In 2001, Sept. 11 came three weeks before Sukkot, the harvest festival whose major symbol is the sukka, a structure utterly open to the wind and rain. Through that day and night, I was haunted by two images: the proud, massive, sky-penetrating Twin Towers on Manhattan’s edge, and the utterly vulnerable sukka we were soon to build.
On Sept. 12, I wrote the following meditation, which, as we move toward 9/11/11, may help us build new sukkas in our souls.
The Sukka and the World Trade Center
When the Jewish community celebrates the harvest festival, we build “sukkot.”
What is a “sukka”? Just a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time — it lasts only a week each year — vulnerable in space — its roof must be not only leafy but leaky, letting in the starlight and gusts of wind and rain.
In every evening prayer, we plead with God — “Ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” — “Spread over all of us your sukka of peace.”
Why a sukka? Why does the prayer plead to God for a “sukka of shalom”? Precisely because the sukka is so vulnerable.
For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness: Pyramids, air raid shelters, Pentagons, World Trade Centers.
Hardening what might be targets and, like Pharaoh, hardening our hearts against what is foreign to us.
But the sukka reminds us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If “a hard rain gonna fall,” it will fall on all of us. Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have felt uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yesterday the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukka.
Not only the targets of attack but also the instruments of attack were among our proudest possessions: the sleek transcontinental airliners. They availed us nothing.
Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us.
There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is a statement of truth. For my neighbor and myself are interwoven. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me.
How do we make such a vulnerable house into a place of shalom, of peace, security, harmony, and wholeness?
Only a world where we all recognize our vulnerability can become a world where all communities feel responsible to all others. And only such a world can prevent such acts of rage and murder.
If I treat my neighbor’s pain and grief as foreign, I will end up suffering when my neighbor’s pain and grief curdle into rage.
But if I realize that the walls between us are full of holes, I can reach through them in compassion and connection….
From festering pools of pain and rage sprout the plague of terrorism. Some people think we must choose between addressing the plague or addressing the pools that give it birth. But we can do both….
Instead of entering upon a “war of civilizations,” we must pursue a planetary peace. We must spread over all of us the sukka of shalom.