Rabbi Arthur Waskow
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 the evening prayers, 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.
Suspicion about the perpetrators of this act of infamy has fallen upon some groups that espouse a tortured version of Islam. Whether or not this turns out to be so, 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.
This does not mean ignoring or forgiving whoever wrought such bloodiness. They must be found and brought to trial, without killing still more innocents and wrecking still more the fragile "sukkot" of lawfulness. Their violence must be halted. And we must reach beyond them to calm the rage that gave them birth by addressing the pain from which they sprouted.
From festering pools of pain and rage sporut the plague of terrorism. For some reason, 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 be a policy of precision? Let me offer one example of possibility (not the only imaginable course of responsible action):
The US government could draw together what serious evidence it has against the Bin Laden network it has accused. It could go to the UN Security Council and treat the UNSC as a grand jury, providing it with the evidence and requesting its authority to arrest those charged.
Under the present circumstances, it seems extremely likely the UNSC authority would come. That is exactly the way the UN Charter was designed: When there is ethical agreement among those who around the world hold great political power, then force can be used. Given the imperfections of human society, it is not a bad way to go.
Then not the US alone, not the world's one superpower acting from a place of wounded arrogance, but the united opinion of humanity would be demanding from the nation(s) where the accused live their extradition for trial, maybe including the possibility of trial by an international court of crimes against humanity (the court the US has opposed creating) or trial by US law in another country (like the Lockerbie case).
If that Security Council warrant for extradition and arrest were refused, then the Security Counmcil's writ could be enforced by carefully focused use of armed force, if necessary.
This approach would enhance the rule of law instead of further shattering it, and focus on the perpetrators, not on raining death on whole communities.
It might ultimately mean using armed force. But it would come as close as possible to using it as the police do.
And meanwhile, we would be addressing the pools of pain and rage. There have been two centuries of Western colonization and neo-colonial support for oppressive regimes in much of the Muslim world. 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 reward 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? How do we welcome Muslim societies fully into the planetary community? How do we establish the goal and encourage the emergence of a peaceful relationship between Israel within approximately the Green Line of 1967 (with a few tiny mutually respectful emendations) and a viable, peaceful Palestine?
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.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow is Director of The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.org and the author of Godwrestling Round 2.
For words of prayer, Torah, and social action for peace, justice, healing of the earth, and community-building, explore www.theshalomcenter.org
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