The memories from last Sukkot are still painful. I recall hobbling into my family’s sukkah on the first night of the holiday, desperately trying to avoid putting pressure on my tender right ankle which I had sprained just a few weeks earlier. As the holiday of Sukkot, uniquely referred to as the “time of our joy,” was about to begin, I was not feeling particularly joyous. I was actually feeling pretty dismal and not just because of the ache in my ankle.
I have been an avid runner for the past two decades and I rely on my daily early morning runs to keep me grounded amidst the craziness of life. Since spraining my ankle–which ironically occurred while I was leisurely pushing my toddler in her stroller–my workouts had come to a grinding halt. After a few weeks and many missed runs later, not only was the pain in my ankle still lingering but I was feeling increasingly dejected about my situation with each passing day. Despite my best efforts to alternately ignore, suppress, rationalize, and even accept my negative feelings, I could not shake the sentiment that for some reason unbeknownst to me I was being punished from above. Now, both my body and soul were in pain.
Looking back, it turns out that it was timely that the injury occurred right before Sukkot, because it was a lesson learned while I was in the sukkah that brightened my spirit. The turning point came while I was partaking in a discussion on the symbolism of the holiday with some friends. We talked about how for eight days Jews around the world leave the safety and comfort of our homes to dwell in the sukkah. When we walk into the sukkah we enter into a seemingly paradoxical situation where a chasm exists between our physical and spiritual states.
On the one hand, we are physically vulnerable while we are in the sukkah. After all, depending on where we live and the weather forecast we can find ourselves eating our soup with frigid rain dripping down our faces, or conversely, sweltering in a heat wave. On the other hand, when we walk into the sukkah we are entering a heightened spiritual state because our entire being is encompassed within a mitzvah. There is a lesson learned from the discrepancy between our physical vulnerability and our spiritual elation: the walls of the sukkah are symbolically embracing us precisely during times of uncertainty to signify that God is offering us encouragement during those challenging times in life when we most need comfort and support.
This lesson pierced through my sour frame of mind, revealing a sweet new way to look at the injury and the melancholy I was battling at the time. It started to become clear to me that going about life thinking I was constantly being targeted by God and reacting accordingly with a “Why me?!?” type of thought was not helping me to become the person I strove to be. My injury did not mean that God had turned on me; rather God was offering me an opportunity to rise up to the challenge, fight back, and ultimately grow from the experience.
After the holiday ended and I was back inside my house, I began looking at the steady stream of struggles I encountered not as punishments intended to defeat me, but rather as opportunities for spiritual growth. I am the first to concede that there are difficult circumstances that are beyond my limited human understanding and I try my hardest to accept these situations on faith, as hard as it is at times to do so. But many of my day to day struggles ranging from internal conflicts to professional setbacks to trying moments as a mom, fall into a lessor category. These are the testing moments where my attitude and approach can make a difference in whether I stagger away in retreat feeling disheartened or whether I advance forward feeling empowered.
Take for example, the days when nothing is going right. I am running late, my kids are whining, crying, and fighting, and just as I am about to reclaim some control and get them out the door, I spill an entire carton of milk on the floor. I am overwhelmed, exasperated and just about to lose it. Before learning the lesson of the sukkah, I would have certainly surrendered to the urge to loudly vent my anger and frustration at my kids, which somewhere far in the back of my mind I know will only lead to more crying, most likely my own added into the discord.
Nowadays, armed with my new perspective, I muster up enough strength and patience to invoke the lesson of the sukkah. I morph into my own personal coach, fortifying myself with a surge of encouragement: this is the precise moment you have been practicing for, it is now or never, right now is when it counts! And then, I take a deep breath and do my best to respond to the situation rationally. I do not always succeed in staying calm during the crying and chaos, but I have much better odds when I look at the moment as an opportunity to grow as a person and as a mother. Later, when the kids are peacefully asleep in their beds and the house is finally quiet with no signs of the havoc that transpired just a short while before, I detect a good feeling inside of me. Instead of feeling defeated by life’s struggles, I actually feel empowered!
There are still plenty of times when I catch myself asking why life has to be so hard. When those moments hit and I feel a barrage of “why me” type of thoughts ready to overtake me, I quickly summon up the lesson of the sukkah. I remind myself that constructing a sukkah takes time and effort but we are rewarded for our labor with a meaningful experience and a beautiful structure. Similarly, it is through the hard work of grappling with my struggles that I am developing and honing my faith, creativity, strength, patience, and courage.
This year I am excited to enter the sukkah–thankfully with no pain in my ankle–and to experience the true joy and empowerment that comes from knowing that each challenge is a stepping stone bringing me one small step closer to the person I am intended to be–the person God sees within me.