Last week I had to fly from Philadelphia to Vermont for a speaking engagement. It was a short flight, and I was going to be there only for the night, so all I had with me was a small backpack and my computer bag. After years of flying overseas with a gaggle of toddlers in tow, it was a real pleasure traveling so light. I traveled in my speaking clothes, and was ready to exit the plane and go straight to the lecture hall.
Before I left the house I hastily gave my little two-year-old girl a kiss on her head, holding back her sticky little hands from hugging me, as I was already dressed for the occasion. When she wanted more, I blew a kiss from the distance, careful of course not to smear my freshly applied lipstick. Screaming "I love you" as I headed out the front door, I looked back to see her smiling, sticky hands still extended, waiting for that hug.
Why would I be so quick to want to take care of a little girl I don't even know?
As I waited in the airport, I felt very put-together and professional. Remembering earlier airport sagas with infant spit-up on my shirt, a leaking bottle in my bag, a stroller filled with kids and a long train of carry-ons, I now looked and felt incredibly free.
Until I saw Zoe.
Zoe was there traveling alone with her father, who looked more than flustered. She must have been about twelve months old—she was crawling around, but couldn't yet walk. Her father tried desperately keep her in one place as he searched the endless compartments of the baby bag for her favorite toy and bottle. I stood alongside them, and was in the middle of a phone meeting, when Zoe tried to make a fast escape on all fours while her father was momentarily distracted.
As she headed for oncoming pedestrian traffic, I blocked her way, reassuring her father that I would keep an eye on her as he tried to get together her stroller, bag and car seat.
This man was clearly in need of help. When it was time to board, I offered to push Zoe in the stroller while he managed with the rest of his things, only to discover that we needed to go down a flight of stairs, outside, and then walk up another flight of stairs to the plane.
Suddenly, without thinking about my pressed shirt, light-colored skirt or lipstick, I took Zoe out of her stroller—sticky hands, drool and all—and carried her down the stairs and up again. She smiled and laughed, and was really quite adorable.
Her father was more than grateful as I handed her back and sat a few rows behind them. I started working on my computer, but Zoe was getting more and more upset about being stuck in a car seat on the plane. At first, I restrained myself from offering parenting advice, but soon found myself sharing all the things I have learned about calming babies on flights. Before long, I had moved up to an empty seat across the aisle from Daddy and Zoe, and was playing with Zoe and keeping her happy the rest of the flight.
Now, why am I telling you all of this? Because it took me the rest of the day to figure out why in the world I did that. Why would I, on one of the few times I could travel without any children, put myself in a situation where I am caring for a baby? And why would I be so quick to want to take care of Zoe, a little girl I don't know and will most likely never see again, when I didn't seem to have that kind of time, patience or ability for my own baby?
Then it struck me. Sure, I could be Supermom. I could be the woman willing to risk her clean clothes for a cute little baby. Why? Precisely because she wasn't mine. Precisely because my role as baby calmer, baby carrier and friendly fellow passenger was temporary.
Because it was temporary. Because I knew that once I got off the flight that cranky, overtired, hungry baby would be somebody else's problem, I could be so helpful and giving.
If it been my baby screaming on that flight, I would have been anxious, nervous, overwhelmed, trying to hand her over to my husband to calm her. And yet, with Zoe, I came over a few rows away to coo at her, smile, play hide and seek—and I must say, I did a pretty great job calming her down.
If it been my baby screaming on that flight, I would have been anxious, nervous, overwhelmed . . .
I was able to do that because it was just an hour later that I handed her back, with a wave and smile, and went on my way once again with just my backpack and computer. And fortunately, no drooling or formula stains!
The idea of temporality allows us to experience things on a different level—even, in a sense, on a deeper level. We can take that extra step, do something we wouldn't ordinarily do, specifically because we know that it is not a permanent commitment. As soon as we feel it is, then it becomes scary.
And sometimes we need that "temporary" experience to be reminded of what is really important to us. Just like it took Zoe to remind me that—regardless of how professional and put-together I might look—at my core, most foundationally and importantly, I am a mother who loves her children. And that maybe I need to be more willing to let them hug me with sticky little hands before I leave on a trip.
This play of temporality transforming into a permanent reality is the brilliance and beauty of the holiday of Sukkot.
For seven days we are told to dwell in a sukkah, a temporary dwelling under the stars, almost completely exposed to the elements. It can be cold, it can be wet, it can be uncomfortable, but we know that it's only for seven days. And specifically because of that, it becomes fun, an adventure, a once-in-a-year experience. It becomes these great stories to recount throughout the year of how we sat drenched to the bone eating chicken soup that was half water because of the rain. Wasn't that funny? Yes, because a week later we were back in our warm houses.
But the holiday of Sukkot is not merely a fun adventure of eating outdoors. It is the holiday that is intended to teach us that at our core we are all the same, we all have a soul, and that soul is a part of our Creator Himself.
On Sukkot, we step outside of our homes. We leave the place that has our unique stamp and individual tastes. We leave the homes that we have bought, rented or borrowed, that are big, or small, or beautiful, or not so beautiful. And when we leave the homes that do so much to define us, and join together in these outdoor huts—for that one week, we all are the same. We are all in the same outdoors, experiencing the same weather, under the same stars. The week of Sukkot teaches us that amidst all of our other differences we all have a sameness, a bond that ties us together.
Sukkot teaches us that amidst all of our differences, we have a sameness, a bond that ties us together
But it is not enough to merely focus on our sameness, because no matter how much we try, we simply can't ignore what differentiates us. This is where the other lesson of Sukkot comes in: to learn how to celebrate our differences rather than regarding them as barriers that separate us. And so we have the commandment of the lulav and etrog, the "Four Kinds." We are taught that these four plant species represent four different types of people: we have the myrtle twigs that have a pleasant aroma but no taste, the palm frond that yields tasty fruit but has no smell, the citron that has both smell and taste, and the willow that has neither. Yet all must be together to be complete. Even what is incomplete on its own will render the entire process incomplete if it is not included. So we hold the four together when we perform the commandment of lulav and etrog inside the sukkah. And when we shake them, we move in all six directions—right, left, up, down, front and back—each time returning to our heart.
For this is what Sukkot is about: teaching us that despite all of our differences we are all one people, and amongst all of our differences, in our hearts of hearts we share a very strong similarity.
And sometimes, it requires us all outside together, at the mercy of the elements, away from the comfort zone of our homes, to realize this. And we are open to that realization, for there is that sense of temporality that allows us do what we don't do the rest of the year.
But Sukkot doesn't end when we leave the sukkah. Just the opposite. Immediately following the week-long festival of Sukkot comes the festival of Simchat Torah. We're now back in our own domain, back in our own individual space, where our differences from those outside of ourselves are most obvious. Yet we celebrate and dance and embrace our Torah together. We continue to celebrate our unity—now is when we need to bring it back into our personal lives.
And this is the lesson I learned from my hour as a temporary supermom. I might have waved goodbye to Zoe when I got off the plane, but what she taught me came home with me, to be transferred to my baby, to my children, to my family.
And so, when I came home, before checking the phone messages or e‑mail, I ran to my baby. Who just so happened to be sticky once again. But this time I gave her the big hug she wanted yesterday. This time I held her and kissed her face, and not her head. And in doing so, I learned one more very important lesson. Don't travel in your speaking clothes, and if you do, change before you get home. Because unlike Zoe, Ayden did manage to smear me!
Sara Esther Crispe, a writer, inspirational speaker and mother of four, is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org and writes the popular weekly blog, Musing for Meaning. To book Sara Esther for a speaking engagement, please click here.
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