December 17, 2018

Sukkot — the blessings of necessity

It was a recent story about the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and America in the oil industry that made me think about the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, when Jews are called upon to reflect on values such as humility and resourcefulness.

For many decades now, Saudi Arabia has had the luxury of having enormous oil reserves that have kept its economy afloat while funding the lavish lifestyles of its royal family. It’s a little like having a basement in your house filled with unlimited hoards of cash that you could access at any time and spend any way you wish. Who needs to work?

Whenever the Saudi kingdom felt threatened by an oil glut that would cause  prices to tumble, all it had to do was slash production so that prices would rise again —  and presto, the billions would keep floating in.

Over the past few years, though, something changed. The fracking boom in the United States has threatened Saudi Arabia’s oil domination, to the point where in early 2014, the U.S. even surpassed Saudi production at almost 11 million barrels a day. The Saudis thought they could squelch this new threat by keeping production levels high and pushing prices so low that American producers would be forced out of business.

But something else happened — forced by necessity, the American producers learned to cut costs and make their industry more efficient, creating an American oil industry that’s grown stronger, not weaker, as a result of the price slide.  

Meanwhile, as Hudson Institute senior fellow Arthur Herman writes in National Review online, “Far from ruining the U.S. fracking industry, the global oil glut is about to ruin the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It seems that an economic and social system that has developed around oil — indeed, is entirely dependent on it — couldn’t sustain itself at prices this low.”

Because they had built “an enormous welfare state on the back of their oil industry,” the Saudis didn’t have a Plan B to counter the resourceful moves of their American rivals. So, last week, desperate to push oil prices back up, Riyadh “decided to throw in the towel in its two-year war on American energy producers” by announcing it would cut its oil production in half.

If these cuts push prices back up, American producers will be making more money than ever — money, Herman writes, “that can be invested in new energy exploration and development and in new technologies like waterless fracking and laser drilling that will make fracking safer, cleaner, and more efficient than ever.”

What does all of this have to do with the holiday of Sukkot, when Jews have a tradition of building a little hut where they eat for eight days?

Among its many lessons, Sukkot reminds us that what brings out the best in people is not easy abundance or luxury — but the humility of necessity. It is the necessity of building things, often from scratch, that forces us to be resourceful.

Think about Israel. It wasn’t born with a basement full of oil riches. It had to build a country from scratch. Because it was forced to make do, invent on the fly, learn through trial and error and defend itself against all odds, it created a feisty and resilient little country. It wasn’t “cursed” with the unlimited oil reserves of its Saudi neighbors that has made the kingdom so complacent and vulnerable to outside forces.

It was the necessity of a difficult reality that forced Israel to gain its economic independence, just as a tough reality forced the U.S. oil industry to adapt and become more efficient.

The challenge for modern Jewry and for Israel is to ensure that our success and power don’t make us lose our humility and resourcefulness.

Sukkot reminds us of a time when our ancestors had to harness all of their wits and ingenuity to grow and harvest their crops and build their temporary dwellings in the wilderness. If they wanted to survive, they had no choice.

Today, we have a choice. We don’t have to build a hut for shelter. We don’t even have to be that resourceful — modern living is all about ease and convenience.

The ritual of building a sukkah, then, is more than an endearing Jewish tradition. It’s also a reminder that when luxury and comfort surround us, whether we are kings in our own castles or royalty in Saudi Arabia, maintaining our humility is not just a blessing, it’s a necessity.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at