As I'm writing this, there is news of war in the Land of Israel. My friend and dialogue partner, Hassan Khader, a Palestinian writer, lives in Ramallah, where two Israeli soldiers were brutally killed and where Israeli rockets have retaliated.
The cycle of violence goes on and on, and it is so easy for each side to point the finger of blame. All we have to do is start the story where we want to start it: He hurt me, he abused me, and therefore I must hurt and abuse him. Both sides can speak this way, and both will be right, and the cycle goes on and on.
How do we escape the cycle of violence? There is no way at the level of right and wrong, of blame and counter-blame. There is plenty of blame to go around--and around and around. The only way out is at the level of spirit. Peace is not only a political concept, peace is ultimately spiritual, peace is invisible, peace is fragile. That is why I find so much meaning in the phrase we read in the siddur, Jewish prayer book, when we pray that God will spread a "sukkah of peace over Israel and over all the world." (A sukkah is, literally, the temporary huts that Jews use to observe the holiday of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.)
Boy, do we need that sukkah of peace right now. How can we help build it?
A sukkah is fragile, a flimsy hut. In a good sukkah, the walls shake a little when the wind blows, and the stars can be seen through the spaces between the branches or fronds we lay on the roof. So why a sukkah of peace? Surely if God wants to protect us, we should have an iron shield of peace, or a stone arch of peace. But no, it is a sukkah.
In time of fear, right now, we would love to have that steel shield, that concrete overhead. And who among us would trust something as flimsy as a sukkah to protect us from the violence of the world, the hatred and anger, and the feelings of revenge that are welling up on both sides in the Land of Israel right now?
Yet in the festival of Sukkot, Jews go outside precisely to expose themselves to the elements, for the mitzvah, commandment, is to "dwell" in the sukkah: to eat there, pray there, and sleep there. Because the sukkah of peace is not made of armor or steel, or anything material--it is made of faith, and it is as flimsy in appearance as a cloud.
The sukkah is said to be a harvest hut, but it is also a reminder of the sukkahs God provided the children of Israel for the exodus from Egypt. Yet there is a dispute among rabbinic interpreters: Were these really booths, or were the "sukkahs" actually the clouds of glory, clouds of divine protection. Maybe the answer is that the most exquisite sukkah of protection and peace is nothing material, it is no more than a cloud to our eyes, yet it is protection enough. We read in the Psalms, "And if God does not build the house, then those who build it work for naught" (Psalm 127:1).
One thing I think is that we Diaspora Jews need to make connections with our Arab-American neighbors. We need to open the lines of communication, to share our grief and sorrow over the stupidity of violence, and to make back channels for peace. I know that some Jewish communities are doing rallies of solidarity in support of Israel. And perhaps that means inevitably they will see themselves in opposition to their Arab-American neighbors. But I hope for something different. I hope--perhaps it is no more than a hope--that we can use Sukkot as a time to open up lines of communication with them, instead of building walls against them.
In some communities, including here in New Orleans, we have been meeting with our Arab-American neighbors for several months already, to begin to foster relations and begin talking honestly to one another. In Philadelphia's Mishkan Shalom synagogue, a representative of the Arab-American community took part in the Yom Kippur service.
In San Francisco, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay is inviting Jews to gather "under the Sukkah of Peace to express our solidarity with the people of Israel, and to pray for the peace and well-being of all the inhabitants of the region."
That is the spirit I would like to see more of, because Sukkot is an especially good time to open up the lines of communication. From ancient times, on Sukkot we Jews made a connection to all the peoples of the world. In Temple times, we sacrificed 70 bulls during the week of Sukkot to atone for the sins, not of ourselves, but also the biblical "Seventy Nations" of the earth. Here is one case at least where traditionally we have been praying not just for Israel but for all the world.
So let us make that prayer more real. Just as we traditionally invite family and friends--and also invite the poor--to our sukkah to share our feast, and just as we invite the invisible guests, the ushpizin, the souls of our ancestors who represent aspects of the divine, so let us now invite as our guests representatives of those 70 nations to share in the sukkah. And especially, as I've said, the representatives of the children of Ishmael, and the children of Abraham--the Arab people.
It is said that in the sukkah, no words of harshness should be heard. This year, we can make our sukkahs a shelter where words of peace and hope can be exchanged, even if at the level of emotion, the level of our gut reaction, those words come with difficulty right now. Let us find a way to enter, not just a sukkah of boards and nails, but a sukkah of peace. Because only in such a flimsy shelter will we find the courage and persistence to make our way to a real peace.