Friday, 02 Oct 2009

Written by Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

The sukkah generally becomes a preoccupation for many Jews during a very limited period in the year. But there is a reminder of the sukkah in the liturgy of every evening service. The passage beginning with the Hebrew word Hashkivenu, ‘Cause us to lie down in peace’, continues with the sentence   , ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך‘ Spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.’ In the Shabbat evening liturgy, this phrase is recapitulated at the conclusion of the benediction, ‘Blessed are You . . . who spreads the sukkah of peace over us . . . .’

Why is peace expressed through the metaphor of a sukkah? Why not ‘the stately mansion of Your peace’, or ‘the majestic castle of Your peace’, or ‘the sturdy fortress of Your peace?’ What does peace have to do with the sukkah? I suggest that there is something profound in this image.

A castle or a palace is built on strong foundations; once constructed, even if neglected, it may stand by itself for hundreds of years, as we can readily see in ruins of Crusader castles in the land of Israel. The sukkah is totally different: erected for a short period of time, fragile and vulnerable, exposed to the elements. A strong wind can blow it over; it can be undermined by water seeping through the ground or burnt if someone drops a lit candle. You need to watch it carefully lest it be suddenly destroyed.

Is this not also true of peace? Though there have been periods of tranquillity for relatively long stretches of time, like the so-called ‘Pax Romana’, peace has been far more like a temporary sukkah than a permanent castle. An historian once calculated that from the year 1500 to 1800, Europe had only 30 years without war, and we know how devastating war was soon followed by an even greater catastrophe in the first half of the twentieth century. We erect structures of peace with care, but they are all too easily blown over by the strong winds of hatred, or undermined by the seeping waters of suspicion, or consumed by the fires of nationalistic self-righteousness. In order for the edifice of peace to remain standing, we need to be constantly on guard; we cannot take it for granted that peace once achieved will automatically endure—a lesson learned all too bitterly in our own time.

Let us return to our comparison of a castle and a sukkah. A castle is built with strong, thick walls, separating the people inside from those outside, intended to keep people out. Many castles are surrounded by a moat with a drawbridge that can be raised to leave no easy access from the outside world. Its few windows are wide on the inside, narrowing to a small slit at the exterior of the wall, designed so that men could stand and shoot arrows outside, while affording only the narrowest target to the enemy. A sukkah is fundamentally different: it is intended not to be hermetically sealed to the world outside, but to invite others in. A sukkah without guests seems incomplete.

Many have thought that the way to peace is through strong, impregnable borders, which the enemy is unable to pass. To some extent, this has been the immediate aim of Israel’s foreign policy, determined to achieve secure and defensible borders. Necessary as such borders may be at times, they do not guarantee peace, as was evident with the Maginot Line, once thought to be impregnable. Enemies can circumvent borders, they can shoot over borders, they can attack from within. Whether between countries or within our own society, true peace, like the sukkah, cannot be based on the thick walls of separation, on windows that keep us from seeing what is outside, on moats and drawbridges that block access to others. It can come only through openness of each side to the other; it must be based on the understanding that can come only through contact and communication and interaction.

Still another quality of the sukkah seems relevant. The castle or mansion has a solid ceiling that limits how high one can rise. But according to Jewish law, a sukkah with a solid roof is unacceptable.  In order to be valid, the roof must be made of natural products spaced so that you can look through the spaces and see the stars of the heavens. This reminds us of the infinite potential we would have under conditions of true peace.

Last June, the Telegraph published an article about worldwide military spending, which established a new record in 2008 of $1.64 trillion, over £900 billion. That is about 80% of the total money spent on education in every country in the world. Despite the end of the insane nuclear arms race between the superpowers, the ‘war on terror’ especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, has catapulted military spending to levels not achieved even during world wars. My own country, the United States, accounted for more than 40% of that astronomical total, more than the 14 other top countries combined—the legacy of the Bush era.

This at a time when 800 million human beings throughout the world are afflicted by severe hunger, caused not only by devastating droughts in southern India and the Horn of Africa, but also by endemic poverty, stagnating economies, corrupt governments. According to UNICEF, about 855 million people throughout the world, two-thirds of them women, are unable to read a simple book or to sign their name. Diseases such tuberculosis, AIDS, diabetes, Alzheimers, ravage populations and sap the strength from societies.

It is of course naive to think that military spending could be eliminated completely or even massively reduced in the immediate future. The messianic age is around the corner. But if a significant percentage of the money wasted on superfluous and redundant weapons systems could be channelled into humanitarian, educational, medical causes, in our own society and throughout the world, how much better the lives of countless millions could be. Then they too could, as in the sukkah, look up and see the stars, and reach for them.           

We learn from the sukkah that peace is vulnerable and easily destroyed so that it demands constant vigilance, that it must be based not on barriers between people but on openness and access to the other, that it can enable us to reach for the stars in fulfilment of our ultimate potential as human beings.   , ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומךMay God spread over us the sukkah of true peace, and may the time we spend in a sukkah remind us of its preciousness and inspire us to pursue it.

מועדים לשמחה!

Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein

October 2009

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.