September 19, 2013
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What bar mitzvah teens can learn from Sukkot

Sympathy for Sukkot

for The Brooklyn Paper

I’m not sure the festival of Sukkot (September 19 – 26, 2013) gets the attention it deserves. If it fell during another time of the year, this would be a more popular holiday among kids and families. Unfortunately, it comes but five days after Yom Kippur and the intensity of the High Holidays. At this point, a lot of Jewish people are looking to get back to their normal routines and aren’t necessarily tuned in to this important holiday.

Sukkot has both ancient and modern connections, and like a lot of other occasions in the Jewish calendar, provides a particularly significant message to younger kids who are currently or soon-to-be b’nei mitzvah. Traditionally, we celebrate Sukkot in order to remember that our Israelite ancestors wandered in the desert for 40 years. They lived in temporary structures — a sukkah, or booth — while they travelled from place to place. So far, this doesn’t seem like such a major insight. Sure, a sukkah doesn’t sound like real swank accommodations when you’re desperate for shelter; yet, neither is a roadside motel and we’ve all been forced to stay at a sketchy motel at some point in our lives.

Today, we observe Sukkot by trying to do the same thing, sans the wandering. Jews construct their own sukkot (no small feat for those of us whose only handy skill is knowing which screwdriver to use) and spend as much time as possible within them. The real commandment is to live in sukkot for the duration of the seven-day festival. That’s a tall order for most of us, so usually we simply eat meals inside the sukkah when the weather permits and this is usually considered an acceptable way to fulfill the obligation.

Other than the fact that a lot of kids enjoy camping out, and eating al fresco spices up dinnertime, what’s the message that this holiday is trying to send?

The theme of Sukkot is profound, and is something that even young kids can grasp. We are fortunate and privileged to live at this time and place in the modern world where we typically don’t have to worry about basic needs like a roof over our heads or food on our tables. Certainly, some have more and others have less, but most people live indoors and are protected from the elements.

The purpose of this holiday is to reflect on our luck. For one week, we take ourselves out of that comfort zone and remind ourselves of how the ancient Israelites lived and, even more importantly, how some people try to function today in other parts of the world.

We need to be thankful for the gift of a safe, warm, and dry place to live. It’s one thing for kids to read about poverty and economic conditions in a textbook, but it’s quite another to sit in a chilly sukkah, with the wind rocking the flimsy walls, realizing that some children their age around the world or even in a nearby city, routinely endure conditions like that.

Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is the process when we hope that younger teens will start to take more responsibility within Jewish life. That involves the very important concept of tikkun olam, fixing the world and trying to make it a better place. That begins with empathy, understanding, and gratitude for all that we have and Sukkot is a great way to obtain those insights.

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