Annotations on an Instruction Manual: Building Your Best Self in the Jewish Season of Repentance

by Lane Schnell / September 20, 2023

Lane Schnell returns to the blog with a reflection on Yom Kippur and IKEA furniture, asking us: Will I be able to repair everything I have broken in a year? 

A person, drawn in the style of IKEA furniture instructions, considers a couch.

Last Yom Kippur, accompanied by occasional growls from my fasting stomach, I built my living room couch. Technically, this counts as one of the melachot (prohibited actions) that govern Jewish holidays, but the couch had just arrived that day and, quite honestly, I was desperate for a place to sit. The couch’s mustard velvet upholstery turned a pure gold hue in the afternoon sun as I sweated over an instruction manual, which was full of the confusing diagrams and printing quirks that imply foreign mass-production. It soon became my own personal machzor (special High Holiday prayer book), for my own personal Yom Kippur service. It told me when to stand and when to sit, when to use an Allen key and when to use a Phillips head screwdriver, and when to rest and admire my creation. As frustratingly simple as that ten-page booklet was, I felt compelled to revisit the manual again this year, and to make a few notes in the margins.

Thank you for purchasing your couch from us! DO NOT RETURN TO THE STORE!

We are already here. There is no turning back. Our only choice is to begin to build.

This instruction booklet contains important safety information. Please read and keep for future reference.

We will return to these words next year, on a path guided and guarded by our forebears’ wisdom. The prayers and readings of this season are not to be discarded, but kept in a safe place until they are needed again.

Limited 1 year Warranty: The warranty does not cover wearing, tearing, fading, or splitting of the fabric (where applicable).

Will we see each other on this day a year from now? Who will be taken from our midst, by the wear and tear of life? The couch is guaranteed. We are not. My own year has seen the end of close relationships, overwhelming stress, and a bone-deep homesickness that have left me feeling faded and frayed, and I can hardly wait for the closure that this season brings.

DO NOT use powertools.

This is something to be built with the strength of our bare hands. Our journey will receive no assistance from modern conveniences.

Please verify all contents and make sure you have received all the parts listed above!

All the tools and hardware we need to make the most of this season are within our reach. We just have to look for them; should we find that various nuts and bolts are missing, our tradition will provide the necessary replacements.

Please do not completely tighten all the hardware, until the entire assembly is complete.

On Rosh Hashanah it is screwed in, on Yom Kippur it is tightened. On the days in between, we assemble the best version of ourselves: the version that will serve as a sturdy, comfortable base for the year ahead. I will have to live with the couch (and myself) for the next year, so I’d better dial in and build carefully. 

CAUTION: This unit is intended for use only with the maximum weights indicated.

From Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur, confession to confession, there is a whole year for us to take on guilt and regrets. We will have to atone for them at the end of each cycle, and make amends with those we have hurt. Will I be able to repair everything I have broken in a year, in just ten days, or will the weight of my transgressions crush me? Will yours crush you?

Helpful Hints: Your futon can transform between a Sofa and a Bed.

Well that is a helpful hint. I haven’t eaten since last night and I could use a nap before Neilah.

That’s it! You’ve finished assembling your Tufted Futon!

The couch is finally built. In completing it, I’ve violated one of the thirty-nine categories of work that apply to Shabbat and holidays, and I’m sure I should atone for it next Yom Kippur. But the couch still needs some work, too. A section of the mechanism that folds the couch out into a bed is a little bit broken. I’ve made do in the months since the assembly, but I can’t sit with it (or on it) like this forever. Sooner or later, I will have to acknowledge it, confront it, and repair it. Only I can do this; it was my carelessness that caused the break in the first place. So I will return to the couch this Yom Kippur, and I will return to myself. I will fix the parts of me that are broken, and the parts I have broken in others. And I will hope – as I hope every year – that this time, the work will be finished.


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