The Towers - and a Sukkah

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

New Yorkers and Americans have still not decided what should be built where stood the tall Twin Towers. Perhaps the answer is simple, and leafy, and leaky, and shaky. Perhaps we should build there simply a sukkah.

What is a sukkah? What Jews build for the harvest festival: 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 our prayers, we plead with God — "Spread over us Your sukkah of shalom — of peace and safety."

Why does the prayer plead for a "sukkah of shalom" rather than God's "temple" or "tower" or "fortress" or "palace" of shalom, any of which we might expect to be more safe and more secure?

Precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable.

For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness:

Air raid shelters,
World Trade Centers.

Thick skins and tough hearts.

But the sukkah comes to remind us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If as the prophet Dylan sang, "A hard rain gonna fall," it will fall on all of us. And last year the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.

Even the widest oceans, the mightiest buildings, the wealthiest balance sheets, the most powerful weapons did not shield us.

There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The Torah's 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. However much and in whatever way I love my neighbor, that will turn out to be the way I love myself. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me.

Only a world where all communities feel vulnerable, and therefore responsible to all other communities, can prevent such acts of rage and mass murder.

But in this past year we have not learned the lesson. Our leaders responded to the mass murder of 9/11 by trying harder to make ourselves invulnerable. But in a vulnerable world, this takes more and more ferocity. Abroad and at home, it requires not courts of justice but war and the suspension of Constitutional liberties.

We citizens of America the Beautiful responded to each others' suffering and courage with outpourings of generosity. But our government has not responded with intelligent generosity, as the Marshall Plan responded to far bloodier enemies whom we faced a generation ago.

The Marshall Planners realized that it was not enough to punish mass murderers and not wise to subjugate their societies — for from festering pools of subjugation, hunger, pain, humiliation, and rage sprout the plagues of terror and mass murder (as indeed they sprouted from the humiliating and impoverishing "peace" treaties after World War I). In a world of vulnerable houses, we must reach out to heal and prosper each other.

What would it mean to recognize that both the United States and Islam live in vulnerable sukkot?

Could the United States strengthen, instead of undermining, the International Criminal Court? Could it repair the fabric of shared human responsibility, so badly ripped by the attacks of 9/11, and apply it to the arrest and trial of terrorists?

Could we teach all our children the Torah, the Talmud, the New Testament, the Quran, the Upanishads, the teachings of the Buddha and of King and Gandhi, as treasuries of wisdom — and sometimes of great danger — that are as crucial to the world as Plato and Darwin and Einstein? Could we learn to see the dangers in "our own" as well as in "the other" teachings, and learn to strengthen those elements in all traditions that call for nonviolence, not bloody crusades and jihads and holy wars for holy lands?

Could we stop repressing our knowledge that two centuries of Western colonization and neo-colonial support for oppressive regimes have damaged much of the Muslim world?

Could we encourage not despotic regimes that make alliances with our own global corporations like Big Oil to despoil the planet, but grass-roots communities that seek to control their own resources in ways that nurture the earth?

Could we not only mouth the hope but insist on the creation of peace between a secure Israel and a viable Palestine?

Could we ensure that Iraq is not preparing weapons of mass destruction, while also ensuring that Iraqi families are not devastated by the means we use?

Not every demand of the poor and disempowered becomes legitimate, just because it is an expression of pain. But can we open the ears of our hearts to ask: Have we ourselves had a hand in creating the pain? Can we act to lighten it?

The choice we face is deeper than politics, broader than charity. It is whether we see the world chiefly as property to be controlled, defined by walls and fences that must be built ever higher, ever thicker, ever tougher; or made up chiefly of an open weave of compassion and connection, open sukkah next to open sukkah.

Perhaps we should spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom, and begin with a sukkah at Ground Zero.

Copyright © 2002 by Arthur Waskow.

*Rabbi Arthur Waskow is Director of The Shalom Center and the author of Godwrestling — Round 2.
See the other articles under: "11 Days in September"