Impermanency & Protection: Old First E-pistle 09.30.2010

I usually enter and leave Old City via 3rd and Market: stores, galleries, restaurants and pedestrians make a more interesting walk. Last week this route offered an added bonus:  the sukkah built at the Jewish Arts Center (on 3rd between Arch and Cherry).

A sukkah is a primitive booth, a fragile hut roofed with green branches, open to starlight, wind, and rain. Jewish neighbors just finished celebrating the holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, an agricultural festival marking the end of the growing season. (If Shavuot– for Christians ‘Pentecost’– is a celebration of the growing season’s “first fruits;” Sukkot is a celebration of that which is harvested last, the fruit.)

The seven days of Sukkot call Jews to live — taking meals and sleeping —  in the vulnerability of the sukkah. Making it watertight, or secure in other ways, keeps it from being kosher. It’s a reminder of the Israelites’s provisional dwellings in the wilderness when God brought them out of  Egypt.

The Sukkot evening prayer asks God for help seeking not only sleep, but some security through the vulnerable night, “Spread over all of us Your sukkah of shalom.” Had I designed the holiday, I might have gone with a more secure image– a fortress of shalom… an oasis… a sanctuary… or even the deep sleep of shalom. Something less vulnerable, more impermeable, hard-shelled. Wouldn’t that be a more comforting promise of God’s protection? </span>

Human attempts to protect and insulate ourselves end up more like the “isms” (racism, sexism, classism…). Desperate, hurtful, even deadly. Enlisting the world’s systems and structures, the powerful pair prejudice with advantage like a security fence. Undeniably “isms” harm the people they are about. They may provide a false sense of security to those who hold them.

But even with uneven playing fields, all humans are still within each other’s reach, fully able to hurt and harm each other, sometimes irretrievably, even in the most intimate of relationships. All the world’s power, all our fortress mentalities, the highest walls — nothing keeps us ultimately safe from or untouched by life’s dangers and vulnerabilities. Or from each other.

On Union Square in New York City last week, 12 sukkahs were built. Winners from the 642 entries by Jews and Gentiles from around the world… sukkahs designed as celebrations of Jewish art and culture… meditations on sustenance, shelter, hunger, hospitality and the temporary nature of all that surrounds us. One “Sukkah City” architect explained he hoped for a structure “transparent enough to be inclusive, but dense enough to create a sense of belonging.” The 3rd Street sukkah, straddling the public sidewalk,  is the most inviting I’ve ever experienced. “Everyone” passes through.

Maybe each of us needs a week once a year sleeping exposed, prone, vulnerable to remember how easy even the toughest is bruised and battered, like fruit at harvest. Because true peace and justice, lasting security–  such as we could ever know them– begin with recognizing our own vulnerability, and how we share it in common with everyone else. How unthinkingly we harm others. How easily we all bleed. How often we hurt ourselves. How long an injury can stay with us. How we are all mortal.

There’s truth, even hope, in vulnerability. No matter how desperately, futiley humans try to protect and insulate themselves, inevitably human life only happens in a vulnerable sukkah.

Faithfully yours, Michael