My very first Chol Hamoed Sukkos in Israel started off terribly. The first two days of Sukkos were beautiful; I had pleasant meals with relatives and slept comfortably in the sukkah. But after Yom Tov was over, I headed to Meah Shearim to partake in the many Simchas Beis Hashoeva celebrations that I had been hearing about from my friends. “They’re awesome.” “They’re so spiritual.” “What a unique experience.”

These celebrations go all the way back to the time of the Bais Hamikdash. The Jewish People would gather in the courtyard of the temple for an all-night party celebrating the forgiveness that we just attained over Yom Kippur. The leaders of the Jewish People would lead the way with juggling and dancing and there are many tales told of their acrobatic feats. The Talmud relates that “one who never saw the joy at the Simchas Beis Hashoeiva never experienced joy in their life.” Talk about hype. Of course, the Talmud was referring to the original in the Bais Hamikdash, not the celebrations in Meah Shearim, but still I was quite excited to see the continuation of this tradition for myself.

I got to Meah Shearim, met up with my friends, and we started going from shul to shul. Each celebration had their own unique flavor. One place we went to was known as the dryer – as in a clothes dryer. The dancing there is as chaotic as dryer. People holding hands and running in every direction at high speed. It’s nuts. We went to another place where they were known for singing really loudly. The rumors were true. It was deafening. We went from simchas beis hashoeva to simchas beis hashoeva. Everyone around us was happy but me and my small group of friends, we just weren’t feeling it. We weren’t connecting to it in any way.

Another friend called us and told us we were in the wrong place – he told us we need to go to Yeshiva Merkaz Harav. This is the yeshiva founded by Rav Kook. It is the flagship religious Zionist institution. So we headed over there. It was definitely very festive, and we tried to get into it. At one point I was standing near the band – there was a band performing – and I must have been standing right under the trumpet player and all of a sudden, I felt a huge glob of wetness on my face. I am told by professional trumpet players that it is not spit, it is condensed water. You could call it whatever you want, it was gross.

We left.

It was midnight. Everywhere we went people were laughing and dancing and joyous, and we weren’t. It’s a pretty lousy feeling to be surrounded by such joy and to feel so distant from it. It’s a very lonely feeling. To go through an experience that is supposed to be spiritually uplifting and not feel uplifted at all, is kind of crushing.

I imagine some of you may have felt this way on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, maybe this year, maybe in years past. People around you are into the services and you’re not. You know you’re supposed to be feeling something and you can’t feel anything at all. It’s lonely and demoralizing.

Rav Moshe Schreiber, otherwise known as the Chasam Sofer, one of the most influential rabbis of the 19th century, has a beautiful and pertinent thought about the holiday of Sukkos. There is a debate in the Talmud about what we are commemorating on this holiday. Rav Eliezer says that we are commemorating the clouds of glory that surrounded the Jewish People as they journeyed through the desert. Rabbi Akiva argues and says that we are commemorating actual booths that the Jewish People built for themselves in the desert. But here’s the problem – the Torah tells us explicitly that there were clouds of glory that surrounded the Jewish People. There is no mention of the Jewish People building booths and why would they? They had these miraculous clouds that protected them from the elements?

Suggests the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Akiva agrees that there were clouds of glory that protected the Jewish People. But the Torah also teaches us that certain individuals had to sometimes leave those clouds of glory and live outside the Jewish camp. People who were tamei, impure, people like the Metzora, individuals who had a form of skin disease that indicated that they had sinned. Such people, due to their state of impurity, were forced to leave the clouds of glory and stay by themselves, away from everyone else. Those people did not have clouds of glory to protect them from the beasts of the desert. These people did not have clouds of glory to protect them from the elements. What did they do? They built huts. Sukkos mamesh.

What Rabbi Akiva is suggesting is that on Sukkos, we are not commemorating the nation of Israel being surrounded by clouds of glory – as great as a miracle as that was. We are commemorating the individual Jew, the lonely Jew, who was not connected to the nation in that moment, who felt alone, who felt broken, who felt lost. Who nonetheless was protected by G-d even though he or she was not surrounded by the clouds of glory. That is what, or rather, who, we are commemorating on this holiday. The Zohar writes that the Sukkah is meant to be a hug from Hashem. It is a hug to the solitary Jew who is all alone.

And that’s what Sukkos is meant to be. You may feel distant, you may not feel loved by G-d, you may not feel connected to your fellow Jews, you may not feel inspired by religious experiences. But then you go into your Sukkah. Simple walls and roof, no rituals you have to do. You just sit there surrounded by G-d. A hug from Hashem for those of us who do not feel connected.

At about midnight that evening on Chol Hamoed Sukkos, my friends and I had given up on having an uplifting evening. We were walking by the central bus station, the tachana merkazi. We were hungry – we were 19, we were always hungry. So we bought some danishes and beer from a convenience store, and sat down in the small sukkah outside. One of my friends started singing, and we joined him. A few minutes later, a woman who was carrying a whole bunch of bags with her – she seemed homeless, joined us. A little while later, a young chossid came in the sukkah as well. More and more people joined us in this little sukkah. We bought some more food, some more drinks. People shared stories and we sang. More stories, more songs. It was the most beautiful simchas beis hashoeiva I have experienced in my life.

Sometimes we need to go off the beaten path to reconnect. Sometimes we need to be a little bold, we need to try something new and different to get that spark of spirituality that we crave.  Sometimes we need to leave our comfort zone, sometimes we need to leave the clouds of glory because that’s the only place we can really find ourselves.

The Sukkah is a reminder to all those who feel disconnected, all those who feel impure, and all those who feel lost and alone, that Hashem is still there with you and He’s giving you a hug.