From the solemnity of Yom Kippur, we move into the season of rejoicing, Sukkot. As with many of our traditions, this one has multiple layers. The shelters for which the holiday is named represent temporary dwelling places, the transitory generations on the way from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land and, by extension, the impermanence or fragility of Jewish security.
It would be an understatement to say that the creation of the state of Israel 68 years ago changed Jewish perceptions of ourselves and our place in the world. The existence of a Jewish state presented an alternative for Jewish people living in places of repression and danger. For Jews living in free countries, like Canada, Israel is a source of pride but also the source of a deeply complicated and often challenging reconfiguring of our identities. Diaspora Jews, prior to the success of Zionism, were subject to the changing winds and whims of local populations and leaders. For a few years after the War of Independence, Israel was widely admired around the world as a model of what a new country can be. This was also a time in history when antisemitism may have been at its lowest ebb, or at least at its least visible. For emerging postcolonial states in 1950s and ’60s Asia and Africa, Israel’s head start provided a template for independence and progress.
After the 1967 war, though, the perception of Israel morphed from a model for post-colonialism to one of neo-colonialism, and Palestinians replaced Jews as a cause for progressive peoples. In the time since, Diaspora Jews have often been placed in the position of defending (or not defending) things that Israel does. Yet it remains a haven for Jews who are threatened in their homelands, including, incredibly, in parts of Europe. For those Jews who feel safe in our countries, Israel is also a beacon – of Jewish diversity, knowledge and technological innovation.
The Promised Land, as our historical narrative tells us, was not a place of permanent joy. Twice the Temple would be destroyed and the people dispersed. The impermanence of Jewish sovereignty, even after the ancient return of the exiles, would carry on another two millennia until 1948. The sukkah is a symbol, too, of that impermanence.
And yet, it also represents a joyfulness based on our people’s adaptability and willingness to find a unity and presence even in places and times of disunity and impermanence. And, at the end, we observe Simchat Torah, a celebration of the written word that many believe is the very reason a homeless people were able to maintain cohesion and continuity through generations of dispersion.