Thanks, Alvin Ray!
Alvin Ray was our handyman growing up. Any little thing that went awry in our house, Alvin was there within minutes ready to fix it. Alvin Ray also saved my life. Before one Sukkot1, Alvin was over to build our sukkah for us, another one of his tasks, and I was a toddler at the time.
Inside the house, unbeknownst to anyone else, I had found a drawer of sucking candies. No one was around in the house to see this. Miraculously, Alvin had come in for something, a missing tool, a glass of water, or perhaps it was divine providence. However you slice it, Alvin saved my life as he found me, face nearly blue, and expelled the candy from my throat.
I do not have a memory of this incident, but every year around sukkot, it contributes to my sense of the fragility and vulnerability of life during the holiday. It pushes me to think more intently about the ways in which life can shift in one short moment. Sukkot, in and of itself, is a holiday that forces all of us to do this.
We move from permanent structures to temporary ones. We brave the elements as best as our surroundings allow. Of course it is a holiday of joy, but we also recognize our limitations on Sukkot. Following the exiting of Yom Kippur, where we feel a sense of completion and assuredness that we (hopefully!) make it for another year, Sukkot introduces some uncertainty to that.
This Shabbat coincides with the first night of Sukkot. Because of that, there is a piece of liturgy that should jump out at us a bit more. During Shabbat Maariv, the evening service, we always say the line וּפְרושׂ עָלֵינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלומֶךָ “May You spread over us a sukkah of Your peace.” Rav Kook asks the following question: Why pray for a sukkah, a makeshift booth, of peace? Would it not be better to have a “fortress of peace” — strong, secure, and lasting? It is a beautiful question with an even more profound answer. He says as follows:
Jewish law validates a sukkah even when it has gaping holes, when it is built from little more than two walls, or has large spaces between the walls and the roof. Even such a fragile structure still qualifies as a kosher sukkah. The same is true regarding peace. Peace is so precious, so vital, that even if we are unable to attain complete peace, we should still pursue a partial measure of peace. Even an imperfect peace between neighbors, or between an individual and the community, is worthwhile.
“How wonderful is peace!” proclaimed the sages (VaYikra Rabbah 9:9). The value of peace is so great that we pray for it even if it will be like a sukkah — flimsy and temporary, rendered fit only by special laws.(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe’iyah p. 97)
The joining of peace and sukkah in this liturgical unit is not coincidental in the eyes of Rav Kook. It serves as an important and necessary reminder for us in regard to peace, both for ourselves and for the world. We humans prefer certainty and stability. When it does not come, we want to throw our hands up. Sukkot pushes us to be comfortably uncomfortable with uncertainty and instability.
The truth is, I think that reminder from Rav Kook is germane for so many areas of life. How often do we let perfection serve as the enemy of the good. We want everything to be whole, perfect, and seamless when in reality, so very few things are.
We may want to give up when we feel uncertain. If it can’t be perfect or whole, then what’s the point? But the Sukkah of Peace gently prods us along. For ultimately, we are not even close to perfect and if we gave up on ourselves, then what would happen? As we enter into our sukkot tonight and in the coming days, let’s lean into the fragility this year. For ultimately we are here, continuing to live, and doing the necessary but non-linear work for peace and a whole slew of other things. I’m grateful to Alvin for the gift of my life that allows me to continue working for that.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!
This may have happened at another point in the year. I believe it is a debate within our family lore!