My first Sukkot in Israel was 10 years ago. Nearing the end of a one-month visit, I was awakened by an alarm. It was a Sunday, the last day of September, and promised to be fun. Yishai Fleisher, then the head of Arutz Sheva’s radio division, had invited me to join a large group of wealthy American donors coming to Beit El from Jerusalem.
Yishai was a new friend. We had met earlier that year after I mustered the chutzpah to call out of the blue. When I first encountered him, on a cool February morning, he was enthusiastic.
And savvy. With genuine interest, he asked a number of important questions before taking me inside for a tour of the studio suite where he worked.
During that first meeting, he said something stunning. We were talking about fund raising, I think, when he said, “Brian, we do not base marketing decisions on money. That is not our main objective. The number one reason we do what we do is to please the heart of Hashem.”
Stated as an almost offhanded sentiment, it left me speechless. And it marked the start of a lifelong friendship.
As I sat up in bed, I quickly checked my email account. In it, I found a message from a childhood acquaintance with whom I rarely corresponded.
His words were intense, disturbing, unclear. Apparently, something bad had happened to my brother’s son.
One of those sons, his oldest, was in the US Army. Three months earlier, during a tour in Iraq, David had been blown out of a Humvee by an IED mine buried beneath the road.
Landing in a ditch, he had almost died. Dozens of surgeries later, he was constantly fighting infections from viruses that invaded bloody shrapnel wounds from the open sewer where he had lain unconscious.
When I saw the email, I thought David had died. Heart pounding, I quickly logged onto a blog site in which his status was updated.
Looking there, I learned that David had not died. It was his two little brothers.
The day before, on a Saturday afternoon in Michigan, 17-year-old Joshua was driving with his 14-year-old brother, Timothy. Lost in country roads in a sea of cornfields, Josh was on his cell phone asking for directions.
With plenty of visibility, huge red stop signs, and rattling speed bumps to which he was oblivious, he rolled straight through a two-way stop.
A pickup truck driving nearly 90 km/h T-boned the boys’ car. Timothy died instantly. Josh, said a witness from scene, lived for a few minutes.
Sitting on the edge of my bed in Jerusalem’s French Hill, it seemed I could not breathe. Seven years earlier I too had lost a son, 11-year-old Taylor, to cancer. Now more death among the children of my family? The quickest I could catch a flight to Michigan was a day away. “God,” I gasped, “how can I possibly wait that long?” Calling Yishai was cathartic. He was both sympathetic and prescriptive.
Come today anyway, he said.
Somehow I made my way to three busloads of American Jews going to Beit El. Although I am a Gentile, they welcomed me as one of them. Once there, I attended a ceremony honoring IDF young people who had died for Israel, then joined the feast in a huge sukka.
When the men danced, together and with their children, Yishai insisted that I join them.
I did. I danced, bathing in the joy.
When the group prepared to leave, I too joined the queue to board a bus.
“Don’t go home yet,” Yishai insisted. "You can take an Egged bus later. Come with Malkah and me to our home. Eat in our sukka.”
That night while dinner was being prepared, Yishai and I walked his dog in an open field beneath a dazzling night sky. Smoking cigars and drinking beers, we laughed and marveled at the vibrant beauty of God’s creation revealed to us in Beit El, the same place where Jacob saw a ladder with angelic forces moving to and from a neighboring dimension.
After dinner in a cheerful sukka just outside the Fleisher’s uninsulated, pre-fab caravan, Yishai and Malkah taught me Torah Scrabble. We talked, teased and learned in an atmosphere that felt like a different dimension, a dimension of life.
It was a perfect Sukkot. From a place of shock and death, I was shown and given life. The sukka was the portal.
Reminded that this life is a temporary construct, I was immersed into its even greater reminder. These bodies, this time, is nonetheless life: amazing, vibrant, full. With sorrows, yes. But all of them all them redeemed by God for those he loves and calls his own.
Like my son Taylor, Joshua and Timothy’s sukka time was shorter than expected. Yes, they had died, and tragically.
But they were no less alive in spite of having done so.
So was I. So are we. Right now, and in such a time as this. Baruch Hashem indeed.The author is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Journal and its daily Chaim Report, published on Facebook from its website, www.JerusalemJournal.net.He can be reached at Brian@JerusalemJournal.net.