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What a Trip to Israel Taught Me About Sukkot

What a Trip to Israel Taught Me About Sukkot

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We were all crowded into a huge stadium, waiting for the show to start. I sat on the very top seat, taking pictures with my fellow Birthright Israel trip participants. Suddenly the stage lit up, and dancers dressed all in white appeared onstage. One grabbed the microphone.

“Russia,” the person with the microphone screamed in a concert-performer-like sort of way.

The middle row stood up and cheered. Smiles and sheer laughter filled the hot summer air.

“Argentina,” was the next country called. The enunciation of the word sounded like it had just become the coolest country on earth.

I felt part of something so much bigger and greater than myselfA group at the other side of the stadium stood up and screamed, trying to outdo the noise that the Russians had made with more intense shouts and more excited jumps.

One country after another was called. The list seemed so long, but the excitement and yelling of each country was louder than the next. A chill rolled down my spine, and I couldn’t tell if it was the Israeli summer air or the sheer excitement of the event stirring my soul.

Finally, my country, America, was called.

My group, as well as a bunch of other American Birthright groups seated around us, got up from our seats, and screamed and waved our miniature Israeli flags. I was sure we were the loudest of all the countries.

Under the Israeli night sky, I felt this overwhelming sense of joy as I looked at all these Jews from around the world. I felt part of something so much bigger and greater than myself. Nothing in particular had happened, but feeling that feeling made a smile flash across my face. I was so happy to be part of this crowd. I felt like I belonged.

Here, next to me, were hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish young adults. Here we were, a small fraction of the Jewish future. We came from many countries around the world, spoke different languages, had different cultures, and yet we were all here to visit our land, Israel. This was only one week’s worth of Birthright participants from around the world, and yet, just by being with them, not even uttering a word, I felt a bond.

I imagined the stadium filling up week after week throughout the year, and I thought to myself that even though Jews are a small percentage of the world’s population, there are still a lot of us—and what’s more, we are everywhere and we make a lot of noise. Here we were, connected in a way, my extended Jewish family.

United under the Israeli moon on our own individual Birthright trips, I felt close to these people, and I felt—if only for a moment—that we were one. Suddenly, my multicolored tie-dyed dress seemed to come to symbolize how beautiful unity can be.

The stage went dark, and the sound of fireworks filled the stadium as the white light lit up the sky. I felt lifted with those fireworks. A light glowed in me that made me feel I could overcome any darkness at this moment. A sense of belonging, and an overwhelming love for my people, made my heart beat fast with excitement.

Miles away from my family, friends and residence, I felt at home. In this moment I realized who I was: I was part of the Jewish people. And furthermore, I knew I had to do something with this emotion.

Unity, the feeling I felt at the Birthright event, is an important theme for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. Sukkot is also supposed to be a time of happiness. From my experience in Israel I learned that the two are interconnected. Feeling united with each other makes us happy. Likewise, feeling happy together unites us.

Differences no longer matter. They are secondary to the fact that we are familyThe sukkah is compared to a chuppah, a marriage canopy. What better metaphor is there of complete love and complete unification than a marriage? A sukkah, like a chuppah, has to be outside, have a portable roof, and have nothing between you and the stars. Under the chuppah, two different people who before had separate lives dedicate themselves to each other and become one unit, one family.

In our sukkahs we become one with G‑d and with all the Jews. Differences no longer matter. They are secondary to the fact that we are family. All that matters is our overwhelming sense of love and joy. In the sukkah, we should feel bonded to each other despite our differences. The Jewish definition of joy is anticipating the future. We are joyful because we are planning, through hard work, to have a future together. We are planning to grow together and become a closer family this year. We sit in the sukkah in order to realize our potential as a people.

The sukkah is a temporary dwelling that represents this world. Our differences are due to our influences in this world, and depend on where we grew up, who our family is, who our friends are, et cetera. Jewish teaching tells us that the Jewish people are all part of one soul, and thus, although we might be blinded or distracted by our differences, we need to love and embrace each other because, really, we are one: a part of the divine. When we realize this, we can feel only joy when we are around each other.

The sukkah is also supposed to help us realize that this world is surrounded with G‑dliness. In ordinary moments, like my experience in Israel, we can access G‑d. We can have experiences where we see G‑dliness in other people, and realize that, while it’s nice to be an individual, using our talents to benefit our own family and extended Jewish family and all of humanity is the most rewarding aspect of life.

The “four species” are also supposed to teach us the importance of Jewish unity. The willow, which has no smell or taste, represents the Jew who does not study Torah or do mitzvahs. The myrtle, which has a good smell but no taste, represents the Jew who does mitzvahs but does not study Torah. The lulav, a branch of the date palm, which has a good taste but no smell, represents the Jew who studies Torah but does not do mitzvahs. The etrog, which has a good taste and a good smell, represents the Jew who studies Torah and does mitzvahs.

On Sukkot we hold the “four species” together and shake them. This is to remind us that every Jew is special, and each person has their own unique set of talents and contributions that they can bring to Judaism and to the world. If we work together, we can be stronger despite our differences. In fact, it is through finding how we are similar, loving each other, and being happy together that we can make the Jewish nation strong. It is through creating positive experiences with each other that we become joyful and unified.

After Yom Kippur, we are given a fresh slate for the year. G‑d sees us all as equal, and so should we. It no longer matters who you were last year. The goal for everyone is to just become better this year. Everyone has the same mission: to reach for the stars that can be seen looking through the roof of the sukkah.

It no longer matters who you were last year. The goal for everyone is to just become better this yearThe historical relevance of Sukkot is G‑d’s protection of the Jews outside of Israel. When we left Egypt, G‑d protected us in the desert by surrounding us with Clouds of Glory for forty years. In Israel, surrounded by the Jews of the exile, I felt like these were my people. Why? Because, despite our differences, and maybe even because of our differences, we seemed so strong. Because it’s amazing that despite all the Jews have been through as a people, we are still around, and furthermore, that we have the opportunity to be together in the Holy Land. Lastly, because the moment was so joyous that feeling happy to be Jewish was contagious. And that feeling is Sukkot in a nutshell.

Samantha Barnett is a writer. She lives in Los Angeles, California.
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Anonymous October 15, 2011

Thank You! you are a wonderful writer, what you wrote really inspired me, and helped me to look at sukkot so much differently, when you wrote that a sukkah is compared to a chupa, it really made me feel so different, I have never heard that before, may we all be unified and in a sukkah in Israel soon! Reply

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