids and parents. It is creating rhythm: consistent wake-up times, on-time arrivals to the bus, and cracking down to learn — all despite being tired or not being in the mood. For a mom who works from home, it’s nice to be able to settle into my own dependable rhythm and actually get things done.

And just as we start to get into the groove, it’s time to shop and cook for yom tov. It’s time for the kids to have some days — and then a week — off of school. And then when it’s all over, everyone is required to transition back into that routine that we just barely constructed for ourselves before the holiday season. For those who thrive on routine and consistency, this isn’t apple dipped in honey.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, I twisted my right foot. That meant four more meals to go, four more tables to set and a whole gaggle of guests needing to be fed. I hopped around on one foot, but couldn’t hop with a pan of roast in hand and get it to the oven in one piece. I couldn’t possibly set the table. So I had to enlist the troops — family and guests all helped to prepare, serve, and clean up the meals. I literally had to let go.

I was able to hold it together pretty well until my good friend who was a guest second day lunch arrived and saw me sitting on a stool chopping vegetables. I saw her and started crying at the thought of tomorrow. How am I going to get the kids to school? How am I going to do all the things I need to do if I can’t drive? I actually was doing quite fine living in the moment, relinquishing my usual responsibilities (i.e., control), but when it came to thinking about the future, assessing my situation in judgement, I lost my composure. I robbed myself of a lot of joy that yom tov worrying about tomorrow.

On Rosh Hashana and conclusively on Yom Kippur, Hashem does the judging. Hashem decides what tomorrow will bring. On Sukkos, we reap the benefits of accepting this reality. We experience joy, as we are meant to on this glorious yom tov, zman simchaseinu, the time of our rejoicing.

According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in his newest book, Ceremony and Celebration, joy comes from celebrating now in the mindful present, despite any insecurity surrounding us.

When the world is in a state of order, when there is peace and good governance and accountability…when the great and the good are indeed great and good, yes, one can speak of happiness as a central value. What, though, survives when none of these preconditions are met? What is left when the world we live in looks less like a house than a sukkah, open to the wind, the rain and the cold? What remains, other than fear, in a state of radical insecurity?

The answer is simcha, joy. For joy does not involve, as does happiness, a judgement about life as a whole. Joy lives in the moment. It asks no questions about tomorrow. It celebrates the power of now…Joy embraces the contingency of life. It knows that yesterday is gone and tomorrow is unknown. It does not ask what was or will be. It makes no calculations. It is a state of radical thankfulness for the gift of being. [1]

Interestingly, the book of Koheles, one at which first glance offers messages of despair and cynicism about the purpose of life, is read on Sukkos, the festival of joy. It is precisely the book we need to consider during this holiday. Despite the depressing reflections Koheles makes about life, the root word in Hebrew for joy (shin, mem, ches) is mentioned 17 times throughout the work. The root word for joy is used more times in Koheles than in all the five books of the Torah.[2]

Life is short and fleeting, as we have recognized during the High Holidays.  Koheles reminds us on Sukkos that life, like an insecure sukkah, is temporal. “Time is a desert, a wilderness, and all we have as we journey is a hut, a booth, a tent. Kohelet is a philosophical statement of life seen as a sukkah.”[3]

However, what makes life’s instabilities bearable is joy, and it’s seeing it in the little things. Koheles speaks of enjoying simple pleasures, such as food, drink and the sun, the sweetness of sleep after a hard day’s work, and the joy of spending life with the one you love.

Joy alone, Kohelet realized at the end of a long life, is the power to defeat despair. It does not speak the language of reason… Joy belongs to an older, deeper part of the brain. Like music, it gives expression to the inexpressible. It says, yes, life is sometimes unfair and the world unjust, but the very brevity of life makes each moment precious. It says: stop thinking of tomorrow. Celebrate, sing, join the dance however undignified it makes you look. Joy bathes life with light. It liberates the soul from the prison of the self.[4]

This Sukkos, maybe I’ll try liberating myself from myself. Who wants to join us for a cookie-baking dance party in the kitchen, replete with flour on the floor and shmattas in bubbles ready for the clean-up? Bring the kids!

[1] Sacks, Jonathan. Ceremony and Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays. New Milford: Maggid Books, 127.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Ibid., 124.

[4] Ibid., 129.

This article appeared in The Chicago Jewish Home, volume 1, #5.

About the Author
Alexandra Fleksher is an educator and published writer on Jewish contemporary issues. She holds a M.S. in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and a B.A. in English Communications from Stern College for Women. Her essays have been published in various blogs and publications including Klal Perspectives, Hevria, The Lehrhaus, Torah Musings, Cross Currents, and The Five Towns Jewish Times. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband and four children.
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