I love camping. Finding warmth in my sleeping bag under the shelter of our tent is pretty awesome. Sukkot was one of my favorite holidays when we lived in Israel as kids slept outside in their sukkot, under the stars; it was as close to camping as you can get. Along with the sukkah, Jews around the world, adults and children alike, love the 4 ritual items that are part of this lovely holiday.
There is a midrash that relates each to parts of the body. The product of the hadar tree (the etrog) resembles the heart, which the Rabbis understood as the place of understanding. The branches of the palm (the lulav) have a likeness to the spine, symbolic of uprightness. The boughs of the leafy trees (the myrtle branches) model the eyes, which are for enlightenment. The willows of the brook (the willow branches) recall our lips, which we can use in prayer. The midrash uses these bodily references to remind us that we can sanctify life with our whole beings.
And then, of course, there is the sukkah itself. According to the Sukkot morning Torah portion, God commands us to dwell in a sukkah during this festival “so that future generations may know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:43) A dispute arose among the rabbis regarding the nature of those sukkot. Rabbi Akiva believed them to be genuine booths, which our ancestors built for shelter. But Rabbi Eliezer disagreed. He taught that the sukkot to which the Torah refers weren’t actual booths constructed by human hands. They were the miraculous ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory that accompanied and protected the Israelites in the wilderness. Those clouds were a majestic manifestation of God’s sheltering presence, guiding and sustaining our ancestors, providing them with the strength to persevere.
If Rabbi Eliezer is correct, those booths mentioned in the Torah weren’t tangible dwellings at all. They were, rather, a symbol of our ancestors’ faith. They teach us that the Israelites were able to gaze toward the heavens, see the beauty of the clouded sky, and know that God was close. That knowledge gave them fortitude and comfort and direction. Because God was with them in the wilderness, they were able to reach the Promised Land.
This year our school curriculum begins with a unit titled Sukkat Shalom, a “shelter of peace,” a place that generates the feeling of safety and protection. It is part of the Hashkiveinu blessing in the evening service, in which we request, U’fros aleinu sukkat sh’lomecha. “Spread over us Your shelter of peace.” As we explore sukkat shalom, we examine the concept of spreading, of enveloping, of protecting, as we ask God to protect us especially during the dark of night. Secondly, the image – that of a shelter, a sukkah, which begs the question why refer to a sukkah when praying for peace. Peace is one of the highest of all Jewish values, while the sukkah is relatively basic and simple, common and ordinary. Why does the prayer not say, “build over us the stately mansion of your peace,” or “the majestic palace?” Such structures are built on strong foundations, out of concrete or stone; once they are built, they will stand by themselves for hundreds of years. In contrast, a sukkah is fragile and vulnerable, exposed to the elements. A strong wind can easily blow it over. It can be undermined by water seeping through the ground or burnt if someone drops a lit match. You have to watch it almost constantly, care for it incessantly, lest it be suddenly destroyed. Peace, too, requires this care and attention. We erect structures of peace with care, but they are all too easily blown over by the strong winds of group hatred and extremism, or undermined by the seeping waters of suspicion, or consumed by the fires of self-righteousness. In order for this symbol of peace to remain standing, we have to be constantly on guard; we cannot take it for granted that peace, once achieved, will automatically endure.
Peace, indeed, is much more than ending hostility or violence, rather it encompasses both a personal and communal sense of unity and wholeness. Both image, a sukkah of peace, and the enveloping action, God surrounding us with peace, are anchored in the principle of safety. We are all part of the network of caregivers for our children and others that includes parents, teachers, family, friends, healthcare workers and clergy and staff at Temple Jeremiah.
If I am not for myself, what am I. We and our children need the tools to take care of ourselves in a world that is fraught with uncertainty, with fear and with illness. If I am only for myself, what am I? – We want to empower children to look beyond themselves, to consider their ability to provide safety, healing and wholeness for others by joining together in a network of support and caring. If not now when? – Our children can take action toward creating sukkat shalom for themselves and for others. It is important to remember that with the stresses and strains of the pandemic – with parents often working at home (or sitting at home, unemployed), with families on top of each other in whatever space their homes or apartments provide, and with illness and death a constant threat or reality – families are under great stress. While the phrase literally means “shelter of peace,” it may also connote a place, or even a person, that promotes feelings of safety and protection. We must ask ourselves, for the health and calm of our children: · What in our house, or synagogue, or neighborhood helps them feel safe? · Who helps us feel safe? · Where is each person’s sukkat shalom: a space in the house or outside, in someone’s arms, or while involved in a favorite activity? · How do we, can we, help each other feel safe when something is frightening to a family member – a bad storm outside, someone is very sick, when learning at school feels hard, when isolation is bringing us down? These are crucial questions for every family to address. A permitted hug, a caring call, a possible socially distanced walk together, a willing ear to listen – all can create a sense of sukkat shalom.
Let us think back to Hashkiveinu. God – spread over us a “sukkah of peace,”. In Jewish tradition, humans are often referred to as God’s partners. We can challenge ourselves to consider how we might spread a shelter of peace over someone else. We can do something physical – make lunches for Feed the Hungry, or contribute to a local food bank so those who are not safe from hunger may eat. We might focus on emotional safety and discover a new member of our community who might like to be enveloped in our family’s friendship OR, we may realize the importance of finding a new way to spread a shelter of peace over ourselves as a family. A San Francisco organization called, Shalom Bayit, posted this on its website: On this holiday [of Sukkot] we keep in mind people who today don’t have a protective roof over their head; Those who are losing their homes because of the economic crisis; People who are unsafe in their own homes We have all felt vulnerable in our lives; we have all longed at some point for greater safety, shelter and protection, and we do especially now during this pandemic.
Rabbi Eliezer’s earlier teaching poses the following question for us on this Sukkot: When we find ourselves in our personal wildernesses, consumed by dark and frightening circumstances, unable to see a way out, where can we find those clouds of glory that reveal God’s presence? Where can we find comfort? Perhaps we truly can find them in the loving embraces of our family and friends, or in the serenity and clarity of prayer. If we are able to reach outward to one another and, like our ancestors in the desert, gaze upward toward the heavens, we might just see those clouds and know that God is close.
Let us partner with God and work together to create protective structures where they don’t exist. We can help those in need find safety, healing and wholeness. We can provide a “shelter of peace” (sukkat shalom), for those who are most vulnerable in our society—a network of support and care we build for ourselves and one another.