In 2001, just a few weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Jewish community celebrated the harvest festival of Sukkot. Many did so by building a sukkah–a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, since it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, since its roof must be not only leafy but leaky enough to let in the starlight and gusts of wind and rain.
In our evening prayers throughout the year, just as we prepare to lie down in vulnerable sleep, we plead with God, “Spread over us Your sukkah of shalom–of peace and safety.”
Why does the prayer plead for a sukkah of shalom, rather than a temple or fortress or palace of shalom, which would surely be safer and more secure? Precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable.
For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness:
Air raid shelters
World Trade Centers
But the sukkah reminds us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If as the prophet Dylan sang, “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall,” it will fall on all of us. And on 9/11/01 the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah. Even the widest oceans, the mightiest buildings, the wealthiest balance sheets, the most powerful weapons did not shield us.
There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: It is a statement of truth, like the law of gravity. However much and in whatever way I love my neighbor, that will turn out to be the way I love myself. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me. Only a world where all communities feel vulnerable, and therefore connected to all other communities, can prevent such acts of rage and mass murder.
Not every demand of the poor and disempowered is legitimate simply because it is an expression of pain. But can we open the ears of our hearts to ask: Have we ourselves had a hand in creating the pain? Can we act to lighten it? Can we create for ourselves a sukkah in time, a sukkah of reflection and renewal, as well as recognizing the sukkah of vulnerable space in which we actually live? Could we in every year use the days that surround 9/11 to gather for reflection, for self-examination? Could we gather in a mood of awe rather than fear, to mourn what tears the world apart and learn what weaves the world together?
The choice we face is broader than politics, deeper than charity. It is whether we see the world chiefly as property to be controlled, defined by walls and fences that must be built ever higher, ever thicker, ever tougher; or made up chiefly of an open weave of compassion and connection, open sukkah next to open sukkah. Whatever we build where the tall Twin Towers once stood, America and the world will be living in a leafy, leaky, shaky sukkah. Hope comes from raising that simple truth to visibility. We must spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.