The Destructive Nature of Jewish Self-reliance

On Sukkot, we understand that victimhood and self-reliance are two sides of the same coin.

After climbing the religious highs of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews across the world are entering festival season’s home straight with Sukkot. 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.

Personally, I have always loved Sukkot. 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 our trust in G-d, be brave, live outside and believe that the water will come from the heavens to feed us for another year.

It is increasingly important for us to rethink the concept that complete self-reliance is not a Jewish ideal. Our mindset is that self-reliance is the lesson of our history, that Zionism has given us the tools to be the masters of our own fate, and 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 in the Western mindset, is an awful position. Until the establishment of the State of Israel, we as a nation were victims to our circumstances – we could not control our fate, and while we strived to advance within our societies, our ultimate success depended on the whims of the majorities. While our contributions to society at large were vast, our collective memory was rightfully scared by the cruelty 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 too 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 its size, the ability to successfully thrive if they rely on themselves alone.

Joel Braunold is a Bnei Akiva alumnus and a former staff member of OneVoice Europe who is currently living in Brooklyn working in the NYC startup scene.