Americans may not know about Sukkot, the Jewish holiday of prosperity, but it’s the most important forward-looking Jewish event of the year. Sukkot, literally meaning “huts,” is a seven-day festival during which Jews move into temporary dwellings covered with leaves, palms, and pine and march around while shaking the four “species” mentioned in Leviticus: palm frond, citron, myrtle, and willow. This custom seems strange to the modern eye, but closer examination reveals it to be just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago.
Arthur Schaffer, formerly of Yeshiva University and now at the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture, has pointed out that the four species come from the four distinct geographic regions of Israel. The ancient farmers of Israel would bring their produce to Jerusalem from these regions at the end of the summer harvest. They would meet at the Temple and together express gratitude to God for the bounty. Today, this Old Testament ritual reminds us that the success of modern democracy depends on the widespread availability of social mobility and economic opportunity.
The U.S. could use a similar tradition. If the “species” of Sukkot were to come from the United States today, you might have a microchip from Silicon Valley, oil from Texas, corn from Iowa, and an automobile from Michigan. But the gathering at the Temple was more than just a thanksgiving feast; it was an annual networking event. All members of society were in Jerusalem at the same time, sharing tips and tricks from their business feats as well as lessons from their failures. Farmers, traders, public officials, teachers, widows, and orphans came together in a bonding experience for families, communities, and the Israeli nation as a whole.
For the well-off, this was an act of civic responsibility. During the gathering, they followed the Bible’s command to include the less fortunate and provided them with guidance that gave them a shot at a better future. The brotherhood economy of the Torah resembles what entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan has termed a “win and help win” attitude. Time-honored principles can help foster an environment that grows the pie for everyone.
Sukkot is a forward-looking occasion. It exists not just so people can show appreciation for past achievements but also so they can pray for the continuation of the conditions that yielded those achievements. When observers restate their fidelity to the commandments of the Torah, to God, and to one another, they’re reminded that national cohesion is an ongoing endeavor.
Like rain, the flourishing of democracy is not a given. Droughts can cause fields to wither and die, just as unexpected external and internal shocks can cause economies and societies to come undone. Like the farmers of yesteryear, we, too, should rededicate ourselves to the ideals that have proved key to human success. Supporting the proliferation of technical schools and investing in income-sharing arrangements for many who attend, sharing pertinent economic knowledge, and putting money into small businesses are just a few ways to spread bounty and blessing to others. Prosperity should abound in all corners of our land.
The four species of Sukkot may look out of place in 2021, or what is now 5782 in the Hebrew calendar. But they serve as a potent reminder of the necessity of inclusivity, properly understood. They remind us to pledge ourselves to the transcendent principles that make both America and Israel exceptional. In this annual festival, we try to remember to take nothing for granted, aware that anything could happen next season.
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