Embracing the Transition (Sukkot 5782)

The novelist Milan Kundera noted that the difference between a path and a highway is that a path is “a strip of ground over which one walks,” whereas a highway “is merely a line that connects one point with another.” A highway, he wrote, has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects and “is the triumphant devaluation of space, which thanks to it has been reduced to a mere obstacle to human movement and a waste of time.”

Kundera wondered whether, in all but disappearing from the modern landscape, paths have also disappeared from the human soul. He lamented that people do not view their lives as a path, but as a highway, “a line that led from one point to another, from one role to the next … Time became a mere obstacle to life, an obstacle that had to be overcome by ever greater speed.”

We seek to minimize travel times to be more productive and get to our destination faster, but I suspect there’s something else: On a deep, existential level, the “in-between” space can be a great source of anguish and anxiety. The liminal places where we are “neither here nor there” are confusing, perplexing, and scary. “In-between” spaces are, by definition, places of change, and change always brings its burden of fear and uncertainty.

But what if transitional times, like Kundera’s paths, are the richest and the most beautiful? What if, instead of trying to minimize the transition between two points, we sought to expand it?

The holiday of Sukkot is all about transitions: from slavery to freedom, from a foreign land to our own, from a disorganized mass to a people. The sukkah is the ultimate transitory home, which we joyfully inhabit, and where we mark the transition between autumn and winter. It’s meaningful that we sit in flimsy huts while we pray for rain. It’s as if we are asked to embrace our vulnerability to the weather. And because Sukkot also represents our journey through the desert, we are commanded to reenact our nomadic experience. And a final irony: Sukkot is one of our longer holidays, as though inviting us to expand the transitional period as much as possible.

Sukkot tells us that, instead of fearing transitions, we should embrace them. Why? Because the “in between spaces” are where we build ourselves. Indeed, Sukkot is the story of how the Jewish people was built, in that long transition from bondage in Egypt to freedom in Israel. Not in vain, that transition wasn’t traversed fast but slowly, over 40 years of meandering in the wilderness. In Jewish consciousness, those desert wanderings are seen, curiously, with nostalgia. The Prophet Jeremiah paraphrases God talking in loving terms of the People of Israel, remembering “the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.…”

Transitions are not easy. We know that the desert wandering that Jeremiah romanticizes was full of conflict, hardship, and strife, during which we almost ruined everything with the golden calf, with our unruliness, with our ingratitude. And yet, we believe that was a golden age of sorts.

The same happens in our personal lives. Adolescence is a painful time – to adolesce means “to suffer” – but most of us still remember our youth with nostalgia. What do we miss about those times? Mostly the sense of opportunity, seeing life as a blank canvas, feeling that possibilities are endless and eternal. As with many things in life, while going through the transition we “adolesce,” but later we realize that those were the richer periods of our life.

But the cyclical celebration of Sukkot reminds us that transitions are not one-time events, but lifelong adventures. We remember the most fluid and unsettled time in our history as a warning, a reminder to never fully settle down. In a way, Sukkot is our own version of Steve Jobs’ quote: “Stay, hungry, stay foolish. Never let go of your appetite to go after new ideas, new experiences, and new adventures.” In other words, never stop transitioning; never forget that we are beings in a permanent state of becoming.

So maybe this Sukkot, in this time in which we demand ever faster highways, it may be good to remember that once, the landscape of our souls was full of paths, that we could seek transformations instead of destinations, that we could honor, instead of fear, the space between the no-longer and not yet. After all, life is nothing but a transition —yes, trite, but true. Or as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, it is a “narrow bridge” in which “the essential is not to succumb to fear.”

Or think about it this way: What is the part of the job that acrobats most like? It’s not the moments in which they are safely seated in a trapeze. That’s the boring part. What they really love, what they live —and sometimes die — for is the jump between trapezes, that brave and exciting act of confronting the void.

May we get inspiration from Sukkot to confront the transitions in our lives with joy, courage, and optimism. To believe every day, holiday or not, that changes need to be inhabited and embraced rather than hastened; that often a slow wooded path is better than the ugly concrete divider of a highway. To think that it’s only in the transition, in the empty space between the two trapezes that we can learn how to fly.