The festival of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and encourages people to be inspired by the wisdom Jewish tradition has to offer. One fun tradition is to learn with friends! We are excited to share our own Shavuot learning experience featuring interpretations of Torah written by students at Rochelle Zell Jewish High School (RZJHS).
Check out Avital Strauss's D'var Torah to learn how a cross country biking trip parallels the holiday of Sukkot through its story and values.
This summer, I biked 2,679 miles across America, and in doing so, I embodied the core values of Sukkot. Many of the quintessential aspects of my trip were remarkably similar to those of the story on which Sukkot is based, in which the Israelites wandered through the desert before reaching Eretz Yisrael. The Israelites roamed the desert for 40 years; I biked across America in 40 days. The Israelites traveled as 12 tribes; we traveled as 12 kids. The Israelites’ ultimate goal was to reach the promised land of Eretz Yisrael; our ultimate goal was to reach the promised land of San Diego. The Israelites wandered in the desert, or bamidbar; we wandered through the Walmart midbar in Paris, Texas. Our magical sustenance was not manna but rather gatorade and protein bars. Instead of shaking the lulav and etrog in our temporary homes, we shook our bikes before we left camp every morning to check that our gear was properly strapped onto our bikes so it wouldn’t fall off while we were riding. Our Moses looked a bit different from the hero in the Bible; even though she was only 5 feet tall, 22 years old, and lacked a distinctive beard, she was as tenacious as our Biblical leader.
On Sukkot, we recall the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt and before finding refuge in the Land of Israel. The Sukkah is emblematic of the temporary homes which provided shelter for the Israelites during their time traveling in the desert. And so, Sukkot is a holiday deeply connected to nature. It forces us to attend to the majesty of the world that surrounds us. In Biblical times, the Israelites' lives were defined by their direct experience with the natural world. In the age of social media, Sukkot encourages us to remove ourselves from our technology-centered lives and reconnect with the world and people around us. On my trip this summer, we did not have access to our phones for six weeks. This rule was a true blessing to me and my friends; it forced us to be present and not hide behind our phones. After riding more than 100 miles in one day, it would have been so easy for us to sit and scroll through Instagram. Instead, we channelled our exhaustion into productivity and made meaning out of our time together. After our rides, we would play cards, shoot hoops, swim in lakes, and go on walks, doing whatever we could to deepen our bonds. When we stopped on the side of the road, we didn’t pull out our phones to text friends back home; instead, we appreciated the glory of nature that surrounded us and explored the wilderness. The absence of technology forced us to be one with each other and one with nature, and that idea of stepping back from our technology-filled lives to appreciate the people and beauty that surround us is at the core of Sukkot.
The natural world is unpredictable, and while technology helps us transcend the helplessness we feel when exposed to natural elements, Sukkot forces us to confront human vulnerabilities. In today’s world, we are so used to having control over our environment. When it gets hot, we can easily turn on our air conditioning to reach equilibrium once again. That is not so easy to do in a Sukkah. Likewise, I didn’t always have that option this summer; I couldn’t turn on the air conditioning when it was 125 degrees outside, and I was sleeping in the chapel of a tiny church in Brawley, California. There was nothing to protect me when I was biking in 105 degree weather on a relentless, 20 mile uphill stretch. On Sukkot we pray for rain, but on this trip we prayed for it not to rain, as I had no windows to close to hide in the shelter of my home when it was thunderstorming, and I was biking 25 miles per hour to out-race the threatening storm. Within the sukkah, we are similarly exposed to natural elements, living in a temporary shelter with a missing wall and a roof that can be easily permeated by rain, cold, or heat.
On Sukkot, we emulate the Israelites' time bamidbar. The term “bamidbar” is often directly translated to “in the desert,” but I like to think of it as the wilderness beyond the borders of society. By this definition, we can experience the freedom of spirit and connection to nature that the Israelites knew not only in the desert. The scenery of our escape is irrelevant; what matters is the act of leaving the comforts of society and our modern lives and entering an entirely new world with rules determined by the laws or whims of nature. I think that the act of shaking the lulav, hadas, arava, and etrog in the Sukkah supports my understanding of “bamidbar” as beyond the borders of society. These species are there to remind us of the beauty of Israel’s harvest and are symbolic of the Earth’s primary habitats: the desert, mountains, lowland, and river, all of which can be found in Eretz Yisrael. The diversity in landscape that we celebrate by shaking the lulav on Sukkot can certainly be found in America, as well, as I learned this summer. Each state has a unique landscape. While Texas is known for its dusty plains, in Georgia you will find rolling hills and farmland, and New Mexico is filled with seemingly endless mountains.
