Friday, October 9, 2015

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Chase Brownstein on Sukkot

The Jewish tradition of a Bar Mitzvah is a complex one, spanning back into ancient times. This happens through the Bar Mitzvah, the person responsible for the commandments, withholding, alongside their fellow Jews, our side of the covenant we made with G-d. This is the most essential purpose of the Bar Mitzvah: to further strengthen the bond between a young person and the Jewish community through acceptance of the commandments. 

Today, not only do we find ourselves in the middle of this event, but also in the middle of a larger celebration, Sukkot, or the agricultural festival of the year’s end (“Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end”). In fact, Sukkot is the plural form of the hebrew word sukka, which means “farmer’s hut”. During this celebration, we are obliged to sit in one of these huts, recalling the work our ancestors did in order to sustain themselves and future generations during the Exodus. 

Sukkot nowadays has come to symbolize something else for the Jewish people: The Natural World. This is what intrigues me. The Natural World has been an important part of my life since the day I was born, especially its historical aspect. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in an area where I can observe the full-fledged beauty of nature throughout the year. 

As many of you know, I’ve had a strong interest in paleontology and historic geology, the sciences of prehistory, since I was very young. Currently I’m working as a research associate of these scientific disciplines at the Stamford Museum. Understanding the Natural World is the goal of these sciences, and further advances in them allow us to observe more of Earth in ways we never could, and in ways our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of. During Sukkot, we focus on the transitions that occur in nature. Some of them are seasonal and cyclical, but others involve changes that have occurred over a great amount of time. In fact, Connecticut preserves snapshots of these ancient periods in Earth’s history, from when Mammoths roamed Cove Island 50,000 years ago to when the dinosaurs had just started to rule the Earth 195 million years before the rise of man, leaving traces of their existence throughout the Connecticut Valley. 

Perhaps it is just in our humanity to strive to understand everything around us. Sukkot, therefore, is a celebration of fascination. Like our ancestors who spent decades trekking through the wilderness in search of a home, we sit in our homemade sukkas surrounded by nature. We sit in fascination of the Cosmos and all its inhabitants. This is why we celebrate Sukkot, and why it has lasted throughout the ages, binding our people together, just as Moses united us in the Torah. Maybe it was a combination of the natural wonders they encountered and the words of G-d Moses passed down to them that convinced the people of Israel to follow G-d, creating a culture which thrives to this very day. 

The Bar Mitzvah project I’ve conducted is centered around this idea. In honor of my maternal grandfather, I gathered up supplies and donations to donate to an organization known as VOSH (Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity).  VOSH seeks to provide eye care to those who may need it across the globe. My grandfather, an optometrist by profession, went on many VOSH missions and helped many people to see the world around them. Hopefully, with the donations given to this organization, a few more people out of some 7 billion will be able to observe the Universe around them. Perhaps one of them is looking now, and seeing the cause for our Sukkot celebration. 

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