Building Stability on a Fragile Foundation: The Wandering Jewish IdentityWritten on October 5, 2012 from the desk of Rabbi David Komerofsky
(presented as part of SukkahCity Austin 2012)
It is remarkable that we are here. Not just at Whole Foods today, but that we Jews still exist. There’s no logical reason for it. We’ve twice been exiled from our land, been expelled from practically every country in Europe and the Middle East, and endured untold suffering and torment. But we’re still around, both in our homeland and throughout the world. Even in Texas.
The prophet Hosea (9:17) wrote of our destiny:
וְיִהְיוּ נֹדְדִים, בַּגּוֹיִם
And they shall be like wanderers among the nations.
Oy, what a gift. No wonder that it was one of ours, Emma Lazarus, who wrote “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” She was issuing a global invitation to her sukkah! We are an unsettled people. It’s hard to settle down when you have a history of being chased. Yet we find some normalcy by clinging to our customs, and interpreting them in each new place and age. We maintain the essence of our rituals, even if they look quite different than how others before us observed them. Today I want to look at this custom of building small shelters and sleeping and eating in them. It’s one of our stranger rituals. Not as odd as swinging a chicken over our heads or prostrating ourselves on the floors of our synagogues, but still quite something.
So let’s talk Sukkot. We read one of the five megillot, or scrolls, on various festivals. Ruth on Shavuot, Songs of Songs at Passover, Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, Esther at Purim. And many Ashkenazim read Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. In Hebrew it is called Koheleth, named for one who gathers or convenes – one who creates kahal.
Ecclesiastes begins in earnest with a famous nugget:
הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת, הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל
Vanity of vanities, said Koheleth, vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
A better translation of הֲבֵל than “vanity” is “breath.” It’s the vapory mist that we expel on a cold day. What lingers for a moment on the mirror when we blow on it. It is there for a moment, and then it is gone. We should read the verse “All life is a vanishing instant.” It is also the Hebrew name of the Biblical Abel, the first person ever to die. His life, his breath, cut short. Now some interpret this book that we read on Sukkot as an admission that life is futile. We’re born, we work, we have babies, they grow up, we grow old, we die. Wash, rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun, so what the what? It’s a little depressing. We’re here one moment and gone the next – like Keysor Sose at the end of “The Usual Suspects.” Poof.
But this book and this holiday are not depressing. They are uplifting! Enough already with the downer Judaism. There’s plenty in the world over which to shrei gevalt. But a living Judaism that fosters inner strength is built not on guilt or shame or relived sorrow, but on precisely what we’re doing today. Openly celebrating our festivals, in public no less. Unimaginable a generation or two ago. In other lands and other times Jews had to hide who they were, afraid even to leave the house on some days.
To be Jewish is to live at once in the past and in the future, with one foot planted in a world that is gone and the other stepping into the world that we are creating. There is no present tense of the verb “to be” in Hebrew. Because as soon as we say “We are…” it’s already past. The present is always fleeting. Even that last word I uttered – gone. We can only experience the present through the prism of the past. And the past is only meaningful if it teaches us something about the future. And our past as Jews is quite something. Our future? Who knows. That’s the real excitement of Jewish life. It’s unpredictable.
The wandering Jewish identity embodies this spirit of adventure, of seeking, and of hopefulness. We are descendants of nomads. We are heirs to a people that twice built a Temple in Jerusalem and twice survived its destruction. We have inherited the dreams of a hundred generations. For 2,000 years we wandered without a home. Our forebears were rooted in a place most of them had never seen. They were dreaming of a return to something enshrined in stories and prayer. Countless of our people from Babylonia to Lithuania encountered the divine in their tiny huts erected hastily in backyards and town squares, shanties that barely could weather a strong wind. How far we have come, reinterpreting the ancient in modern form.
A sukkah is impermanent and fragile. But it is built on a strong foundation. It cannot be part of something permanent and must stand on its own. It is semi-portable and takes more than one person to create. In it we pay homage to our ancestors as ushpizin, do the same rituals but interpret them in a fresh way.
And our Jewish identities can mirror that reality. We can be more than the fleeting breath, the hevel, of which Koheleth wrote. We are rooted in 4,000 years of tradition. Nothing can undo that if we hold fast to what anchors us in time. So what is it that defines our Jewish identities? Are we just Jew-ish? Not so much in it but a little removed? Timid maybe lest others find out that we’re in some way different. Now for those Jews who are rigorously observant of ritual and punctilious about the mitzvot, the answer to the question of what defines identity is easy. It’s halacha as interpreted by select authorities. For the rest of us, Jewish identity is more complex.
We wander in the space between Jewish tradition and the modern world, always vacillating between the two. Sometimes more modern, sometimes more traditional. We build a sukkah but make sure it’s within reach of the house’s wi-fi.
I believe that what defines us as modern Jews is our place in community, a kahal. Like the sukkah, we have to be anchored firmly, but also be movable. Branches lashed together can endure more storms than those that stand alone, and people connected to each other find more meaning than those who go it alone. The sukkah has to be open yet defined, much like our Jewish selves. We have to be flexible or we’ll break, but we must not be so open that we cease to be unique. There’s the tension. Being both distinctively Jewish and universally human – the old Hillel tagline.
We wander in the space between Jewish tradition and the modern world. Modern nomads. Living at once like our ancestors, eating strange foods and shaking the four species. And at the same moment we interpret those traditions in new ways. The comfort we can take on Sukkot is the knowledge that while our individual lives might indeed be like vanishing breath, our collective lives are a mighty wind that has been stirring humanity for four millennia. Our lives are not futile. They have meaning because we are connected to our past and to each other.
We are descendants of Moses, Miriam and Aaron. Of David and Solomon, Ruth and Esther. And we endure because, like Koheleth of old, we have something to offer the world. Our message at Sukkot and all year is an eternal one of hope that goes with us wherever we wander. What was was, what will be will be. And our fragile lives on strong footings ensure that we will continue to dream, to harvest… and to build and be built.
Moadim l’simcha – a happy and healthy festival to you and your families.