Last Elul, I put all my belongings in storage and hit the open road. For the next ten months, I had no home. I was a nomad living on the road, visiting cities and Jewish communities across the United States. The trip began in New York and took me from the East Coast to West and back East again, an entire round-trip cross-country journey. It was exciting, but at times also daunting. I entered Tishrei cut off from my previous life, a self-imposed galus during a month meant for introspection. With Succos just around the corner, I’d like to reflect back on a couple of my thoughts from the excursion, and connect them in some small way to the upcoming holiday.
Driving for thousands of miles all alone, you learn a bit about yourself. Solitude gives a person time to think. But it isn’t just the solitude that is unique about the experience. Leaving one’s surroundings and habits behind give a person the room to grow. You are no longer hindered by the patterns of before. Free from those constraints you can start to explore new patterns, new ways of responding to the events that happen in your life.
One of the things that you realize right away is that you are not in control of everything. Whether it’s the brakes wearing out while winding your way through the treacherous mountains of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington State or being dragged over a boulder through roaring white-water rapids, things are not always the way you want them to be. We can try to control events in our lives, but they are never truly in our hands. Yet, despite that, many of us try to manipulate them. We try to orchestrate our world in a way that suits our desires rather than adapting to the world. I once heard Rav Reuven Leuchter say that we need to face reality as an avoda. Many of us want to push reality away and conform it to our will. But we need to open ourselves up to it instead, he said. Everything that happens in our lives is an opportunity. We need to work with the reality and ask ourselves, “How can I grow and learn something from this?” Similar to Aikido, the Japanese martial art that uses momentum rather than fighting it, we need to use the situations at hand to help us become a bigger and better person.
Sometimes the quest for control, is really a push for perfection. In a world when we can enter a store and find endless varieties of kosher candy, or 2-day ship nearly any item to our door, wanting to have life “just so” is frequently attainable. We rarely need to live life without things exactly the way we want them. While it may make us happy in the short term, it doesn’t make for true long-term happiness. Rav Hutner discusses how there is greater value resulting from failure followed by success, than having everything perfect to begin with. Going through a day with dark and stormy clouds enables us to appreciate a sunny sky. Succos can be a time to reconsider our approach to this, to learn to live without perfection. Rabbi Berel Wein once wrote, “Succot… comes to teach us that… not everything is perfect and not everything is beautiful and there are many circumstances in life when we are forced to settle for less than we had hoped for. So, a succah is kosher even if it has barely more than two walls.” This is a holiday where less-than-perfect is just fine.
On Chag HaSukkos we have an opportunity to internalize these lessons. It’s a period when we leave the confines of our home and enter a place where things are not in our control, where life isn’t perfect. It rains. There are bees and mosquitoes buzzing about. But that is part of the joy too. Leaving our homes and heading out to the succah provides the opportunity for new patterns to form. The year has begun anew. We are no longer beholden to the old us. We leave our previous way of living behind, out to the less encumbered existence of the succah. Maybe this year is a year where we can give up some control? Perhaps we can live with less than perfect? The only way to find out is to leave the house… and venture out into your own sukkah.