This year, as Hurricane Joaquin approaches during the holiday of Sukkot, we feel more than ever the fragility of sukkah design. Those partial walls, lightly attached corners and strangely layered schach that have served us so well year after year suddenly seem flimsier than usual. In this climate, we may be particularly aware of the irony of asking God to spread over us a sukkat shalom, a Sukkah of Peace. Do we really want shalom that is so flimsy? Are we actually asking God for peace that is so temporary? With the storm threatening to topple our sukkot, we may be craving more of a binyan shalom (a building of peace), or better yet, a mivtzar shalom (a fortress of peace)—unshakeable, immovable, and eternally durable.
Of course, it is the sukkah’s very flimsiness that is its essential element. The Talmud lists a number of odd loopholes for building a sukkah. For example, as long as a wall comes close enough to the ground (under three handbreadths, or about 10 feet), the law of lavud considers it as if it is touching the ground. More than that, if a wall of the sukkah is only 10 feet high, the law of gud asik mechitzta treats it as if it goes all the way up to the heavens. Finally, if there is an awning attached to the wall of a sukkah, the law of dofen akumah says we just pretend it’s a crooked wall and sit under the schach which is attached to the awning, as if it were attached to the wall itself. These are just a few of the strange set of regulations that might make us wonder. With all of the fake walls and pretend corners, it’s as if the sukkah is an imaginary space!
An imaginary space, indeed. It turns out a little imagination is exactly what we need if we are to live the religious life. As Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former president of Yeshiva University, pointed out in a 1964 sermon (amazing what you can find online!), it is these very illusions that are at the cornerstone of faith. “Pity the man,” he writes, “who prides himself upon possessing ‘common sense,’ who ‘sticks only to facts,’ and who has nothing to do with sentiment or illusion.” Lamm quotes the poet John Ciardi from Saturday Review, who wrote,
It is always a mistake to discuss poetry with a man who insists that it must make sense… For the trouble with being sensible is not the sense it does or does not make, but the life it never really manages to get to. It always manages to shut as many doors as it opens…
A little illusion makes possible those things in life that are beyond exact, consistent measure: love, beauty, faith. It is also precisely what we need to build a life of meaning.
No wonder, then, that the tradition calls for the metaphor of the delicate sukkah when we pray for peace. Leave the bricks and concrete for other purposes. Like a sukkah, peace requires a bit of flexibility, a few ambiguities and a blind eye to some of the precise measurements that may not fit exactly. It also needs to be rebuilt and re-patched every time a new storm comes around. With a little imagination, the joy we bring to our sukkot can help us to envision a world of peace, where walls, or perhaps more importantly, doors, can be rebuilt again and again, imperfectly and with plenty of loopholes.