The exposure to nature bamidbar can elicit much joy, especially when coupled with a willingness to be vulnerable. Sukkot, a holiday during which we are expected to be joyful, closely follows Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year, during which we atone for our sins. Known as zeman simchateinu, the season of joy, during Sukkot, we are asked to embrace the delight of the holiday, which can be difficult to do after the emotional exposure we experienced on Yom Kippur. But, our joy can be understood to be a natural follow-up to Yom Kippur. After atoning for our sins, we look ahead and recognize that we will be able to continue experiencing the wonders of the world and that we have the privilege of being our authentic selves. Because we are able to be vulnerable, Sukkot becomes a holiday filled with happiness. Our relationship with God, ourselves, and our community is enriched because we looked inward on Yom Kippur. Likewise, the vulnerability experienced by celebrating Sukkot or embarking on a cross-country bike trip can bring forth true, all-encompassing joy. This summer, I found true bliss when I was exposed to the natural world. My heart swelled when I saw a vivid, pink sunset, a distant view of a rocky mountain, or a scarlet, fluted cactus. I was happy because I felt I was my authentic self.
We also derive joy on Sukkot from the practice of Ushpizin, a ritual in which we welcome guests into our Sukkah. The medieval sage, Moses Maimonides, otherwise known as the Rambam, once remarked, “when one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and other unfortunate paupers. But one who locks the doors of his courtyard, and eats and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered soul—this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but the joy of his belly . . .” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Festivals 6:18). By sharing our joy, we can together practice the unity and emphasis on community that is essential to celebrating Sukkot. Though I am used to welcoming others into my home, this summer, I was the beneficiary of this custom, albeit not from other Jewish families, but from the strangers affiliated with the churches and community centers that hosted our group of cross-country bikers. Local families would often cook dinner for us and ensure that we were well-taken care of as we rested after a long day of riding. One morning in Springerville, Arizona, I was reminded of the importance of being kind to and hosting strangers. Generally on this trip, we woke up around 3am, and on this particular morning in Springerville, we awoke in a local church. The wife of the church pastor had spent the night at the church, and she, too, woke up at 3am - just so she could put out some food for us to eat for breakfast. This simple act of hospitality has stayed with me for months, and in the spirit of Sukkot, I was reminded that our community is strongest when we open our homes and hearts to Ushpizin.
In the Sukkot story, the Talmud recalls the emergence of an unlikely hero upon the Israelites' arrival at the edge of the Red Sea. The tribes are all debating who will enter the sea first, each too scared to be the first and potentially drown in the sea. Nachshon ben Aminadav jumps into the sea, unsure of whether or not he will survive, but sure that he must take the risk or else return to Egypt. The sea parts and Nachshon makes way for the rest of the Israelites, and as we all know, they make it safely to the other side. Nachshon takes a scrutinized leap of faith; knowing that he can no longer be limited by the oppression in Egypt and he must step up as a leader for his people, he considers his options and chooses to jump towards a new future for himself and embrace the opportunities that await him on the other side of the Red Sea. Nachshon teaches us that you must trust what is beyond you, be open to new opportunities and change, and be willing to make that jump. This summer, I took a leap of faith. I considered my circumstances and chose to take a risk. I chose to trust myself and be secure that I would be okay. I would be okay because I had faith and worked hard, and I would make my dreams come true.
As we experience Sukkot this week, we have the privilege of welcoming others into our Sukkah but also of being exposed to the elements. I encourage each and every one of us to take that leap and embrace this opportunity. Try to appreciate the nature that surrounds you and derive joy from it. Have faith that you will be okay. Who knows -- it may just result in you biking across the country!
Shabbat shalom, and chag sameach.
About the Author: Avital Strauss is a recent graduate of Rochelle Zell Jewish High School. She loves to engage with her school community through various activities such as being President of the Rochelle Zell Feminism Club, Mental Health and Wellness Club, and 8-time international champion Model United Nations team. She has a deep passion for advocating for social justice and being involved in local politics, which she has done through working on various political campaigns. Avital is deeply connected to her Jewish and Israel identity, having attended Jewish school her entire life and being one of JUF’s 18 Under 18 and the Midwest Regional Honoree of StandWithUs’ Leventhal High School Internship. An avid cyclist, skier, and hiker, she enjoys spending time in the outdoors. Avital will be taking a gap year in Bolivia, Peru, South Africa, and Israel before heading to Brown University next fall.