Medinat succa

Despite its achievements, the painful history of the Jewish people and the looming Iranian threat continue to keep Israel succa-like in its sense of security.

Succa construction (photo credit: Associated Press)
Succa construction
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In addition to providing a festive atmosphere, the scores of succot dotting Jerusalem’s neighborhoods remind us how recent events defining Israel and the state of Zionism relate to the holiday and its booths.
Succot, the last of the three pilgrimage festivals, celebrates the eternal journey toward freedom as experienced in the challenges of everyday life. At Passover, we mark the exodus from Egypt. In Zionist terms, one can see this as the national awakening that characterized the visions of Theodor Herzl, Ahad Ha’am and A.D. Gordon, along with the pioneers and those who fled the ashes of Europe. As Moses led the people to receive Torah at Sinai, as commemorated during Shavuot, David Ben-Gurion led the Jewish people before the world to declare statehood.
“But what happens the morning after redemption?” asks Rabbi Irving Greenberg, in his spiritual exploration of Succot in The Jewish Way. “The real achievement of freedom does not come in one day... The liberated person is the one who learns to accept the daily challenges of existence as the expression of self-fulfillment and responsibility. Succot commemorates the maturation of the Israelites... It is relatively easy to rise to one peak moment of self-abnegation and courageous commitment. It is more taxing and more heroic to wrestle with everyday obstacles without highs or diversions.”
THIS IS where Israel is today. The swamps have been drained, the deserts been made to bloom and the conventional armies smitten. Having experienced these heroic, nearly mythological events, the country is now more intensively grappling with the nature of its identity, the rights of its citizens and the locations of its borders.
The first chapter of Mishna Succa opens not with an explanation of the holiday and its meaning, but rather with instructions on how to build a succa.
One of the first things we learn is that the succa is a temporary structure, strong enough to withstand the elements, but impermanent enough to remind us of our vulnerability.
Despite its achievements, the painful history of the Jewish people and the Iranian shadow continue to keep Israel succa-like in its sense of security. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has sought to begin the latest round of peace talks by addressing Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and a willingness to declare an end to the conflict. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prefers to first define the borders. Whether or not Abbas has been studying his mishnayot, his demand holds ancient wisdom. If clearly defined borders are required for some sense of security in a temporary structure, how much the more so for a permanent one, like the state of Israel. In order to gain a national consensus, remove the settlement issue, and attain international recognition, Israel needs permanent borders.
AND WHO should be inside those borders? Judaism celebrates the value of hospitality to guests by inviting a special ushpizin each night in the succa. This is traditionally accomplished by inviting biblical personalities who represent human traits, kabbalistic sefirot and the experience of uprootedness (such as Abraham, who left his father’s home).
However, this spiritual invitation is offered only after inviting human guests, such as the needy. Who in Israel today has these characteristics and warrants a place in the succa? Perhaps one night the succa should be opened to the children of foreign workers who have left their ancestral homes and thrown their lot in with the Jewish people. Another night for one of the hundreds of thousands of Russian-speaking immigrants not considered halachicly Jewish but who, nonetheless, have served or sent their children to serve in the army. Then there are those who after converting to Judaism overseas have decided to make their lives in the Jewish state only to be denied citizenship by the Interior Ministry.
And don’t forget the actors of the Cameri Theater Company and the academics of Ben-Gurion University, who have been delegitimized for exercising their artistic and academic rights. And, finally, how about the Beduin left homeless after the recent demolition of the unrecognized village of Al-Arakib.
It seems highly unlikely that Im Tirtzu, Ovadia Yosef or Eli Yishai will invite these members of Israeli society to their succot.
The rest of Israeli society will need to decide if the goals of Zionism and a Jewish state can accommodate, or perhaps demand, these individuals inclusion.
Succot’s universal message may provide guidance. The Talmud ties the 70 sacrifices that were offered at the Temple during the seven days of the the holiday to the 70 nations of the world, who will come to celebrate the holiday one day.
On the eighth day, Shmini Atzeret, there will be just one sacrifice, representing the relationship between the Jewish people and God. Perhaps this progression teaches that God’s favor, and just sovereignty, can be achieved through an inclusive and universal orientation to our religious and political outlook.

The writer, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, is currently studying at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.