At about 11 o'clock on 9/11 ten years ago, I casually phoned New York to talk with my beloved life-partner, Rabbi Phyllis Berman. Phyllis founded and directs an intensive English-language school for newly arrived immigrants and refugees. The school is housed in Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and every weekday Phyllis commutes back and forth from/ to Philadelphia.
But that morning, my telephone gave back only a frantic bzz-bzz-bzz, a super-busy signal. After trying for 30 minutes, I called the Operator. "There's a glitch in the phone system to New York," I said.
"Haven't you heard?" she answered -- and explained.
I knew that once a month or so, Phyllis had a business breakfast in the World Trade Centers. So now my call was not a casual "How you doing?" I finally got through to learn that she was safe at Riverside, shepherding her frightened non-English-speaking students to walk their ways home through a frantic, fearful city -- with no means of public transportation.
In 2001, September 11 came three weeks before Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival whose major symbol is a thatched hut, a "sukkah," utterly open to the wind and rain. Through that day and night, I was haunted by two images: the proud, massive, sky-penetrating Twin Towers on Manhattan's edge, and the utterly vulnerable sukkah we were soon to build.
On September 12, I wrote the meditation that follows. During the next weeks, as we move toward 9/11/11, I will share with you some prayers and liturgies that might help us build new sukkahs in our souls.
Shalom, salaam -- Arthur
The Sukkah & the World Trade Center
When the Jewish community celebrates the harvest festival, we build “sukkot.”
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 our prayers on every evening, 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 try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness:
air raid shelters,
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 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. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet yesterday the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.
Not only the targets of attack but also the instruments of attack were among our proudest possessions: the sleek transcontinental airliners. They availed us 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.
The perpetrators of this act of infamy seem to espouse a tortured version of Islam. Responding to them requires two different, though related, forms of action:
1. Their violence must be halted. They must be found and brought to trial, without killing still more innocents and wrecking still more the fragile “sukkot” of lawfulness. There are in fact mechanisms of international law and politics that can bring them to justice.
2. At the same time, 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.
We must reach beyond the terrorists —- 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. 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.
What would it mean, instead, to recognize that both the United States and Islam live in vulnerable sukkot?
What do we need to do to recover our knowledge of the history of two centuries of Western colonization and neo-colonial support for oppressive regimes in much of the Muslim world?
How do we keep remembering that in ALL religious communities and traditions -- including Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Islam -- there are streaks of blood? How do we work with the peaceful majority in each community to grow past those messages of violence toward embodying the vision of compassion?
How do we welcome Muslim societies fully into the planetary community?
What does the United States need to do to encourage grass-roots support for those elements of Islam that seek to renew the tradition?
How do we encourage 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?
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 the ears of 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. We must spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.