This week begins the Jewish Festival of Sukkos. These reflections were first published in 2001, three weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Once upon a time, there were three little pigs. One built a house of straw, but the big, bad wolf blew it down and gobbled him up. The second built a house of sticks, but the big, bad wolf blew it down and gobbled him up. The third built a house of bricks and was safe from all the huffing and puffing of the big, bad wolf.
The story of The Three Little Pigs is one of our most enduring fables, teaching the importance of good planning and disciplined effort. But it also carries with it a more subtle message, that safety rests in our own hands and our own labors, that security can be bought for the price of a pile of bricks and a bucket of mortar.
This notion, if it were ever true, crumbled to dust together with New York City’s skyline on the day we now call 9/11.
More appropriate now than the parable of the three little pigs is Robert Burns’s adage about “the best-laid schemes of mice and men.” Indeed, the towers of the World Trade Center were designed to absorb the impact of a modern passenger plane; what the architects failed to consider was how the fuel carried aboard a transcontinental airliner would create an inferno capable of compromising the structural strength of steel support beams. Of course, we don’t blame the architects; none of us imagined the acts of incomprehensible evil that brought down those iconic twin towers.
Which is precisely the point.
We cannot imagine the design and the reach of evil. We can make our best effort, erect walls of brick around ourselves and roofs of steel over our heads, but we will never be completely safe. The world is too unpredictable an arena, the mind of the wicked too dark a cavern.
MADE IN THE SHADE
As if to drive home the instability of temporal existence, observant Jews around the world will disrupt their normal lives this week by moving out of their homes into little stick houses to live as our ancestors lived in the desert after their exodus from Egypt. But more than an attempt to recreate the experience of a fledgling nation traveling toward its homeland, the holiday of Sukkos offers an opportunity to attune our minds to a most fundamental principle of Judaism — that however great our strength and the might of our own hands, however elaborate and well-conceived our plans, life strews unexpected obstacles before us that can scuttle our most certain victories and demolish our most solid edifices.
A sukkah may be built of virtually any material: wood, brick, steel, canvas, or even string may be used to construct its walls. But no matter how stable or how precarious its walls, the roof of a sukkah must be composed of s’khakh — strips of wood or leaves just thick enough to block out most of the sun by day while letting in the light of the stars at night.
And when we sit in the sukkah and look up at the s’khakh — the barest representation of a roof, which cannot protect us from even the lightest rainfall — we remember our ancestors who trusted in the protection of the Almighty, the One who took them out from under the rod of their oppressors and guided them through the hostile desert before bringing them safely home to the promised land.
A VISION OF THE FUTURE
In his visionary writings, the prophet Ezekiel describes a great battle on the eve of the messianic era, when all the forces of evil in the world combine themselves into a great army called by the name Gog and Magog. The brilliant nineteenth-century thinker Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interprets the prophet’s vision not as a military battle but as an ideological war between the philosophy of gog — meaning roof — and the philosophy of sukkah. Those convinced that they possess mastery over their destiny will attack the values of those who acknowledge the limits of human capacity to control the workings of the world, whether the power of the atom or the changing climate of the earth.
In the immediate wake of the World Trade Center’s destruction, cries rang out for vengeance and military retribution. Then came more measured voices asserting that this war would be unlike any other, without defined enemies or defined borders, without clear strategies or decisive victories. In this we faced an unfamiliar kind of crisis, finding our ability to respond in our own defense or to secure our own future profoundly diminished by a new world order.
And so the citizens and leaders of the world’s last remaining superpower wondered how to grapple with the uncertainties of a violent present and a murky future. Some responded by declaring that we must work harder to take control of our own fate. Others conceded that we would never be secure again. And they were right: no building, no bunker, no shelter made of brick or concrete or iron will guarantee our safety from the perverse imagination of extremists who can rationalize indiscriminate mass murder.
Yet for all that, the Jew sitting in his sukkah looks up through the branches and feels at peace. We recognize that the best-laid schemes often come to naught and that, after doing all that we can reasonably do, we really have no choice but to leave our fate in the hands of the One who placed the stars in their courses, the One from whom protection ultimately comes for those who trust not in their own strength, but in the Source of all strength.
As the winds of autumn begin to carry the first hint of winter, we may shiver with cold but never with fear. The illusion of the roof we can see reminds us of the invisible reality of the wings of the Divine presence. We neither abandon ourselves to fate nor try to seize hold of it. Instead, we turn with confidence to face the future, secure in the knowledge that we have prepared ourselves as best we can to meet whatever life holds in store for us.
Featured image courtesy of The Jewish Museum