By Larry Gordon
I have been in Israel for Sukkos, and it is indeed a geographic as well as spiritual journey that makes you want to return for yom tov again and again. It is a special experience.
When you are in Israel, there is a world of difference between staying in a hotel over yom tov and spending the holiday in your apartment, whether you own one or rent one for the nearly-two-week observance. A lot of decisions need to be made which can make staying at home and enjoying the chag in your sukkah in your backyard the easiest thing to do.
It has been written that when petitioners would present the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l, with a personal dilemma about whether to go live or study in Israel, the Rebbe would respond that a Jew has the unique ability to turn wherever he is into Israel. In this week’s portion of Bereishis, there is not just a material desire to travel to and experience the land of Israel as we know it, but a spiritual parallel to that need and desire.
If you live outside of Israel and celebrate the chag in Israel, one of the greatest dilemmas is how many days of yom tov to observe. Do you have two days of yom tov on both ends of the chag or do you enjoy a longer chol ha’moed? This is not a personal choice but a matter that requires rabbinic consultation, and the decision you receive from your authorities can impact dramatically on how your experience.
Some people observe just one day of yom tov while you and your family may celebrate two. And it gets more complicated. For men and boys over the age of bar mitzvah, the deeper halachic consideration is on the last day of yom tov, Simchas Torah, and whether you are obligated to don tefillin in the morning. When we were in Israel a few years ago for Sukkos, I was saying kaddish for my mother, and dealt with that very dilemma.
A common practice for those observing two days of yom tov is to reserve and pre-pay for a meal in a restaurant that is open on the first day of chol ha’moed in Israel. It is not unusual to step into one of these eateries and find people at one table making havdalah while those at the table next to them are saying kiddush.
This year we were in New York and enjoyed a fantastic yom tov with family. The odd thing about this yom tov was that on the day of strong winds and torrential downpours in Israel, we remarkably similar weather here in New York. You have probably seen the videos and photos. Sukkahs were blown and washed away here, as well as in parts of Israel. Perhaps that is another manifestation of our unity and attachment as one people, no matter where we find ourselves at any given time.
On one of those rainy days we made our way to the mammoth Palisades Center in West Nyack, New York, not far from Monsey. I’ve been there previously, but only to go to one or two specific shops that line the finely appointed stretch of shopping.
We arrived fairly early on this chol ha’moed morning, about 11 a.m. At first I was a little surprised at the small turnout, but then in less than an hour I took note of families streaming into the mall from all directions. To me it looked like families from the Monsey area — those from nearby chassidic communities that largely dominate the area.
If you have never been to the Palisades Center, I do not mean to pressure you into any shopping obligations, but this place is something to behold. Aside from the floors of shops and stores, there is a huge Ferris wheel, a carousel, bowling alley, laser tag court, movie theater, and so on.
At one point I was sitting on one of those comfortable mall recliners just outside of a shop named “Party Animals.” It was mostly a large empty space with big stuffed animals such as zebras, horses and so on. They appeared to be battery-powered and were large enough for one or two people — usually an adult and a child — to ride for a few minutes, in a circle, as a mode of entertainment, mostly for the child, I assume.
I was sitting there watching Fox News on my phone when I noticed a tall bearded man wearing a long black kapote place his child on one of the faux animal figures, lift up the bottom of his long coat and sit down on the animal as well. He placed his feet in the stirrups and there he was, riding around in circles. I wondered to myself where else in the world and on what other occasion could you see something as anomalous as this.
Then it occurred to me that this might be a manifestation of something that the Ba’al Shem Tov said quite a few hundred years ago. The Ba’al Shem Tov was referencing the power of acts of chesed and the role they play in this material world. We learn that so significant is chesed that a person can be created and placed on this world for 80 or more years just to hold the door for someone or help a person in need just once.
The thought occurred to me as I traversed this massive mall on chol ha’moed that these companies and stores, the amusement park-like rides, the bowling alley, the laser tag arena, and even the Party Animals store might have been created just so that a few hundred families celebrating the chag with their families can do so in style and with fun and satisfaction for all.
That is the koach of yom tov and a Jew celebrating the chag. These stores with their Halloween displays and upcoming Christmas sales are there so some young kids can enjoy their time off with their families on chol ha’moed.
It was already mid-afternoon and our thoughts turned to minchah. We wondered whether we could make it back to the Five Towns or if we should look for a minyan in nearby Monsey before heading back home. Then we looked around at hundreds of Jewish people with hundreds more kids and wondered why we were making things so hard for ourselves. I walked over to a table where two young men were sitting, and politely asked if they had davened minchah yet. I said that I’d like to put a minyan together so that kaddish could be said.
These two jumpped up and announced in every direction, “minchah, minchah.” In about five minutes there were at least 50 people assembled near the merry-go-round, ready to daven minchah.
We davened facing a large white wall that housed a movie theater on the other side. It was not the Western Wall by any stretch of the imagination, but our large group faced east, and whether we were looking into our electronic siddurim or swaying slightly with our eyes closed, for those few moments we were there in Jerusalem.