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


8 Responses to “The Sukkot of the Diaspora”

  1. Henri Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 6:13 pm #

    shana tova, Morey. I hear you saying that since we in the diaspora live outside the land year-round, our “doing Jewish” is our attempt to build and maintain the sukkot in which we live all the time. In that case, the celebration of sukkot in the diaspora, specifically constructing and eating in a temporary shelter for a week, should have an additional meaning to remind ourselves that we have chosen not to live in the land. Perhaps we should decorate our sukkot with photos, artifacts, and other mementos of Israel. Perhaps our ushpizin should be Israelis who live in our part of the diaspora. Perhaps we should be determined to have conversations in the sukkah about life in Israel and how we can support our prayers and hopes for peace and justice in the land. What do you think? chag sameach!

  2. ellen Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 8:39 pm #

    Morey – Chag Sameach!
    This was a very moving piece. It seems to me that you were always at your most eloquent when speaking about aliyah. Keep up the good work.

  3. Barry Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 11:14 pm #

    Thank you, Rabbi Schwartz for your insightful observations about Jewish life in the Diaspora. As one who lives in the Diaspora, I agree that many here have attempted to create a “virtual” Israel in exchange for the real thing. I do not mean to minimize the cultural, political, and financial support that Jews in exile provide for their brethren in Israel. It is just that history has shown that too much comfort and acceptance in exile hinders the ultimate goal of having all Jews settle the Land.

    Using your metaphor, it is as if the succah that Jews have erected in the Diaspora to provide a “little Israel” within a broader non-Jewish environment, has a non-kosher roof (sechach). It is packed too tightly, not allowing any rain to fall through—like the rain, a little discomfort can sometimes be a blessing. We use branches that are still attached to the tree, because we are not willing to sever our connection to our host countries. We also fail to see the required stars through the branches, reminding us of God’s promise to Avraham: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them…so shall thy seed be. I am the L-rd that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this Land to inherit it.” (Gen 15:5-8)

    This “non-kosher sechach” invalidates the basic premise of the succah, which is to make us mindful of the futility of our attempts to achieve an illusory security: “Vanity of vanities…”, says Koheleth. Ultimately, the only roof over our heads that affords us any true protection are the hands of God.

  4. Morey Wednesday, September 26, 2007 at 12:13 am #

    Henri – I love your idea….in a sense, Diaspora Jews could use the week in the Sukkah to imagine what it would be like to be Jews living in Israel and vieiwing what the Sukkah represents as a part of their past, rather than their present! Nice thought.

    Ellen – thanks for your comments! I do feel pretty passionately about living in Israel, but, as I have written, have great respect for people like you and Ron who dedicate so much of your effforts to maintaining the year-round sukkah in places like Kansas!

    Barry – Powerful thought! the “too-tightly packed s’chach” reminds me of how I had decided ever since my first year in Israel 1981-82 that I would never live too long in a place where Diaspora life was too comfortable…as you write, a little discomfort can sometimes be a blessing! Thanks for your comments and fell free to pass on the url of my blog to others in the congregation and community who might enjoy it!

  5. Yakov Friday, September 28, 2007 at 7:10 pm #

    Thank you Rabbi Schwartz for your sympathetic (maybe a little pitying maybe even condescending) words about the Jews in America who “are so busy doing Jewish that they are losing track of the basic definition of being Jewish.”

    You are implying that full Jewish life is only possible in Israel and Diaspora Jewish life is a “manufactured & contrived existence”. Note however that Jewish life, as it is defined today, was totally conceived and developed in the Diaspora. After the destruction of Temple in the 6th century B.C.E. the Jews in Babylonia – who by rights should have vanished as the 10 tribes – conceived the idea of replacing the Temple rituals with Torah Study and prayers. So the Jews survived in spite of the odds against them. The Sages lived and worked mostly in the Diaspora and so did Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Rashi and practically all other thinkers who determined what we might call Jewish life today.

