In our minds the sukkah is a seasonal structure, one that we rush to build in the few brief days between Yom Kippur and the beginning of the festival of Sukkot. And the season we associate with both the holiday and the actual booth that we build is fall. Agriculturally the theme of this Yom Tov is harvest, always a fall activity. The way we decorate our sukkot is often fall themed as well – the pumpkins and gourds, the bales of hay, the chrysanthemums with their burnt autumn colors. The weather is fall weather as well! Cooler evenings, and sadly for us here in Baltimore, often rainy days and nights. And it is during this fall season that our tradition demands of us – בסוכות תשבו שבעת ימים – in booths you will dwell for seven days.
But there is another sukkah that tradition asks us to dwell in, a sukkah that is with us throughout the year, on a weekly basis. It is not a physical structure – thank goodness! I would not want to have to build and take down a sukkah every single week. I have enough trouble doing it once a year! Instead, this other sukkah is kind of spiritual structure, and part of our observance of Shabbat. Those of you who are familiar with the Friday night liturgy may remember the following lines that come from the Hashkiveinu prayer, which is said just before the amidah. In that prayer we ask God ופרוש עלינו סוכת שלומך – may You, God, spread over us the Sukkah of Peace. And the prayer concludes Blessed are You, Lord our God, הפורש סוכת שלום עלינו, the One Who spreads over us a Sukkah of Peace, and over all God’s people Israel, and over Jerusalem.
This is a lovely image, and I’ve always associated it with the peace of Shabbat. That on at least one day of the week we can withdraw from the day to day struggles of living in the world, and we can surround ourselves with a sense of peace. So in that sense Shabbat itself becomes a Sukkah of Peace into which we enter, and that Sukkah shields us from the outside world.
But in building my sukkah this year, and thinking about this image of a Sukkah of Peace, I realized there is something odd about this metaphor. Some of you may know that the sukkah that Becky and I put up is extremely flimsy, to say the least. A few years ago, on another rainy Sukkot holiday, during a storm, a strong wind took the entire sukkah, flipped it up into the air, right over the four foot high chain link fence at the back of our yard, and into the neighborhood catchment area. On another occasion the wind, blowing in a different direction, slammed the sukkah into our house, denting our siding and bending a number of the sukkah poles – which are made out of metal. Even this morning, without any serious wind, our poor sukkah looked as if it were about to topple over, the metal structure leaning, the canvas walls flapping and of course dripping wet.
Of course that is actually the way a sukkah is supposed to be. According to the halacha, the law, of constructing a sukkah, it must be a ‘dira arai’ – a temporary structure. If the walls are too high, if they are too strong, if the roof is not porous, if the structure is too permanent – then the sukkah is not considered to be kosher. To say it in another way, for a sukkah to be a sukkah, it has to be flimsy and fragile – it has to be the kind of structure that a strong wind can blow over. If it isn’t, it isn’t a sukkah.
Which leads me back to the image of a sukkah of peace. If you were writing that prayer, and you wanted to use a metaphor for a structure of peace, peace, which is considered to be one of the, if not the primary value in Judaism, would you choose a sukkah? Would you choose a structure that can be blown over by a strong wind? Wouldn’t it make more sense to say ‘castle of peace,’ or ‘fortress of peace’? Something made of stone, something that will last, a structure that is strong, that is permanent and not impermanent. Why choose a sukkah? And why make our weekly structure of peace so fragile and so easily damaged?
But the truth is, in reality, peace is a lot more like a sukkah than it is like a castle. The structures of peace in our lives and in our world are all too often fragile and brittle. Think of our relationships for a moment. We talk all the time about ‘shalom bayit,’ peace in the home. We’ll often say about someone in the family, ‘they are the peace-maker.’ They are always trying to make sure everyone gets along. The implication of that is people don’t always get along, and you need to have a peace maker in the family. We know how fragile family peace actually is. One wrong word said at the wrong time to the wrong person and it can easily be damaged, sometimes even permanently destroyed.
Emotional peace is just as fragile. Think of how easily the peace of a day can be shattered. One phone call, one unpleasant interaction, one person cutting you off in traffic, whatever it might be, and your pulse starts to race, your heart starts to beat, and you feel the anger and frustration welling up, and whatever peace you had toppling over.
Peace is an extremely delicate balance, a structure that has to be constantly tended, regularly repaired, and often reconstructed entirely. I think that is why the liturgist choose the image of a sukkah for the structure of peace in the Hashkiveinu prayer. If the prayer talked about a castle of peace we would think our work was all done, the building was completed and that we didn’t need to worry about it. But the image of a sukkah of peace reminds us of how much work it takes to create peace in our world and our lives, and how difficult it is to maintain that peace, precisely because it is so delicate and so easily damaged.
Building an actual sukkah each year reminds us of the same thing. The metaphor of the prayer on Friday nights is powerful, but it can’t quite compare to seeing your sukkah flip up into the air, or hearing the sound as it is slammed into your home. The year our sukkah went into the drainage ditch Becky and my father and I climbed over the fence into that catchment area in the midst of a driving rain storm. We dragged the canvas walls and the metal poles out of the water and back into our yard. The next afternoon we built the sukkah again. It was wet and stained, but it managed to stay intact through the reminder of the holiday. As fragile as our poor sukkah is, I am sure it is not the last time it will need to be rebuilt.
May this holiday of Sukkot help us all to find the strength, determination, patience, and grace we need to continually rebuild the structures of peace in our lives and our world, with one another, with family and with friends, with our communities, knowing that the work will never be done, but that when we do it together we can find meaning, strength, courage, and hope – and God willing, peace.