Every human being is beautiful. Each has his own needs, wants, desires, passions which serve to complement and influence our experiences. This realisation not only heightens our empathy towards each other but sets each person a mission.’ Words written by Yoni Jesner z’l – one of over 60 sayings he wrote for himself. Yoni wasn’t writing them to show people, he wasn’t writing them to impress, he was writing them for himself - to live by and to think about.
Yoni was an inspiring youth leader and active member of the Glasgow Jewish community. He was just beginning his second gap year in Israel when he was tragically killed by a suicide bombing on a bus in Israel on Erev Sukkot in 2002. He was only 19. His family and friends established the Yoni Jesner Foundation to ensure his life and legacy would continue to inspire –through the Yoni Jesner Awards which encourage volunteering and the Scholarships which are given to exceptional young people who are spending their gap year in Israel.
Every year to mark Yoni’s yahrzeit (anniversary of his death), we hold Under One Roof – Yoni’s Global Sukkah where people invite friends and family to join them over the week of Sukkot, do some learning in his memory and donate some tzdedakah to the Foundation. This year, the theme is ‘Every human being is beautiful’ inspired by the above aphorism.
We chose this quote because there are so many ways we can interpret it and think about it. Whether it’s thinking about the pressures social media put on us and our physical ‘beauty’ or valuing the importance of everyone we meet – we felt sure that this quote would resonate with all kinds of people. There is a surge in young people challenging societal norms imposed upon us – think about the campaign led by the survivors of the Florida school shooting for example. I have been really inspired by acid attack survivor and activist, Katie Gee who is challenging society’s norms of ‘beauty’ using #settingthestandard encouraging everyone to embrace their own imperfections and see them as beautiful, to name but one.
The idea of ‘Every Human Being is Beautiful’ also resonates with Sukkot itself and one of the key symbols, the Four Species - the etrog, palm (lulav), myrtle and willow. The lulav and etrog are probably common sights to many of us, with memories of waving them together at primary school or cheder. But as with everything in Judaism, there is specific meaning behind each of the four species – as well as the importance of using them together.
There are many interpretations about why the four species must be held together and their interdependent relationship. Have a look here for many, but here are a few of my favourite:
The four species represent the four letter name of God, meaning that when combined they take on a new collective meaning and power. The mitzvah of the lulav and etrog demonstrates that no individual can attain fulfilment unless they are willing to go beyond themselves and join together with others. Whether this makes you think about singers who never manage to replicate their band’s success when they go solo, or a particular project that was improved by working together – we can see the importance of unity.
Taste represents learning. Smell represents good deeds. The etrog has both taste and smell. The lulav has taste but not fragrance. The myrtle has smell but no taste. And the willow has neither. Each represents a different type of person. Some have both learning and good deeds; some have one without the other; and some have neither. Real community is found in their being bound together and brought under one roof. No matter how much we develop ourselves as individuals, we cannot reach our true potential without the help of others.
In order to be kosher, the etrog must grow on the tree for an entire calendar year and is therefore exposed to all the seasonal variations and changes of climate. Not only does the etrog withstand all these influences, but it responds positively to them; each of these influences contributes to its growth. None of us operate in a silo, we must learn from our environment and our experiences. As the Mishnah teaches, "Who is wise? - One who learns from every man."
Sukkot is a time when traditionally we literally take ourselves out of our comfort zone by residing in temporary shelters. I think that we should also embrace being taken out of our metaphorical comfort zones, pushing ourselves away from what makes us comfortable and challenging ourselves to seek unity, tolerance and inclusivity. If the very different components of the Four Species can co-exist harmoniously and elevate our Sukkot – surely so can we?
Sam Clifford is the director of the Yoni Jesner Foundation and a freelance project manager with a special focus on the Jewish community. Sam has previously worked for Lead, UJIA, Jewish Care and was the founding project manager of Nisa-Nashim the Jewish Muslim Women’s Network. Sam is an active member of Finchley Reform Synagogue. www.yonijesner.org