    On Erev Yom Kippur the Israeli daily Haaretz had on its cover page a girl riding a bicycle. It seems that on Yom Kippur many Israeli children expect to ride them in the streets as there is little traffic (the sale of bikes peaks just before YK!). It makes YK a special day but should one characterize it as the essence of Jewish Life? Is it more Jewish than fasting and praying in a shull albeit in Brooklyn or in Florida? Yes Shabbat is called Shabbat in Israel but for most Israelis it means a jaunt to the beach or a trip to an out of town resort or shopping mall. You mention kosher restaurants being the norm – not in Haifa where most of my family lives. We have more of them in South Florida. Now of course Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim are different but so are Williamsburg and Kiryas Yoel.

    It is great that lately (it started after the 67 war) some halachically orthodox Jews believe that full Jewish life is only possible in Israel and they are making aliyah – Ken Yirbu. But to negate meaningful Jewish life in America after making aliyah reminds me of Itzik and Moishe who saw a sign in Las Vegas proclaiming in large neon letters: “Convert to the true faith! Accept the Saviour! $1000 in coupons.” So Moishe goes to see what it is all about. When he comes out an hour later Itzik asks him excitedly: “Nu, Moishe did you get the $1000”. Disdainfully Moishe answers: “You Jews! All what you can think of is money, money!”

    I believe that Jews lived a very meaningful life for centuries in Babylonia, Alexandria, Spain and Central & Eastern Europe. Jewish life in the US is also thriving and there is nothing to be sad about! It is something to celebrate and encourage. Many of the greatest periods of Judaism, culturally and materially, were in the Diaspora. Yes mostly they came to a tragic end ultimately but so did life in the Land of Israel several times in our history. What saved Judaism again and again is exactly being dispersed in many lands.

    Shana Tovah and Hag Sameach


  6. Morey Sunday, September 30, 2007 at 9:41 am #


    Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts.

    I think you have missed the point of my blog entry. I did not set out to criticize life in the Diaspora, but simply to call a spade a spade. I used the Sukkah as a metaphor of what it takes to creat a vibrant Jewish life in the Diaspora – a lot of resourcefulness and creativity – because when Jewish culture seeks to thrive in the midst of a non-Jewish one, the focus is on survival.

    For instance, since I have been in Israel, I have not heard a single statement about the danger of intermarriage, or what can we do to make sure that Jewish singles marry Jewishly. Of course there are Israelis who intermarry, but there are no program in Israel focused on preventing this, because the best weapon against it is simply living here in Israel. There will always be those who intermarry nonetheless, but it is by no means threatening Jewish existence here as it is in the Diaspora of the 21st century.

    The “sukkot” of the Diaspora are what they are – a means for preserving Jewish culture and Jewish identity. Neither of those are major concerns here in Israel, as both are provided by simply living here.

    As to your points….

    1. Post-Temple life was not effectively developed by Jews in Babylonia post-destruction of the first Temple, but rather, by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and his students in Israel, in Yavne, post destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE. Eventually, that task was taken over by the sages of Babylonia and the Gaonim.

    2. The great rabbis you refer to – Rambam, Ibn Ezra, Rashi – all living in the medieval period, did provide for Jewish survival and development in their Diaspora existences, but you must admit, every one of them prayed daily for the return to Zion and wrote hoped to return to live in the land in their lifetime. There is no doubt that all of them longed to return to live in the land, Ramban, another sage who fits into that category, even wrote that the observance of mitzvot in the Diaspora is only for the sake of staying in practice until Jews return to live in the land. They too understood the significant difference between life in Daispora nd life in land of Israel.

    3. 70% of Israelis attended a syangogue during the High Holidays this year, compared with 60% of Anerican Jews. More than a third of restauratns are kosher in Israel, which is not a majoority, but deas make it feel like the norm here. My point is not, however, that Jews are more observant of Jewish law in israel. My point is rather that Jewish life is the norm here, and that even the biker on Yom Kippur knows full well that it is Yom Kippur, even when he chooses not to fast. The country is fasting, the airport is closed, the radio and tv are silent.

    4. I do not appreciate your accusation that I am negating the existence of meaningful life in America after my aliyah. I am comparing and contrasting, not out to condemn nor to negate. That is your interpretation. Having served as rabbi of a community for nine years, I speak from experience, having built many a “sukkah”during those years.

