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  • Andres Spokoiny

At Home in the World? (Sukkot 5780)

Until now, I’ve always felt at home in the world.

I have lived in five different countries and visited close to a hundred. I’ve always felt that the world was a place of opportunity and promise, a place where I could feel at home. After visiting most countries I’d say to myself, “I think I could live here.” If I felt particularly ill-adapted to a specific country, I always knew that there are many other places in which I can feel “at home”.

Lately, however, I’ve been besieged by the opposite feeling: a sense of homelessness in the world.

Political and social events make the places I used to know almost unrecognizable. Remember the movie “Back to Future”, when Michael J. Fox visits a future in which Biff Tannen prevailed and Hill Valley, CA was “like” his hometown, but not really the same? I feel something similar when I try, for example, to walk with a kippah in a Paris suburb; or when I visit the UK and the country I used to admire is caught between two pernicious forms of populism; or when I catch the scent of bigotry, antisemitism, and racism in the air of America. I feel alien when intellectual circles that I used to esteem take anti-Zionism as a dogma, and I feel foreign when conservative values like decency, freedom, and character are twisted into rotten pretzels to justify the worst abuses in word and deed by those in power. I feel homeless when ideological thought police demand that I shed a part of my identity and my values to be accepted and I feel alien when I see that stating simple facts is considered “controversial”. I feel a searing sense of orphanhood when I see the political discourse in Israel contaminated by racism and internecine hatred, when opponents are called traitors or “disloyal”.

In a recent conference, Bari Weiss used a term that stuck with me to describe the perplexity of Jews in this time. She said that we are “lost in political homelessness”.

Homelessness seems to be, in fact, the theme of our times. Countries in which we used to “feel at home” feel alien; ideologies that used to organize our lives have lost their relevance; relationships that anchored us are in tatters.

I should note that literal homelessness is also a significant and unacceptable reality of this moment. On any given night, more than half a million Americans have no home in which to sleep. In discussing emotional, ideological, and spiritual homelessness I don’t want to be insensitive to the suffering of people facing physical housing insecurity. Rather, and without equating the two, both literal homelessness and metaphorical homelessness are symptoms of a larger, terrible truth: our societies are, in this moment, profoundly lost.

But before I succumb to hopelessness and despondency, the holiday of Sukkot can come to the rescue.

Homelessness is the theme par excellence of Sukkot. We don’t just talk about the lack of a roof above our heads, we experience it; we don’t fear the lack of attachment to solid walls, we celebrate it; we embrace the fragility of homelessness by praying for rain, precisely as we sit out in the open at the mercy of the elements. And yet, the holiday of homelessness is precisely the one that can make us feel better about our current alienation.

For starters, Sukkot gives us the calming perspective of history. Jews feeling lost, wandering in the desert? Nu, what else is new? We’ve been doing that for 3,500 years. Alienation is inscribed in our collective DNA; even before the Exodus, Abraham wandered and was called an “Ivri”, someone from the other side. Jacob wandered; Joseph wandered; Moses wandered. The Torah commands us that precisely when we get comfy in our sedentary lives, we must remember our wandering essence by living in Sukkot. The holiday gives us a comforting wink—it tells us that this feeling we have is neither new nor abnormal.

Moreover, the feeling of homelessness in a world that has taken leave of its senses is a sign of health and hope, an indication that we are not surrendering to the general craziness.

Abraham’s wanderings reflected his dissatisfaction with the idolatry and the corruption of his times; Moses’s wandering reflected his homelessness in a society that enslaved those who were different, and the Hebrews’ desert wandering showed their desire to build a different society, based on law, justice, and solidarity. It’s only normal, and reassuring, that we feel homeless in today’s world.

For Judaism, it even seems as if homelessness is sometimes necessary for achieving greatness. Jews are at home in the Land of Israel, and yet the all-important Divine revelation that brought Jewishness into being happened not in the comfort of the promised homeland, but in the wilderness. It’s as if by embracing the fear and the discomfort of being rootless we open ourselves to higher truths. A roof protects us, but it also covers the sky; it eclipses important things that we can only see among the stars.

But there’s more to Sukkot. We are homeless, yes, but we are homeless together. One of the most beautiful customs of the holiday is Ushpizin, the idea that we invite into our sukkah both mythical and real guests; our sukkah is open to all because being homeless doesn’t mean being alone. Being homeless implies seeking something, but that seeking, for us Jews, is not an individual but a collective endeavor. With the traditional set of Ushpizin, we don’t get to choose who comes; not only those that agree with us are welcomed but everybody, because reaching our destination needs a diversity of wandering voices and not just the ones we agree with.

On Sukkot we learn that solidity is an illusion and that what’s truly important and resilient may not be anchored to any physical structure. We learn that our values resist the battering of the elements and the ravages of time, that they can be our portable home. Walls can fall, values persist; houses may collapse, communities remain.

In times of homelessness, our community is our home; our values are the columns of our identity, our principles the roof above our heads.

Finally, embracing and immersing in our feelings of homelessness doesn’t mean surrendering to them either. We wander, yes, but we wander towards something. We walked across the desert, but we didn’t walk aimlessly; we had the picture of the Promised Land on the horizon. Today, alas, there’s no pillar of fire to guide us; and Waze doesn’t seem to work for this particular type of disorientation. So we need to use this time of homelessness to build, in our communities and countries, the homes we want and need for ourselves and for our people—both literally and figuratively.

Yes, this is a time of political and social homelessness; a time of anguish and anxiety; a time of feeling unmoored and insecure. But Sukkot reassures us: we’ve been here before, and we came out stronger and better. Our tradition tells us that these are the times in which the best of our character rises up; the times in which we encounter God and one another; the times in which false securities fall and are replaced by a deeper trust in our values and in each other.

Despite the homelessness, the fragility, the vulnerability, and the fear, Sukkot remains the merriest of our holidays, the one on which we look to the future with optimism and hope.

Let’s use this holiday of homelessness as an opportunity to dream up the Promised Land, and let’s never stop the march towards it.


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