The destructive nature of Jewish self-reliance

Ha’aretz 10/1/12

After climbing the religious highs of Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur, Jews across the world are entering the home straight of the festival season with Succot. As a holiday it does not receive High Holy Day attention; its rituals look almost pagan and its impact on us are often an afterthought to that which came before it.

Personally I have always loved Succot. I did not really enjoy moving into a temporary dwelling for a week, growing up in England and all, but the ideas behind the festival have always spoken to me. As a harvest festival, its central message is that fundamentally we are not in control of everything around us. We must put are trust in G-d, be brave, live outside and believe that the water will come from the heavens to feed us for another year.

The concept that complete self-reliance is not a Jewish ideal is an increasingly important concept for us to think over. We are currently in a mindset that self-reliance is the lesson of our history, that Zionism has given us the tools to be the masters of our own fate, that we no longer must be buffeted by the cruel winds of history.

Like most attributes, self-reliance has a balance that needs to be struck. The powerlessness of victimhood, despite its current popularity within the Western mindset, is an awful position. Until the establishment of the State of Israel we as a nation were victims of the circumstances we found ourselves in. We never had the ability to change our own fate, and though we did take it upon ourselves to advance in the different societies we lived, our success would always be at the whim of the majority of the host society we resided within.

Though our contributions to society at large were vast, our collective memory was rightfully scared by the cruelness that we experienced at the hands of others. The desire for self-reliance in the face of millennia of persecution made perfect sense.

Yet just as the lack of self-reliance is a vice, so to is the belief that we can be completely self-reliant.

The self-rule that Zionism granted us does not give us the power to live apart from the rest of the world, oblivious to the economic and political realities of our actions. While the atrocities of the 20th century fill many of us with a sense of pessimistic fatalism, the networked world of the 21st century no longer allows any nation to truly be completely self-reliant.

The ghetto of victimhood and the fortress that complete self-reliance demands are two sides of the same coin.

If history has taught us that we cannot be victims, let our tradition inspire us to realize that we can never achieve perfect control of the environment that we live in.  The impulse while understandable is destructive; the realities of this dynamic world will never give any nation, no matter what its size, the ability to successfully thrive if they rely on themselves alone.

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