    5. The Jews who lived a meaningful life for centuries in Babylonia, Alexandria, Spain and Central and Eastern Europe all pined to return to live in Israel. I do celebrate their accomplishments given the fact the life in Israel was not possible. However, Jewish life takes its lead from the Bible, which is pretty clear as to the Jewish ideal. I understand that there will most likely always be a Jewish Diaspoa and that it is the Diaspora that provided for the survival of Jews throughout the generations – long live a vibrant Daispora! – but there is still a big differenCe between a “sukkah”and a “home.” And that is my point.

    Even the most beautiful “sukkot” are only meant to be temporary dwellings.

    Chag Sameach,


  7. Yakov Monday, October 1, 2007 at 10:52 pm #

    Rabbi Morey,

    The greatest danger to Judaism survival, in my opinion, was after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. In the centuries around the middle of the first millennium (BCE) most nations of the Ancient Middle East vanished from history. Assyria, Babylonia, Amon, Moab, Edom, Aram, Israel (10 tribes) and others succumbed to the inevitable pattern of physical destruction followed to cultural assimilation. The Judah exiles did not vanish – they became Jews. Historians are still struggling to understand and explain this unique phenomenon in the history of humanity.

    Incidentally, the Babylonian exile started the yearning to Jerusalem that I agree with you was, and is, a constant theme in Diaspora. Who can forget the aching words of the Psalm “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” But it should be also noted that when the opportunity came to physically return – most preferred to stay, probably continuing to sing Psalm 137. Even the great Rambam – when he was forced to leave his native Spain because of the Almohadin persecution – went to Palestine initially but then decided to settle permanently in Egypt.

    I agree with you that Zion and Jerusalem is the Jewish ideal. Diaspora Jews starting in 6th Century Babylonia to the 21st century America yearned for this ideal. But I think it is the one about which Isaiah said that Baachrit Hayamim, in the End of Days, “will be raised above the hills, and all nations will look to it”. And from where the Word of the Lord would come forth and as a result “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” It is sort of an ideal Jerusalem like a Yerushalaim shel Maalah. A Jew, if he really meant the physical one, after singing enthusiastically Leshana Habaah Beyurushalaim at Seder, could have bought an El-Al ticket and settled in Jerusalem the next week.

    Kol Hakavod to Yochanan Ben Zakkai for establishing the academy at Yavneh, and “developing Judaism”. But by the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE there was a thriving community in Babylonia with over 600 years tradition of Jewish life. And there was one in Egypt going back to the times of Jeremiah and the Elephantine settlement. And there were Jews practically everywhere in the Roman Empire and in all civilized world surviving as Jews in exilic and even hostile conditions. Without Yavneh, Judaism would have no doubt been different but it would have survived.


  8. Barry Tuesday, October 2, 2007 at 3:06 am #

    I have a few thoughts to share based on the above discussion. Our connection to the Land transcends nationalism or Zionism—it is a Covenantal relationship that originated with Avraham Avinu, a brit forged in the spirit of mutual love and shared goals. As such, it is possible to be a Diaspora Jew and still relate to the Land in this way. It is also possible to be an Israeli Jew and not relate to the Land in this way. The ideal situation, of course, is to actualize this Covenantal relationship in the Land itself.

    Many people view performance of mitzvoth as the primary function of the Jew, with the Land serving the secondary function of merely providing a place for us to perform them. As such, studying Torah and performing mitzvoth are more important than living in the Land. However, as Rabbi M. Weinberg points out, it is worth recalling that God never promised Avraham a Torah—only a Land and descendants. It is our connection to Land that is primary, with the mitzvoth serving as the “instruction guide” for how to live in harmony with it. Note that in Bereishis, God first places Adam in Gan Eden, and only then does He give him commands—Land first, mitzvoth second!

    The Covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people is therefore the beginning of the tikkun for the primal sins of Ma’aseh Bereishis, and provides the model for how all mankind can eventually live in peace with the Earth, its creatures, each other, and with the One Who created it all.

    R. Soloveitchik commented that the Jewish people were able to survive thousands of years without the Land of Israel, because they kept the God of Israel–but now that the Jewish people have regained the Land of Israel, can they continue to survive without the God of Israel? This is a question that affects every Jew, no matter where they live. The reality is that we need both.

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