Sukkat shalom, urgency of life

Sukkat shalom, urgency of life

Hol hamo’ed Sukkot

If you Google sukkat shalom (“sukka of peace”), you get hundreds of references, most names of synagogues and lyrics of songs. The synagogue names bespeak a deep-seated desire to congregate in places of respite. The song lyrics acknowledge the metaphor’s origin, our nightly prayer that God “spread over us Your sukka of peace.” We call the prayer Hashkiveinu, “Lay us down,” a perfect nighttime meditation for that twilight moment when the daily grind succumbs (we hope) to nightly rest.

Tradition connects this sukka of peace to Amos 9:11, God’s promise to “raise up the fallen sukka of David,” a glorious picture of the end of time when Israel’s travails will have come to an end. The nighttime Hashkiveinu reflects this “raising up” by following “Lay us down in peace” with “Raise us up to life.” Here too it is possible to see a messianic theme, relief from exilic oppression, just as Amos had foreseen.

That can hardly have been the prayer’s original intent, however. It is a mistake to think that even people in the Middle Ages lost much sleep over cataclysmic metaphysical issues like the eventual restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the coming of the Messiah. These eschatological metaphors were appealing because they provided ways to ponder the more immediate problems that prey on our minds and rob us of sleep: “disease, violence, want, and agony” (dever, herev, ra’av, v’yagon), for example. Hashkiveinu was, first and foremost, a bedtime prayer reflecting the hope for a night of peaceful sleep.

Its bedtime image of the sukka came from the holiday we celebrate this week. The simple joy of sitting in a sukka, consuming festive meals in the ambience of nature’s fullness is a perfect antidote to the harried lives we normally pursue. Whether in our nightly prayers or in the temporary booth we call a sukka, we are invited to pause for inner reflection and outer quietude.

But as we have seen, that is only half the image of Hashkiveinu — and half the image also of the sukka. Like it or not, “Lay us down in peace” becomes “Raise us up to life.” If “Lay us down in peace” addresses the real nighttimes we endure, then “Raise us up to life” speaks to the real daytimes we confront. A nightly wish for peace is fine, but when morning dawns, we awaken to the real world of work and worry.

So too, we should not get too comfortable in our sukka of peace. Like peace itself, the sukka is deliberately made to be temporary, a feeble structure that cannot last. When Sukkot ends, we face the autumn preamble to the inevitable blast of winter.

Sukkot peace should not become soporific, dulling us to the tasks that will follow. We have every right to enjoy a week of languor in the sukka, but not at the expense of deluding ourselves about what lies beyond. Words have many opposites, some healthy, some not. An unhealthy opposite to “tranquility” is “anxiety”; a healthy one is “urgency.” When life resumes at the end of this Sukkot week, it should do so with some urgency. Life matters, after all, and life consists of the real world outside the sukka’s walls. Both peace and struggle are part of the human package; we don’t get one without the other.

Human nature suggests we prefer evading life’s exigencies. I am not thinking of such immediate challenges as earning a living, confronting sorrow, building relationships, and just plain making it through each day; these we can hardly avoid (although some of us try to). My concern is the larger issues that we delude ourselves into discounting, if not disregarding — the fractures in our country, aging of our Jewish institutions, and dangers to our planet. The life that greets us when the sukka comes down is not an altogether pretty thing.

Not that we should despair; there is much about the world to celebrate, and celebrate we do, when we emerge from the sukka for the joy of Simhat Torah, which has us recollect again how “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” and found it “good.”

It is this image of a naturally good world that should consume us as we take up realistic residence in the world. When sitting in the sukka ends, we rise up to life in a world whose continued goodness depends on us. Our holiday month of Tishrei gives way to Heshvan, a month with no holidays at all — time to go back to work.

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