Archive | September, 2007

The Sukkot of the Diaspora

25 Sep

I begin with apologies to those who look for my blog every Tuesday and have not found new entries these past two weeks.  I have just returned from a trip to the United States, and my packed schedule did not allow for much time to think and compose my thoughts.

Since making aliyah in June of 2000, my visits to Jewish communities in the United States have always been a mixture of inspiration and sadness.  I have been inspired on many occasions by the tireless efforts of both professional and lay-leadership who have dedicated every ounce of their being to assuring that their synagogues or Jewish communities flourish.  New buildings, renovations and even massive additions to established buildings are taking place everywhere. More kosher restaurants and more kosher products on the shelves, more learning initiatives, more programs and activities – enough to keep you busy every day of the week with just “Jewish stuff.”  It is quite impressive!

On the other hand, I find myself saddened as well.  For it seems to me that people are so busy making things happen, running another program, attending another Jewish activity, that in certain ways people are losing sight of the forest for the trees.  That is to say, they are so busy “doing” Jewish that they are losing track of the basic definition and function of “being” Jewish.

In light of the season, I might suggest that Diaspora Jews are actually busy building and surrounding themselves with sukkot all year long. 

When we enter the sukkah this Wednesday evening, we will be transported to a different place.  We will surround ourselves with Jewish reminders.  This special temporary Jewish home that goes up for a week each year takes us out of normal living and into a whole different way of life.  Decorations, posters, pictures of Jewish life surround us.  Illustrations of the seven species of the land of Israel are a common theme, as well as the ushpizin, invitations to the patriarchs (and for some, the matriarchs as well).  Both serve to connect us to another place, another time.  I might suggest that the goal of the sukkah is to do just this – to surround us with thoughts of God and Jewish peoplehood, to remind us of the exodus from Egypt (see Leviticus 23:43), to reassure us of God’s protection, generation to generation.

Jewish life in the Diaspora, it seems to me, is very much about building sukkot in the broadest sense in order to surround day-to-day living with Jewish symbols and reminders.

It is interesting to note that when the Torah instructs the observance of Sukkot as a festival in which we are to dwell in these temporary structures, it does so within the context of the time of the year “when you are gathering in the produce of the land.” (Lev. 23:39) Clearly “the land” here is referring to the land of Israel.  So, according to the Torah, the ideal context for Sukkot observance is in the context of the harvest here in Israel. 

“In sukkot you shall dwell, for seven days, everyone who is a citizen of Israel, they shall dwell in sukkot.”  (Lev. 23:43)

The sages of the Talmud search to find the purpose of the strange way this verse is worded, singling out “the citizen” -“ha-ezrach” for observance of this commandment. They suggest it is a hint that only men are obligated, not women, as well as some other inclusions and exceptions regarding who is obligated in the observance of this mitzvah.

Rabbininic interpretations notwithstanding here, I would like to suggest that there is a very straightforward message to be found in this verse. 

I believe that the Torah is speaking specifically to the Jew in the land of Israel, and instructing us that each year we are to build for ourselves sukkot in order to recall what it is like to live outside of the land.  The sukkah is a somewhat contrived environment, in which we surround ourselves with artifacts that give meaning to the place, knowing full well that we are only meant to live this way for a short time. Life in the Diaspora, as Jewishly rich as it can be in many cases, is still no more than a manufactured existence within the context of a much broader, non-Jewish entity. Where we have thrived, it has been God’s providence that has assured out survival.

And so, for me, the sukkah serves as a reminder of what it is that our family left when we moved to Israel seven years ago. We left a richness of admirable communal dedication, of creativity, of resourcefulness. However, we replaced that with a world where Jewish living is the norm, where Hebrew is the spoken language, and where kosher restaurants are the norm, not the exception. Here Shabbat is called Shabbat, and secular newspapers carry detailed information as to how one is to observe the holidays throughout the year.

Dwelling in the sukkah here in Israel reminds us of what we had to do in order to create a Jewish environment in the many places of our wandering. It reminds us of how God preserved us while “taking us out of the land of Egypt,” and leading us through generations of Diaspora living.

Perhaps it is for this reason that as Yom Kippur came to a close, signaling the time to prepare for our Sukkot celebrations, Jews throughout the world sang the words “Next Year in Jerusalem,” in recognition that, as good as it gets in the Diaspora, it still isn’t the same as “coming home for the holidays.”

Chag Sameach