The Shelter and the Shield: Sukkot as Symbol of Safety and Peace

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
on September 20, 2021

When you are driving down the road, you do not want to encounter a Stop Symbol! The reason is simple. A sign is something upon which there is, we hope, universally agreed meaning. But symbols echo; they resonate and reverberate; they invite interpretation; they thrum with many different meanings.

Sukkot is the quintessential Jewish holiday of symbols. There are unfolding interpretations of the lulav and etrog – parts of the body, types of Jews, mystical sexuality. These are all explanations written long after the commandment was written down. The multiple meanings of the sukkah, the booth, the hut — are in the Torah itself. The sukkah is both a harvest hut and an expression of celebration. It is also a reminder of our people’s wandering in the wilderness, of a time when we had no fixed national home. It is bounty and beauty, and it also suggests danger, fragility, and impermanence.

The question for us is this — can the sukkah vibrate with meaning in our lives as well? We speak of “Sukkat Shalom” — a shelter of peace. Like the sukkah itself, peace can be hard to build. It can differ in appearance in one place or another, and it can topple in the winds of opposition. When it comes, it brings shade and hope and a sense of fullness and satisfaction. Like the bounty on display in a sukkah, peace is, indeed, a culmination and fulfillment, a fruition of our work and striving to recreate our lives.

The sukkah is also a shield. Like the vaccine against a plague, it is not perfect protection. Something deleterious can come through. Nevertheless, we are far better in it and under it than not. The sukkah, in this sense too, offers protection and hope. It is a reminder of how shaky life is and it compels spiritual humility that comes with the realization of life’s fragility.

The sukkah as a shelter of peace is an imperfect shield against danger as well as a metaphor for what J Street seeks in its work — to help create in our nation’s capital the space for our leaders and nation to work hand in hand with the American Jewish community and all peoples in the Land of Israel to create a secure and just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. We cannot allow our fears and insecurities to keep us from the vital work of peace, for building a sukkah, and dwelling in it for the duration of the holiday, requires consummate skill, patience, willfulness, and faith.

This year, may we find the way to build our sukkah of peace and to gather within it.

May our holidays be significant and symbolic of what we all strive to do.

Chag Sameach. A meaningful and powerful Sukkot to all of you.

Michael Feshbach serves as Rabbi of The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, the oldest synagogue building in continuous use under the US flag, and one of five synagogues in the world with sand on the floor. Prior to arriving in St Thomas in 2017, he served for 16 years as Senior Rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, MD. The author of numerous online articles and book chapters, he is also a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Israel.


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