One of the important lessons of Sukkot is tolerance -- that it takes all of kinds of Jews to make a complete nation of Israel.
On Sukkot we celebrate how, after God rescued us from slavery in Egypt, He protected us in the harsh desert with special clouds. We remember this miracle by building beautifully-decorated huts, where for one whole week we eat our meals and even sleep (weather permitting).
Also we put together and wave special bundles made from four specific types of trees. Three of these -- the etrog (citron), lulav (date-palm), and hadas (myrtle) -- come from trees that produce either a sweet smell, a delicious fruit, or both. These represent those Jews who study the Torah, do good deeds, or both.
But the fourth branch is from the aravah (willow tree), which has neither a pleasant fragrance nor a fruit. This branch stands for the Jew who neither does good deeds nor studies Torah. Yet if we leave this branch out, the bundle is considered incomplete and we can't fulfill the mitzvah of shaking it.
This teaches us that God wants the Jewish people to "bundle" themselves together and all get along. Even those among us who seem, like the willow, to have nothing going for them, are important and beloved by God. And while some people may be better at some things than others, it doesn't make them better people. Only all of us together can make the Jewish people complete.
In our story, a brother and sister learn the value of counting people in.
"BY INVITATION ONLY"
It was one month and counting to the big day -- Shimmy's bar mitzvah. The hall was rented. The caterer was hired. Shimmy, always a good student, had already learned by heart everything he had to say.
There was only one thing missing -- the invitations. It had taken ages for them to come back from the printer and now that they had arrived at last, the envelopes had to be addressed and fast.
"Shimmy, your job is easy," said Shimmy's older sister Ruth. "Just tell me who you want to invite and I'll address the envelopes."
Ruth loved the job because it let her show off her calligraphic skills.
Shimmy shrugged. "No problem," he said, handing her a list of his classmates. "I want to invite everyone in my class, except for Randy."
Ruth blinked. "Why don't you want to invite that one boy?" she asked, confused. "Did he do something to hurt you?"
"Well, no," Shimmy answered. "It's just that he's ... you know, kinda weird. He dresses funny and just sits by himself and doesn't talk to anybody. Besides," he added nervously, as if to justify himself, "the last guy in the class who made a party didn't invite him either."
Ruth put down the stack of envelopes she was holding and looked at her brother across the table. "Shimmy, think about what you're saying. Is it right that people are inviting the whole class and leaving one boy out, just because he's not so popular?"
Shimmy looked down at the ground. He thought about his sister's words.
"Would it be so bad to count him in?" she urged.
Shimmy looked up at Ruth and said quietly, "You know, when I went to the party last week and Randy wasn't there, it really didn't seem right. He's part of the class, too. Let's invite him."
Ruth smiled at Shimmy in approval and began her calligraphy. The invitations went out and the big night arrived. The Bar Mitzvah was a huge success. Even Uncle Abe had a good time.
After the party, Shimmy was up late opening all his gifts and cards. He opened up one present and read the card. "Hey Ruth," he called out to his sister sitting on the couch across the room. "Come see this!"
His sister put down the book she was reading and came over to take a look. "What is it?" she asked. "A big check from Aunt Lil?"
"No," he laughed. "Something even better. Read this." He handed her a small card. It said:
Happy Bar Mitzvah. Thanks so much for inviting me. I didn't think anybody even knew I existed. Now I feel like I'm one of the guys... thanks to you.
Shimmy looked at his sister and said, "Thanks for helping me make the right decision. You never know what one little invitation can do."
Q. How would you feel if one of your friends made a club and invited all of your friends to join, except you?
A. I would feel left out and upset that I wasn't included too.
Q. Is it right to say or do things that make some people feel excluded, and that they aren't part of the group? Why or why not?
A. Everyone likes to feel like he or she belongs. It's good to try to find ways to make everybody feel included in some way.
Q. Randy didn't really participate in the class or mix with the other kids. So why do you think it was important for him to be invited to the bar mitzvah?
A. Many times people who seem to be keeping to themselves very much want to participate but are too shy, or just don't know how to socialize. By going out of our way to count them in, and accepting them for who they are, we can help them gain more confidence about themselves.
Q. Would you say that a bright student would gain more by being in a class of others all like him, or in a class mixed together with less talented students? Why?
A. While he might achieve more academically with others as bright as himself, he would be losing out on some very valuable life-lessons -- such as learning how to appreciate different types of people, and developing a sense of gratitude for the talents he has that others may lack.
Q. Do you know anyone who is very different than you? Is it harder or easier to like that person? What can you admire about that person?
Q. Our sages teach us: "Do not be scornful of any person, nor be disdainful of anything, because there is no person without his hour, and no thing without his place." How do you understand this statement?
A. While some people clearly contribute something important to their communities and to the world, others just seem like "extras" in the cast of life. They appear to have nothing to add to the world, and may even seem to be detracting from it. But it's a mistake to write anybody off. God loves everyone and would not put anybody or anything in the world without a purpose.
There are some people who may live their entire life -- just to reach one moment of greatness. And even that greatness may be hidden. We should remember that God loves and values every person that He has created and wants us to learn to do the same.
Q. In your opinion, is it ever possible to say someone is a "better person" or a "better Jew" than someone else? Why or why not?
A. Each person is a world unto himself. Each of us has natural strong points and weaknesses. For instance, one person's nature is to get angry easily. If he works hard and holds himself back even half of the time, he's doing great. For another, anger isn't a test at all. And the few times he lets himself get angry he could have easily stopped himself. From a superficial perspective, the second guy is doing a better job at controlling his temper, since he gets angry less often. But God knows better. He sees how much harder the first guy is trying, and how he really deserves more credit. It's the same way in all areas of life, including the spiritual/religious. We just don't have enough insight or perspective to judge who is "better." This is known only to God.