This is a guest post by Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit, founded in 1963 as the Birmingham Temple.
If there was ever a great example of bad holiday planning, it’s Sukkot. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what it really suffers from is the absence of any planning whatsoever. But all kidding aside, the Jewish month of Tishrei just has too many holidays for modern Jews. And that’s a shame for Sukkot because at some point in our distant past it was one of the three most anticipated and celebrated holidays of the year. The Talmud calls it THE holiday. Today? It gets little traction outside of the Orthodox world (Israel excepted).
The lack of attention for Sukkot is a casualty of the High Holidays which conclude just five days before it starts. They may be “High” now, but once upon a time they were upstart additions to our annual calendar, probably dating to “only” the sixth century or so B.C.E.
For a long time none of this mattered. Jews embraced them all. But in these modern times, this big holiday that arrives on the heels of Yom Kippur—today’s bigger holiday—is sadly ignored.
Sukkot (which ends next week with Simchat Torah) has two beautiful ritual elements. One of these is the ritual of shaking the Lulav—a palm frond with willows and myrtles attached—and an Etrog—a fragrant citron. And, iconically, there is the Sukkah itself with its reminders of the ancient fall harvest, a time when people would keep watch over their crops from temporary dwellings in the middle of fields. These rituals speak to the holiday’s themes of gratitude for the change of seasons and the circle of life and connecting to nature. But there’s also one more theme that even those who celebrate the holiday sometimes forgot: the theme of world peace.
Back when the Jerusalem Temple stood, the holiday’s emphasis on peace and the connectedness of all peoples was very strong. Writing after the Temple was gone, the Talmud’s rabbis spoke about the relationship of the Sukkot sacrifices to universalist hopes for tranquility among all peoples. Each year on the holiday the priests would perform seventy Sukkot sacrifices. The rabbis said they had been conducted in honor of each nation of the earth to hasten world peace.
In its post-sacrificial celebration, traditional Jews continue to ask God to spread a “Sukkat Shalom / Sukkah of Peace” over all peoples at this time of year.
The use of this particular phrase has always intrigued me. How can a Sukkah be an appropriate symbol of peace? After all, a Sukkah is the flimsiest of dwellings. It can barely stand up to a strong wind (as I can attest from watching my JCC’s Sukkah fly away during a mild Miami tropical storm).
Why not choose a more durable symbol for peace than an unmoored temporary hut with a grass roof? Weren’t the authors of these prayers aware that Sukkahs are infamously flimsy? Didn’t they want a peace that would be sturdy and everlasting?
It occurred to me that while they did hope for a durable peace, as diplomats might say, they were also a very realistic bunch and notions of “a perfect peace” lie more in the realm of fantasy. Given the state of human affairs, it’s pretty unlikely that people are ever going to be completely free of conflict.
In this spirit I think that the rabbis offered up their image of “a Sukkah of peace spread over the world” quite intentionally. I believe they were reminding us that any peace among nations is always going to be somewhat fragile and structurally unstable just like a Sukkah. Experience demonstrates this to be the case. But I think they were also reminding us that when we dwell together beneath our shelters—our Sukkahs—of peace we take on the mutual responsibility of holding onto it tightly whenever the winds of war begin to blow.