Sukkot - Reinventing Jewish identity

It is not only the festival of Jewish unity, but also the festival of Jewish joy and happiness.

PEOPLE GATHER at the Western Wall for the Priestly Blessing. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
PEOPLE GATHER at the Western Wall for the Priestly Blessing.
 Sukkot teaches us something fascinating. It has a crucial insight that we desperately need in today’s Jewish world. On the one hand, Sukkot is all about Jewish unity, as symbolized by the mitzva of the lulav and etrog, the four species representing four different kinds of Jews as explained by our Sages in the Talmud: those who have learning and good deeds, those who have one or the other and those that have neither. All are brought together in a spirit of unity.

But it’s not just about unity. Somehow we are always able to achieve Jewish unity in times of crisis and pain – the pain of the abduction and murder of teenagers and other victims of terrorism, the pain of the sirens warning of the rocket barrages into Israeli cities; the heartrending funerals of lone soldiers and the unbearable loss of children; the agony of the deaths of brave IDF soldiers who give their lives defending the safety and freedom of the people in the State of Israel, and indeed of Jews all around the world. It is during times of crisis that we realize what our Sages describe as the ultimate unity – “like one person with one heart.” We are brought together through external forces of hatred directed at us by our enemies, such as Hamas and its allies and by a global movement of vicious antisemitism, masquerading as opposition to Israel.

Therein lies the challenge. What we really need to do is to redeem our unity and uplift it from a place of necessity to a place of choice; from being externally imposed to being internally embraced; from a unity born as a response to hatred to a unity that emerges out of love for each other and out of joy and out of free choice. The quest for an answer to this perennial calling leads us to another more profound question – how do we redeem Jewish identity itself from being defined by antisemitism? If we raise our children to believe that to be a Jew is to carry the weight of antisemitism, persecution and isolation from the rest of the world, it will destroy the inspiration and the sense of mission so central to a thriving future.

This is why Sukkot is such an important festival. It is not only the festival of Jewish unity, but also the festival of Jewish joy and happiness. It is called zman simhateinu – the time of our joy, and the entire festival is dedicated to the experience of happiness that comes from serving God and living a Jewish life. It concludes on the high of Simhat Torah, which is all about the celebration of the values and ideals of what it means to be a Jew.

It is, therefore, a time when we embrace Jewish unity and identity, not one that is forged from the enmity of others, but rather a positive and inspiring reflection of our noble and ancient legacy. This goes to the heart of charting a path forward by understanding what it means to be a Jew – that being a Jew is a privilege rather than a burden. We need to regroup as a nation and realize what it means to be one people with a unique and treasured heritage. In order to achieve this, we need to seize with both hands the opportunities and the moments that allow us to truly celebrate what it means to be a Jew.

The Shabbat Project is such a moment and opportunity. On October 27/28 (Parshat Lech Lecha), Jews in more than 1,300 cities in 95 countries around the world will come together to celebrate our shared heritage of Shabbat. This project is driven by its celebration of Jewish unity and Jewish identity, and that is perhaps why the project has grown so fast and spread so far and wide. There is a genuine thirst for a Jewish unity that is born out of love and inspiration and not out of persecution and pain.

Shabbat is positive and inspiring – a precious expression of what it means to be a Jew – and The Shabbat Project celebrates this to the fullest. It is a magical moment when more than a million Jews speaking multiple languages from every corner of the globe come together in joyful unity. We need to savor and hold on to these moments that bring joy to Jewish unity and identity. It is crucial to creating a vibrant and inspiring Jewish future.

If you would like to get involved in this year’s Shabbat Project, visit

The writer is the chief rabbi of South Africa.