In Plain Language: Israel is a succa

The succa is meant to be a happy yet humbling experience to help us appreciate just how very dependent we are on God.

September 19, 2013 06:44
Marc Israel Sellem

Interior of a succa 370. (photo credit: Interior of a succa )

And the Land was tranquil for 40 years.

This succinct phrase, repeated numerous times throughout the Tanach, indicates that there was an almost constant, perpetual state of war between ancient Israel and its neighbors. Even when the enemy – be it Moab, Edom or the ubiquitous Philistines - were handed a crushing blow and overwhelming defeat in battle, the peace did not last longer than 40 years. Even when our most gifted military heroes were commanding the army – leaders like Barak (the first), Deborah or Gideon – the forces that sought our demise could not be held back indefinitely.

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Well, it has now been exactly 40 years since we fought our last comprehensive war, a fierce and bitter campaign that came to be known as the Yom Kippur War. While we unfortunately have had no lack of fighting in the decades since that event – enduring two wars in Lebanon, both intifadas and countless terrorist attacks – there is a marked difference between the battles. Unlike the latter outbreaks of violence, the Yom Kippur War represented an existential threat to our nationhood, a shocking wake-up call after the euphoric Six Day War that signaled we were indeed vulnerable and capable of failure on the battle field.

Anyone who lived through those times will bear witness to the fear, almost panic, that gripped the country in the early days of the war.

Staggering losses of men and machinery, Arab armies that fought with efficiency and determination, and perhaps most shocking, our loss of aerial supremacy, which had been and remains the backbone of our military strength.

We teetered on the verge of defeat, a horror from which we would not have been able to return or recover. Blessedly – miraculously, if you are any kind of believer – we turned the tide through superhuman effort, and our magnificent fighting forces eventually won the war, albeit at a heavy price.

It was into this scenario that Menachem Begin made his most significant contribution to Jewish history. Begin, the Holocaust survivor, desperately wanted to prevent another Shoah. He understood that if Egypt and its massive army were taken out of the game, the other Arab states would be unable to launch an all-out war against us. And so, though he was a fighter from birth, he made the courageous decision to sign what many felt was a one-sided peace treaty with Anwar Sadat, giving the Egyptians a land mass larger than the State of Israel, with the Mitla Pass and Abu Rudeis oil fields thrown in as well.

It was a gutsy, calculated risk, but Begin was absolutely certain it was worth it.

Begin was not without his detractors.

To this day, there are those who condemn Begin’s decision, saying he set the precedent of caving in to maximalist Arab demands, that he was the first to dismantle Jewish settlements such as Yamit, and that he put his trust in a hostile neighbor that would eventually turn on us and launch an attack that, without the buffer of the Sinai desert, would leave us more vulnerable than ever before.

But I am convinced that the naysayers are wrong, that history will uphold Begin’s strategy and sagacity. Since the Yom Kippur War’s end, and in the almost 40 years since the peace treaty was signed with Egypt, no Israeli soldier has been killed by organized enemy fire from the Egyptian army. The peace is a cold one, to be sure, and the mentality and mindset of the Egyptian people has remained anti-Israel – if not outright anti-Semitic – but the peace has held.

And for anyone who has lost a family member in battle, protecting Jewish lives is the name of the game and the ultimate goal.

But now, 40 years have passed and the traditional red flags are flying; the biblical “statute of limitations” is up. Egypt, like the other Arab countries in our midst, is in turmoil. Yesterday it was the Muslim Brotherhood with the upper hand; today power is back in the army’s control. But what will tomorrow bring?

Enter the succa

There are three distinct components to the succa. The earth upon which we build our succa represents our intense love for the land, which produces nourishment for us and sustains us. In particular, though we traveled in makeshift succot during our desert wanderings, the earth beneath our feet reminds us of the Land of Israel, the destination to which we were then headed and the rightful destination for all Jews at all times.

The walls of the succa, which tend to sway in the wind a bit and are temporary, represent the fragile environment in which we all live.

Our ability to build tall, thick walls around us cannot guard us against disease or global warming or an economic tsunami, or the menacing advances of a political regime which is ill-disposed to our welfare.

For that, we have to rely upon both our own efforts, and upon God.

And this, of course, is the third – and most important – element of the succa: the thatched roof, the s’chach. (Indeed, the word succa derives from the term s’chach, arguably the most challenging word in the Jewish vocabulary for a non-Hebrew speaker to pronounce!) What is above us is meant to remind us that God in Heaven is our greatest source of protection; only He – and His holy messengers in the IDF – can keep us truly safe.

There is an interesting Halacha of the succa. In order to fulfill the mitzva of dwelling in a succa, the structure must have more shade than sunlight. One idea here is that the s’chach must be ample enough to cover the roof, so that the interior becomes shaded, just like our homes. But I suggest that there is another, deeper message implied in this law. Perhaps the message being sent to us is that we live in a precarious, ever more dangerous world where we are constantly at risk from many different directions. A world that, alas, is often “more shadow than sunlight.”

To survive in this world, let alone prosper, we all need divine help.

The succa is meant to be a happy yet humbling experience to help us appreciate just how very dependent we are on God. Remembering that essential truth, while remaining steadfast in our courage and convictions, will hopefully help us to break the “40-year jinx” and continue in peace and security for a long time to come. ■

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana;; [email protected]

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