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Vulnerable and Secure
by Rabbi Avi Shafran

If only the world made sense.

If it did, Kofi Annan's recent declaration that Sudan's leaders bear responsibility for not reining in the Arab murderers of villagers in Darfur would raise hopes that the U.N. Secretary General might apply a similar judgment to Yassir Arafat for (at best) making no effort to impede the murder of Israeli civilians.

If only the world made sense, Palestinian writers like columnist Hassan al-Batal, who decried the Chechen terrorist carnage in Beslan as "inhuman horror and the height of barbarism" for which "there are no mitigating circumstances," would express similar sentiment for the horror and barbarism their fellow Palestinians visit upon innocent Israelis.

And if only the world made sense, the European Union's member states would feel sufficiently freighted by sanity, not to mention their own histories, to concede that a physical barrier is a most reasonable way for a population to keep at bay crazed killers bent on its destruction.

But, alas, the world makes no sense. Which is why Iraq remains a wild shooting gallery instead of a civilized and prosperous free nation; why the mullahcracy in Iran is not being prevented from developing nuclear weapons; and why the dementocracy in North Korea was not prevented from doing so.

For Jews in particular, the craziness of contemporary geopolitics is of profound concern. Some of the most unstable and irrational players on the world scene today are also some of those most incensed by the existence of Jewish organizations, of a Jewish State, of Jews. It is not a situation that offers much comfort or hope.

What does, though, is Sukkot.

If they haven't appeared already, impermanent structures of varied materials, shapes and sizes will soon enough be sprouting like post-rain mushrooms across Israel and throughout Jewish neighborhoods around the world.

The holiday of Sukkot takes its name from those structures, which Jews are enjoined by the Torah to inhabit for a week each year. The walls of sukkahs can be made of any material. But, in fulfillment of Jewish tradition's insistence that the dwellings be "temporary" in nature, their roofs must consist of pieces of unprocessed wood or vegetation, and they may not be fastened in place.

At first glance, living in sukkahs - by definition decidedly vulnerable to wind, rain and pests - would seem only to compound any innate Jewish proclivity to worry. The delicate dwellings would be expected to intensify Jewish anxiety. And yet, at least for Jews who appreciate the holiday's deeper import, just the opposite is true.

For Jewish tradition considers the sukkah symbolic of the divine "clouds of glory" that protected the ancestors of today's Jews as they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt. The miraculous clouds destroyed whatever obstacles or noxious creatures stood in the people's path.

Thus, the sukkah represents a deep Jewish truth: Security is not a function of fortresses; it is a gift granted from above.

The Yiddish poem by Avraham Reisen (1876-1953) sung in countless sukkahs well captures the idea. It paints the picture of a Jewish father sitting in his sukkah, as a storm rages. His anguished daughter tries to convince him that the sukkah is about to fall. He responds (rendered from the Yiddish):

Dear daughter, don't fret;
It hasn't fallen yet.
The sukkah's fine; banish your fright.
There have been many such fears,
For nigh two thousand years;
Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

Sukkahs, of course, have in fact succumbed to storms. Jews, too, have fallen at the hands of ancient and modern murderers alike. But, as Reisen's metaphor so poignantly reminds us, there is timeless meaning in the fact that the Jewish people has survived.

The meaning lies in what the sukkah's fragility implies - that true security, in the end, comes from only one place.

So all the world's craziness and evil, all the unreason and hatred and violence, cannot shake the serenity of the sukkah. We have, if only we merit it, an impenetrable fortress.

Beginning a month before Rosh Hashana, Psalm 27 is added to Jewish prayer services; it is recited twice a day, until the very end of the holiday when Jews live in sukkahs. A verse in the Psalm, as it happens, refers to one:

"For He will hide me in His sukkah," King David sings confidently about the Creator, "on the day of evil."

[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

Reprinted with permission from Am Echad Resources

 

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