A bird got stuck inside my house the other week.
I had been feeling sick that day and slid open a dining room window that had a missing screen.
After much shrieking on my part, and shrieky tweeting on the bird’s, I finally lured it into a bedroom, where I had opened wide another unscreened window, and quickly shut the door. Eventually, after I hesitantly peeked in a couple of times only to see the bird flying frantically back and forth across the room, it finally found its way through the window and out of my house for good.
The next day, after taking a break from saying, “Hey, remember that time there was a bird flying around in our house?” and once my nerves were calm, I started to imagine how the bird must have felt being stuck inside some mysterious structure with no point of escape. Upstairs, downstairs, this room, that room, no way out, no way out! Worst. Nightmare. Ever.
No one likes to feel stuck. Such is one theme, as I see it, of Sukkot.
We’re instructed on Sukkot to build temporary huts to commemorate those set up by the Jews traveling through the desert, as well as to give a nod to the protective cloud that journeyed alongside them. These little homes are designed so that they are solid enough to house and protect a person, but they are made to be temporary. In constructing a sukkah, we’re instructed to build a roof so that there is more shade than sun, but there also is enough open space to see some stars.
I view the sukkah in this way, as a protective entity where we can eat (and where some people sleep), but also as something that is assembled and dismantled at the very least within the span of eight days. It’s like a camping trip, in a way; it’s not just about building the tent and “living” in it, but also about how we feel after versus before, when our trip comes to an end. We are transformed. If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are about spiritual renewal through prayer, Sukkot is a way to show this physically, by “moving” our location in these temporary huts. When we enter the sukkah and then go out again, we become unstuck from where we were before, and we have the opportunity to start again elsewhere. We are freed from one reality and can thus reinvent ourselves in a new spiritual space-this is shown symbolically via the building, “living in,” and dismantling of the sukkah.
I wonder if that bird felt any different after being stuck inside my house. Did it reinvent itself, too? Was it somehow transformed once it had found the way back to its new home outside?
I like that idea-finding the way back to its new home, a new self-just like a person reinventing himself from the High Holidays, through Sukkot, and out the other end as a new, fresh-eyed being. I find it appropriate that the holiday occurs in autumn, a time of change, when the leaves turn from their classic green to yellow, red, orange, and brown-the golden tones of a sunset (which is yet another transformation in itself).
And yet my most transformative moment occurred not in autumn, nor in a sukkah, but under a clear night sky in the summer on an ACHVA Israel trip between 10th and 11th grades. We had a two-day hiking adventure in the desert, resting overnight under the stars. Under this wide sky I felt unstuck, freed, experiencing a feeling of protection that far trumped any other time in my life.
I suppose, despite it being summer and we being out in the open, the desert hike offered something similar to the themes of Sukkot-becoming unstuck, transformation- in that through it we were changed, not just from that night under the stars but from the journey of climbing over boulders and up steep cliffs on our way to the air-conditioned buses on the other side. Our dehydrated selves returned to civilization, where our thirst was quenched and we could see the world through fresh eyes. (Especially in my case – my counselor made me drink two liters of water right before going on a 2.5-hour bus ride. That was fun and eye-opening.)
I guess my takeaway message is this: Now is the time to transform ourselves-to take the spiritual pledges from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to change, and then to take action practically and physically, or whatever the case may be.
Second takeaway message: It’s really important to fix your window screens. Now that I’ve said that, I need to change my ways in practice, and carry out that which I have pledged.
Alternatively, I can turn my house into an aviary. See, there you have it-transformation at its best.