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The first night of Succot is my favorite time of the year - the one when my inner emotional state is most consonant with the special rejoicing commanded by the Torah.
Assuming that it does not rain, the temperature is almost always perfect, neither too hot nor too cold. Our succa is large enough to hold our entire family and many guests comfortably, and with only a few lights illuminating the darkness, this is as close as we ever get to eating by candlelight.
The succa on the balcony below ours belongs to a family justly known for their beautiful harmonies. Usually, we hear no more than a few snatches of "Shalom Aleichem," as we walk up the stairs on Shabbat night. On Succot, we are treated to a week of concertizing.
When our ancestors farmed the Land, Succot marked the end of the agricultural cycle. The farmer could contemplate his grain now safely stored, after a year of hard labor, with both satisfaction and gratitude to God for having caused the rains to fall in their proper time.
Today most of our lives are only tangentially tied to the agricultural cycle. But there is a spiritual parallel to the farmer's joy at the end of annual harvest. As we look back on our journey towards reconciliation and closeness with God since the beginning of Elul, we experience on a spiritual level the same satisfaction and gratitude.
On Yom Kippur, Moses received the Second Tablets - an event described as the marriage between God and the Jewish people. While the wedding is the milestone that young couples most remember, it is only the beginning of the process of growing comfortable in one another's presence.
And so it was with respect to the closeness between God and the Jewish people. Only five days later, on Succot, did the Clouds of Glory, which surrounded our ancestors in the Desert, return. Only then was the reconciliation complete, and were we totally enveloped in God's love.
Today, when we leave our homes and enter into the temporary dwelling of the succa, we again place ourselves directly under God's protection, just as our ancestors did in a howling desert. And we too experience His enveloping love.
THIS YEAR we have had particular evidence of divine protection - ironically, davka because of the obvious failures of the political and military echelons in the most recent Lebanon War.
After each of Israel's military triumphs, there were those who saw in the victory only the awesome power of the IDF and others who saw Divine Providence - each according to his predisposition. For those inclined to see miracles, there were always plenty of examples. The Syrian commander inexplicably halted on the verge of pushing Israel from the Golan Heights in 1973 (for which he was subsequently executed). At the exact moment Israeli jets appeared over Baghdad skies on the way to bombing the Osirak reactor, the anti-aircraft batteries were changing shifts, and Israeli pilots faced no fire. Israel had a complete set of plans of Entebbe airport, which had been built by an Israeli contractor.
Others dismiss such examples as nothing more than fortuitous coincidences.
In Lebanon, things were different than previous wars. Though Israeli soldiers fought well and bravely, the IDF's overall performance was lackluster. There were few examples of the IDF's vaunted ability to adapt quickly and innovatively to changing circumstances. Nothing like Ariel Sharon's daring crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973.
Rather the IDF appeared like a lumbering giant unable to do anything other than carry out its assigned battle plan. Even the most daring Israeli military action - the commando raid on Baalbek deep in the Bekaa Valley - was widely criticized for having involved too high a degree of risk for no obvious military objective.
If the IDF's performance was disappointing, that of the political echelons was incomprehensible. The government kept redefining its goals throughout the war. But no matter how many times it did so, it was impossible to discern any clear link between military strategy and goals. Had the government promised the Americans less in terms of its ability to deliver a death blow to Hizbullah (even as it resolutely refused to pursue a military strategy capable of doing so), it could likely have achieved something close to the eventual resolution weeks earlier.
Yet, for all the well-deserved anger now directed at those at the political and military helm, there is reason to believe that Israel's strategic position is better than it was on July 12.
Certainly Hassan Nasrallah's situation has grown vastly more complicated, for all his popularity on the overrated Arab street. He has taken up residence underground, even complaining in one interview that he doesn't know where he is.
His famous declaration that he would never have kidnapped the two Israeli reservists had he anticipated the ferocity of the Israeli response attests to his weakened political situation. That admission - so at odds with the traditional Arab habit of claiming victory even after overwhelming defeat - must be read as an apology and a promise not to again wreak havoc on Lebanon, including, first and foremost, his fellow Shi'ites.
And if Nasrallah breaks that promise, Israel now has a return address. Lebanon has been forced to exercise its sovereignty in southern Lebanon and deploy its forces. It can no longer play the role of the long-suffering innocent if Hizbullah attacks again.
There is even some evidence that UNIFIL and Lebanese Army troops are doing more to prevent Hizbullah from rearming and redeploying than their public statements would indicate. And finally, Hizbullah's premature use of its missiles against Israel and loss of its most powerful missiles has cost Iran its most powerful deterrent vis- -vis Israel.
This year we have unmistakably experienced God's enveloping protection, not just from our enemies but from the failures of our leaders.
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