Since the terrible events of Simchat Torah in Israel, in addition to a constant undercurrent of sadness, fear and tension, there have been moments that have brought these emotions to the fore. These moments seem to be where my connection to the events or the people has intensified and I have related to the situation even more than usual – sometimes while talking to a friend, sometimes when reading a name I recognize or reading a story that feels like it could have been my own. A few days ago I saw a picture in Aviv Abergel’s collection from Kibbutz Be’eri that struck a chord and I have been thinking about it ever since.
It was simply a succah that was still standing while the house next to it had collapsed in an explosion. The photo initially struck me because taking down the succah was one of the first things I did after Yom Tov, while I was still digesting the terrible news from Israel. (With the weather in the UK you cannot leave it until later!) Yet as I have thought more about this image, the symbolism has resonated with me more and more. For almost two months in the lead up to Simchat Torah we said the following verse twice a day:
כִּי יִצְפְּנֵנִי בְּסֻכֹּה בְּיוֹם רָעָה יַסְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵתֶר אָהֳלוֹ בְּצוּר יְרוֹמְמֵנִי
He will shelter me in His succah on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent, raise me high upon a rock.
The entire Psalm 27 (“ledavid Hashem”) describes our confidence when in the presence of Hashem. We begin saying it on the first of Elul, building up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, continuing all the way through Succot, saying it twice each day until we leave our succah. Clearly the succah is supposed to encourage us to feel the protection of the Almighty.
we do not view the succah as a model of trust in God in spite of its instability but because of it
Yet the succah is the most rickety structure imaginable. Most people I know sit in hope that the succah survives the rain and wind of the week! Moreover, many have struggled to feel the protection of God recently. The initial attacks made us feel vulnerable and the huge rise in UK antisemitism has only made our worries grow. Are we really supposed to look at the succah and feel safer? Is this flimsy edifice supposed to be the symbol of God’s protection? In fact, I believe that is exactly the point but let us first take a look at the early origins of the succah.
In Parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham journeys to Israel, beginning our eternal connection to the land. He is the paradigm of faith, finding God in a world where no one else had and showing commitment like almost no one in history. Avraham is known not just for showing faith himself but for encouraging it in others too – he would regularly host guests, not only to be kind but also to encourage them to consider their connection to God. When he hosts guests at the beginning of Vayera, he sits them in the shade of a tree and the Medrash connects this to our sitting in the shade of the succah, continuing Avraham’s legacy.
From every source the succah seems to be synonymous with faith – the Zohar actually refers to the shade of the succah as צילא דמהימנותא, the shadow of faith. It is clear that we do not view the succah as a model of trust in God in spite of its instability but because of it. During Succot we move from a place that gives us the illusion of protection to a structure where that bubble is burst. We recognize that one can feel protected while living in a succah and be vulnerable while in a walled compound.
In truth, this is exactly what faith is all about – it is by definition shaky and unstable. The times that we are living in, when we feel exposed and vulnerable, are exactly the moments for us to build our trust in Hashem. In the words of Rabbi Lord Sacks z”l, “Faith does not mean certainty. It means the courage to live with uncertainty. It does not mean having the answers, it means having the courage to ask the questions and not let go of God, as He does not let go of us.” (To Heal A Fractured World, p. 199)
The attacks happened on the first day that psalm 27 was not recited in Israel but so much of its essence permeates the past two weeks. “Do not abandon me to the will of my foes … were it not for my faith that I shall see the Lord’s goodness … Hope in the Lord, be strong and of good courage and hope in the Lord.”
This final line sums up our approach to faith. We place our hope in the Hashem and when we may find that trust waning, we encourage ourselves and dig deep to find it once again. These dark days are days of Emunah, when we must dig deep to build our connection with God and find the hope and faith we know is there. The image of the succah in Kibbutz Be’eri will sustain me for a long time in the belief that soon we will witness God’s “tabernacle of peace” spread across the world.