University of Pennsylvania Political Science Professor, Ian Lustick, touched a raw nerve in the Jewish world this week after a piece he wrote called “Two-State Illusion” appeared on the front page of the New York Times Sunday Review (September 15). He said, among other things, that the State of Israel’s lease has expired, that the Zionist project is dead (or almost dead), and that the only way forward, after a catastrophic war, is a one-state solution combining anti-Zionist extremist religious Jews, post-Zionist secular Jews, Jews from Arab countries, and secular Palestinians. It was an outrageous and defeatist piece, depressing to Zionists and lovers of Israel the world over, and embraced by few if any Jews or Palestinians.
Ian Lustick wrote:
“The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is…plausible…Many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable.”
The timing of his piece the day after Yom Kippur and days before Sukkot was upsetting and challenging because not only were his ideas unworkable, but they were contrary to everything this festival of Sukkot is about.
Much has been said about the symbolism of Sukkot. The Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, says that Sukkot is connected to Moses warning the Israelites at the end of his life that there’s danger in feeling too secure and affluent, recalling Deuteronomy 8:11-14 - “Hishamer l’cha pen tishkach et Adonai Eloheicha…Take care lest you forget Adonai your God. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in…beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of Great Britain, points to a verse from Jeremiah, “Zacharti l’cha chesed n’urayich ahavat clulotayich – I remember the loving-kindness of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2) (God is speaking through the mouth of the prophet to the people of Israel) as a key in understanding Sukkot. He notes that the Jeremiah verse is one of the few in the Hebrew Bible that speaks in praise not of God, but of the Jewish people’s love for God and that this is what this festival is really all about.
Yes, the sukkah represents the Jewish people’s vulnerability throughout our history, that our tents and homes are flimsy, our lives impermanent, and the future uncertain, but that in building a sukkah we exercise control over our lives and communities, and that we can take history into our own hands just as we did when Nachshon ben Aminadav led the way with Moses in crossing the Red Sea, and just as did the founding generations of Zionists and Israelis who built the state of Israel. It has taken a lot of faith for the people of the State of Israel to do what they’ve done against great odds, and that is one of the most remarkable aspects in the history of the Jewish people.
Reish Lakish, a Babylonian 3rd century sage, 1700 years ago reminds us in the Babylonian Talmud that when Moses questioned the people’s faith during the period of the wandering, God knew their hearts and reassured his prophet saying, “The [children of Israel] are believers, [and] the descendants of believers.” (Shabbat 97a) In other words, don’t worry, my servant Moses, my people have what it takes and they will not only do well but they will do what is necessary to survive and thrive as a people.
As we think about Ian Lustick’s article, the festival of Sukkot reminds us on the one hand that, yes, we’ve always been historically insecure, but also that this is our season lismoach, to rejoice, in spite of whatever circumstances we have faced in our history. Indeed, another name for this festival of Sukkot is Z’man Simchateinu – the Season of our Rejoicing.
We Jews are experts at insecurity, but we’ve never lost faith because we are "believers and descendents of believers.”
Shabbat shalom and chag Sukkot sameach!