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Benjamin Disraeli and Sucot

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli

There are so many different ways of writing Hebrew words in English... Sukkot, Sukkoth, Suckot, Sucot, Succot, Succoth (and similarly with the Ashkenazi variations) etc., etc., I always prefer the simplest, namely Sucot. But please don’t get confused because Rabbi Angel and I use different ones.

I have always admired Rabbi Marc Angel. He is the Emeritus Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Yisrael, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York a position he has held since 1969. He is and has been for over 50 years the outstanding proponent of a strictly orthodox and tolerant Sephardi outlook. He founded the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals and its publication “Conversations.” He is a remarkably humane, caring person, and self-effacing. A rarity in the rabbinate nowadays. Here is an article about Benjamin D’Israeli and Succoth which I reproduce because we can do with a little optimism and it is relevant to the current festival.

“Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), the First Earl of Beaconsfield. Disraeli was of Jewish birth, whose family had been associated with the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation in London. Although his father had Benjamin baptized to Anglicanism at age 12, Disraeli never denied his Jewish roots. He rose to become the first—and thus far only—British Prime Minister of Jewish ancestry.

Anti-Semites never forgave Disraeli’s Jewishness and constantly identified him as a Jew despite his conversion to Anglicanism. In response to a vicious anti-Semitic comment made in the British parliament, Disraeli famously retorted: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

Disraeli writes about Succoth in his novel, “Tancred,” originally published in 1847. Tancred was a young British nobleman who had a spiritual longing to visit the Holy Land. When he arrived, he spent time with a Jewish family and became acquainted with Jewish religious life. His visit coincided with Succoth, and he was told that this was a great national festival celebrating the harvest. He was shown the lulav and etrog, symbols of the autumn harvest. Tancred was deeply impressed.

Disraeli writes: “The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the eternal law enjoins the children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persists in celebrating their vintage, although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards. What sublime inexorability in the law! But what indomitable spirit in the people!”

Disraeli notes that it is easier for “the happier Sephardim, the Hebrews who have never quitted the sunny regions that are laved by the Midland Ocean,” to observe the festival since they can identify with the climate and setting of the early generations of Israelites who celebrated Succoth. “But picture to yourself the child of Israel in the dingy suburb or the squalid quarter of some bleak northern town, where there is never a sun that can, at any rate, ripen grapes. Yet he must celebrate the vintage of purple Palestine! The law has told him, though a denizen in an icy clime, that he must dwell for seven days in a bower….”

He continues with a description of the ignominies which Jews suffer in their ghettos in Europe “living amid fogs and filth, never treated with kindness, seldom with justice....Conceive such a being, an object to you of prejudice, dislike disgust, perhaps hatred. The season arrives, and the mind and heart of that being are filled with images and passions that have been ranked in all ages among the most beautiful and the most genial of human experience; filled with a subject the most vivid, the most graceful, the most joyous, and the most exuberant…the harvest of the grape in the native regions of the vine.”

The downtrodden Jews, in observance of Succoth, find real joy in life. They decorate their Succahs as beautifully as they can; their families gather together to eat festive meals in the Succah. The outside world may be cruel and ugly, but their inner life is joyous and noble. Their external conditions may not seem too happy, but their internal happiness is real.

The Jews, while remembering the glories of the Israelite past, also dream of the future glories of the Israelites when their people will be restored to their ancient greatness.

Disraeli points to an important truth: happiness is essentially an internal phenomenon, a matter of one’s attitude and interpretation of reality. External conditions are less vital to genuine happiness than one’s internal state of mind.

By celebrating Succoth over the many centuries of exile, the Jewish people were able to maintain an inner strength and happiness, a vivid sense of the past, and a powerful vision for the future. We are fortunate today to be living at a time when the sovereign State of Israel has been re-established. We may celebrate Succoth with the added joy of knowing that our historic dreams have begun to be realized.

We have regained our vineyards…we must aspire to the day when we may enjoy our vineyards in peace and security, free from the threats and hatred that continue to be aimed against our people. “A race that persists in celebrating their vintage…will regain their vineyards.” A people who persist in dreaming of a messianic era will ultimately see that dream fulfilled.”

Gemar Tov and Chag Sameach


P.S. My classes this session on Bible are every Wednesday at 9:30 am EST.

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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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