You’re on vacation in a faraway European city or Mediterranean resort, enjoying the time away from real life, rejuvenating your body and spirit while taking in the sites and views. You don’t have the same responsibilities you have back home, hopefully you disconnect from all that keeps you stressed at work, and you try to make the most of your time away.
You have time to strike up conversations with fellow travelers about trivial matters that don’t have any real ramifications on your or their life, discussing arbitrary subjects because when you’re on vacation no one wants to get caught up in things that really matter. You tell yourself that you can really get used to this, the relaxing environment, the lack of responsibilities, the ability to rediscover yourself and the world around you.
But when someone asks you where you’re from or what you do, you don’t reply that you’re from the particular country you happen to be in at the moment, and you certainly don’t say that you relax for a living. You reply truthfully, sharing the name of your hometown and your actual occupation. Because as much as we like traveling and going on vacation, there is still no place like home. As much as we dread the everyday monotony of our daily lives, we recognize that that’s who we are. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Stability and a clear homebase is a necessity for every human being, and people that don’t have that element in their lives deserve our sympathy and help. A person cannot be truly alive without a home. Home is where the heart is, home is where you can be yourself, home is where you sleep in your own bed, and—the modern addition—home is where the Wi-Fi connects automatically.
The holiday of Sukkot, named for the temporary huts we “dwell” in for a week, highlights this concept. Sukkot actually has other requirements and observances throughout the holiday, but for some reason the sukkah hut was selected as the overall title of the holiday. The other notable mitzvah of this holiday is the four species, where we hold a lulav (palm branch), etrog (citrus fruit), hadassim (myrtles), and aravot (willows), recite a blessing, and shake them. But nobody refers to this holiday as “Lulav” (or “Etrog” for that matter).
There are a number of reasons the sukkah won out over the lulav for naming rights. For starters, the mitzvah to dwell in the sukkah applies from the moment the holiday begins until it ends, whereas the four species are only taken in the morning, and once you recite the blessing you are done with that mitzvah for the day. Also, building a sukkah requires preparation before the holiday, whereas the lulav and etrog set can technically be prepared on the holiday itself. Another reason is that the mitzvah of four species is fulfilled by holding them, whereas the mitzvah of sukkah encompasses the entire body. It isn’t a mitzvah for one particular body part, it’s a mitzvah for one’s entire being.
And finally, perhaps the most important reason the holiday is called Sukkot is because even when one is not in the sukkah, the obligation is still upon him. You may be going about your life outside of the sukkah, but just like a home (which the Torah says the sukkah replaces for the duration of the holiday), even when you’re away it is still tied to you. Even when you aren’t in the sukkah, the sukkah is still there, beckoning to you and awaiting your return. Even when you’re away the mitzvah is still in effect, because as noted, it’s a mitzvah that applies at every moment of the holiday and it encompasses a person’s entire being.
Taking this metaphor a bit further, the same applies to being Jewish in general. Even when a Jew is not in the synagogue or actively doing something “Jewish,” they are still a Jew. Wherever a Jew goes and whatever they do, being Jewish will always be their essence and “homebase.” And just like Sukkot, a Jew isn’t called by the name of a specific mitzvah but by the one thing that encompasses their entire being and is in effect all the time—the fact of being Jewish.
You are a Jew in the street as much as you are in the synagogue, because that is your essence.