Were our eyes permitted to perceive the legions of destructive demons surrounding us, the Talmud divulges (Berachos 6a), we would be unable to handle the sight.
The rabbis were referring to malevolent incorporeal beings, but the same might hold true about flesh-and-blood demons, some of whom occasionally slip into view.
Like Faisal Shahzad, the Connecticut man who tried to detonate a bomb in Times Square in May. Or Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the one-time London college student who attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear on a plane to Detroit. Or Colorado resident Najibullah Zazi, who planned to plant incendiary chemicals on New York City subways last year. Or Virginia-born Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan, who opened fire at Fort Hood last November, killing 13 and wounding 30. Or Shirwa Ahmed, the college student from Minneapolis who drove a truck full of explosives into a UN building in Somalia, who was identified through his finger found at the scene. Or the four men accused of plotting to bomb synagogues in the Bronx.
Imagine if we could suddenly see every would-be terrorist, brightly marked somehow as such. The sight would surely chase us off the street, if not out of our minds; the memory would keep us up at night.
And then, of course, there are the big demons, the mullahcracy in Iran or the dementocracy of North Korea, and entities like Hamas and Hezbollah and Al Qaeda.
The readily visible demonisphere, especially for Jews, is frightening enough. The thought of an invisible world of would-be destroyers skulking around to our rights and our lefts might well drive us mad. Yet it would be naïve to imagine any dearth of demons these days.
Which is why there is Sukkos.
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 in cities around the world.
The holiday of Sukkos takes its name from those structures, which Jews are enjoined by the Torah to inhabit for a week each year. The walls of sukkot 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 the material may not be fastened in place.
At first glance, living in sukkot – by definition vulnerable to wind, rain and pests – would seem only to compound any innate Jewish proclivity to worry; the delicate dwellings might well only intensify Jewish anxiety. And yet, at least for Jews who appreciate the holiday’s 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, ultimately, from above.
The Yiddish poem by Avraham Reisen (1876-1953) sung in countless sukkot 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.
Sukkos, 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.
And 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 plotting and violence and demons, cannot shake the serenity of the sukkah. We have, if only we merit it, an impenetrable shelter.
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 sukkos. A verse in the Psalm, as it happens, even refers to one:
“For He will hide me in His sukkah,” King David sings of the Creator, “on the day of evil.”
© 2010 Rabbi Avi Shafran