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Aren’t We All Wandering Jews?

The 40-year stint in the desert may be little more than a flickering, fading image in our collective rear view mirror at this point, but we haven’t forgotten how to wander.
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September 27, 2023
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It should be a hashtag during Sukkot, shouldn’t it? We are all wandering Jews: #WeAreAllWanderingJews. The 40-year stint in the desert may be little more than a flickering, fading image in our collective rear view mirror at this point, but we haven’t forgotten how to wander. Maybe we aren’t literally walking through an empty desert, waiting for manna to fall from heaven, and building golden calves, but it’s hard not to see some of the social and political upheavals of the past few years as a new kind of wandering. And then there’s our often mindless Internet scrolling. We click and scroll from one page or topic to the next: a digital wandering, and we’re all stuck in that rut.

Perhaps we wander the web in order to distract ourselves from a larger and more urgent kind of wandering. Some feel that we’ve lost our way when it comes to collective American values and ideals. Around the world it’s a similar story. Look no further than the political unrest and potential threats to democracy in Israel if you want a current example of what it might look like to wander in the 21st century.

And Jews aren’t the only ones wandering in this way. This time, we’re all in it together.

It hardly bears mentioning that in the United States we have our own social and political unrest, our own threats to democracy coming from both ends of the spectrum, all of which has been exacerbated over the past four years. Our rhetoric is perpetually inflammatory, with arguments about politics, racism, pronouns, education, Russia/Ukraine and free speech never finding resolution. And then there’s the pandemic—talk about wandering. Let’s just hope we don’t have 40 years of this.

Sometimes, returning to that fixed point, that place where we had stability and dignity and hope, is the only way through. Sometimes we have to go backward to move forward.

To wander is to move slowly away from a fixed point; it’s never methodical or purposeful. Sometimes we aren’t fully aware that we’re doing it. In many cases, we wander so long that we find we no longer how to get back to that fixed point. For the Israelites in the desert, this was a good thing. Returning to Egypt was never part of the plan. But I’m not sure that the kind of wandering we’re doing these days has a prosperous ending. Sometimes, returning to that fixed point, that place where we had stability and dignity and hope, is the only way through. Sometimes we have to go backward to move forward.

The holiday of Sukkot is the perfect time for this. I remember driving through Los Angeles years ago while listening to a CD that someone had given me. It was a local rabbi talking about how Passover is not the time to be welcoming to non-Jews. In his opinion, the seder is a time when Jews gather with other Jews to remember when we were slaves in Egypt and to contemplate what it means to be brought out of that slavery. It’s not a time to welcome outsiders; it’s a time to focus on being Jewish.

But Sukkot is the opposite. The sukkah is a place of openness and welcoming. We build it during a time that coincides with the harvest: a moment of plenty and abundance. It’s a place where we invite our guests to remember, with us, a time of wandering without meaning or structure, without any perceptible purpose. There are only three walls to a sukkah, after all, and that means no closed doors. It’s meant for people to move and flow easily in and out. And this year, perhaps more than many other years, whether we’re Jewish or not we can all commiserate about how tired we are from so much wandering. We can all hope, together, that we can move on to a better place that offers purpose and structure and a clear path forward: a place that offers community and meaningful dialogue. That’s what most of us want.

When we’re truly wandering, we are lost: aimless. Sukkot gives us a chance to be found, over and over again, and to find others. We sit, we eat and we drink in a sukkah that is temporary and permeable. But we gaze above through the branches of its roof at the sun or the moon peeking through: a reminder to look up, as we sit and eat together, and to see the same sun or moon and stars that have been there all along. The sukkah is the convergence of the permanent and the impermanent.

Last year, here in Florence, Italy, we built a sukkah in our backyard and invited all of our friends here to celebrate Sukkot with us. Given that it’s not Los Angeles, our group of friends is no longer dominated by Jews. Instead, it’s a mix of Italians, Germans and Canadians as well as a few Americans and people from the UK and Poland and other places. The point is that while a very small handful of our friends here are Jewish, most aren’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t welcome everyone into the sukkah.

We are all wandering. All of us across the world live in a moment that feels tenuous. Will Israel lose its spirit of democracy? Will the war in Ukraine continue to rage? Will the effects of a changing climate make certain places unlivable in the next few years? These are only a few of the towering questions that have taken up residence in our minds.

Wandering is not something that remains in the past. It’s something we enter into time and time again. 

Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig said of Sukkot that it serves “to remind the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries.” Wandering is not something that remains in the past. It’s something we enter into time and time again. And Sukkot is a brief moment where, together, we get to acknowledge this and to rest, if only for a moment, so that we can find the next Promised Land.


Monica Osborne is a former professor of literature, critical theory, and Jewish studies. She is Editor at Large at The Jewish Journal and is author of “The Midrashic Impulse.” X @DrMonicaOsborne

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