In the Ma’ariv service, there is the Hashkiveinu prayer, the second blessing after the Shema. In this prayer, we beseech God’s help “to lie down in peace; and awaken us to life again.”
A line in this prayer seems apropos for reflection as we approach Sukkot: Ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha — Spread over us Your shelter of peace.”
The shelter here is the sukka, the rude tent-like structure in which Jews sit during the harvest festival, the Feast of Tabernacles. It is a frail little house, with a thatched roof, which recalls the dwellings of the Israelites during their sojourn in the wilderness.
On the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center, in Philadelphia, wrote a “meditation” on the heinous crimes, which came three weeks before Sukkot. Perhaps AJW readers would like to meditate on the idea of security in this life, as the Middle East threatens to explode into war once more.
It seems that crises have gathered in recent years as we approach the High Holidays. We gather in shul, as epochal events shake the world, and hear the words of the Unetane Tokef prayer: “On Rosh Hashana will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed — how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire…”
We ask God to spread over us a 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,” writes Rabbi Waskow.
“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.”
Rabbi Waskow continues:
In every evening prayer, we plead with God — “Ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha” — “Spread over all of us your sukka of peace.”
But the sukka reminds us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If “a hard rain’s a-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.
Rabbi Waskow wrote his meditation on the 9/11 attacks with the idea that it could “help us build new sukkas in our souls.”
The mighty Twin Towers were reduced to rubble by a group of fanatics with some box cutters and a plan motivated by a murderous ideology. We were shocked when the towers came tumbling down. And then the U.S. president attacked Afghanistan, which had given shelter to the Qaida terrorists. After the Taliban had been routed, the president took a disastrous wrong turn into Iraq, where the social fabric has been ripped apart and horrible terrorist attacks create carnage and fear 10 years later. Not to mention the regime of police state-like surveillance that has been revealed on the homefront.
Americans are now reassessing the utility of war, as another president declares that we have to strike a blow against another monstrous Middle East dictator. For the moment, there seems to be an opening for diplomacy instead of a military strike on Syria. It seems that most Americans have no desire to become militarily entangled in another quagmire over there.
On Sept. 12, 2001, Rabbi Waskow wrote:
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.
Our skyscrapers and military infrastructure create an illusion of security; but the rabbi suggests that recognizing our common humanity is a better way to transform our “vulnerable house into a place of shalom, of peace, security, harmony and wholeness.”
Rabbi Waskow’s urging to pursue “planetary peace” may strike some as naïve, as we confront enemies with frightening stockpiles of chemical weapons, and other enemies with spinning centrifuges and dreams of putting nuclear warheads on long-range missiles.
It is a dangerous world; but it seems that the policies of our own government have made it even more dangerous over the past dozen years.
The Jewish prophetic tradition counsels us to pursue justice and peace. Perhaps there really is something to that.
Rabbi Waskow says, “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.”
May everyone have an easy fast and blessings throughout the new year.
G’mar Chatima Tova! Chag Sukkot Sameach!
— Mordecai Specktor / firstname.lastname@example.org
(American Jewish World, 9.13.13)
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