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October 2001
The Sukkah and the World Trade Center

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow



When the Jewish community celebrates the harvest festival, we build a “sukkah.”

What is a “sukkah”? Just a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, where it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, where its roof must be not only leafy but leaky—letting in the starlight, and gusts of wind and rain.

In the evening prayers, we plead with God—“Ufros alenu sukkat shlomekha”—“Spread over all of us Your sukkah of shalom.”

Why a sukkah?—Why does the prayer plead to God for a “sukkah of shalom” rather than God’s “tent” or “house” or “palace” of peace?

Precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable.

For much of our lives we have tried 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. But the sukkah comes to remind 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. Yet on September 11th the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.

Not only the targets of attack, but also the instruments of attack were sleek transcontinental airliners—among our proudest possessions. They availed us of nothing. Worse than 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 in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: It is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. For my neighbor and myself are interwoven. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me.

What is the lesson, when we learn that we—all of us—live in a sukkah? How do we make such a vulnerable house into a place of shalom, of peace and security and harmony and wholeness?

The lesson is that only a world where we all recognize our vulnerability can become a world where all communities feel responsible to all other communities. 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.

But if I realize that in simple fact the walls between us are full of holes, I can reach through them in compassion and connection.

Suspicion about the perpetrators of this act has fallen upon some groups that espouse a tortured version of Islam. Whether or not this turns out to be so, America must open its heart and mind to the pain and grief of those in the Arab and Muslim worlds who feel excluded, denied, unheard, disempowered, defeated.

This does not mean ignoring or forgiving whoever wrought such bloodiness. They must be found and brought to trial, without killing still more innocents and wrecking still more the fragile “sukkot” of lawfulness. Their violence must be halted. And we must reach beyond them—to calm the rage that gave them birth by addressing the pain from which they sprouted.

From festering pools of pain and rage sprout the plague of terrorism. For some reason, some people think we must choose between addressing the plague, or addressing the pools that give it birth. But we can do both—if we focus our attention on these two distinct tasks.

To go to war against whole nations does neither. It will not apprehend the guilty for trial, and probably not even seriously damage their networks. It will not drain the pools of pain and rage; it is far more likely to add to them.

There have been two centuries of Western colonization and neo-colonial support for oppressive regimes in much of the Muslim world. What does the U.S. need to do to encourage grass-roots support for those elements of Islam that seek to renew the tradition? How do we reward not top-down regimes that make alliances with our own global corporations to despoil the planet, but grass-roots religious and cultural and political communities that seek to control their own resources in ways that nurture the earth? How do we welcome Muslim societies fully into the planetary community? How do we encourage the emergence of a peaceful relationship between Israel and a viable, peaceful Palestine?

Of course not every demand put forward by the poor and desperate and disempowered becomes legitimate, just because it is an expression of pain. But we must open our hearts to ask: Have we ourselves had a hand in creating the pain? Can we act to lighten it without increasing the over-all amount of pain in the world?

Instead of entering upon a “war of civilizations,” we must pursue a planetary peace.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is Director of the Shalom Center (see and the author of Godwrestling, Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths (Jewish Lights Publishers). Reprinted with kind permission from the author.


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