Erev Rosh Hashanah: A Sukkat Shalom – A Canopy of Peace

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A Sukkat Shalom – A Canopy of Peace

Erev Rosh Hashanah, September 9, 2018
Rabbi Jaymee Alpert

I would like to take this opportunity to share my remarks from Erev Rosh Hashanah with you.  Wishing you a happy, healthy, peaceful New Year.

As part of the evening service, not just on Erev Rosh Hashanah, but every night, we recite the Hashkiveinu.  This prayer asks God to protect us.  We ask God to grant us peace and to watch over us.  We pray:

“Allow us, Adonai our God, to sleep peacefully and to awaken again to life, our sovereign.  Spread over us Your sukkat shalom – Your canopy of peace, restore us with Your good counsel, and save us for the sake of Your name.  Shield us:  Remove from us enemies and pestilence, sword, starvation, and sorrow, and remove the evil forces that surround us.  Shelter us in the shadow of Your wings, for You, God, watch over and deliver us, and You are the Sovereign, merciful and compassionate.  Ensure our going and coming for life, and peace, now and forever.  May You spread over us Your canopy of peace.  Praised are You Adonai, who spreads the canopy of peace over us, and over all the people Israel, and over Jerusalem.”

Like children asking our parents to tuck us in at night, and to make sure there are no monsters lurking under the bed or behind the closet door, we ask God to guard us as we sleep.  This prayer is said in a liminal moment, in an “in-between” space.  When we said it a little bit earlier, it was not quite day and not quite night.  It was not quite the year that was ending, nor was it the year that was about to begin.  We prayed in the “in-between” time.

“In-between” time or liminal moments make us vulnerable, and in so doing, they open us up spiritually.  We are not sure of our footing in ‘in-between” time.  Sleep and the moments that come just before – when we are not quite awake and not yet fully asleep, is a time that causes us to let down our defenses.  With our guard down, we cannot protect ourselves, and so we must rely on God’s care – it’s why we need the Hashkiveinu.

This short prayer asks God to spread a sukkat shalom – the Divine canopy of peace over us three times.  I have always been taken by this image.  What is a sukkah of peace?  And why a sukkah?  After all, a sukkah is fragile.  It is susceptible to the elements and can be knocked over.

The sukkah itself is liminal – it is not quite inside, not quite outside.  It is not nothing but nor is it a durable shelter.  Why would we ask to be sheltered in a sukkah?  Why not a sturdy building with a solid foundation?  Why not something that has doors we can lock to keep us safe?  And a roof on top to keep us warm and dry?

Perhaps the sukkah’s precariousness is a reminder that we must do our part to protect that which is fragile.  We cannot rely on God alone.  Like shattering a glass at a wedding to remind us of what is broken in the world, and to remind the couple that they must take care of one another and their relationship in order to keep it whole, perhaps the sukkah warns us that we must do our part to protect our relationships with one another, with ourselves, and with God.

The High Holy Days offer us time and space to do this.  Perhaps not in an actual sukkah – that’s still two weeks away, but throughout these days and this season, we have the ability to search out the corners of our hearts and lives that are easy to overlook.  The High Holy Days offer us time and space to come clean with ourselves, to begin to make amends, and to resolve to live differently.  It is fascinating that we can be surrounded by hundreds of people and completely alone with our thoughts and innermost selves at the same time.

But we must not remain totally alone, because the High Holy Days also give us time and space to be in community.  We spend a lot of time in shul together over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – whether you come for the prayer or the schmoozefest or perhaps a bit of both, there is no doubt that these two holidays provide us with hours and hours of time to be together.  We need this time together – it helps us to foster a sukkat shalom.  While we ask God for help when we say Haskiveinu, we also need to do our part.

A sukkat shalom – a canopy of peace:  we need that today, in our world, perhaps more than at any other time in recent history.  It is an understatement to say that we live in a politically divisive era.  Everything we say, everything we hear one another say has a political valence, whether or not it is intended.  Our relationships have become fragile.  Some have shattered.  It is becoming ever more difficult to engage in civil discourse and to share differing opinions.

We no longer seek out friends who have different beliefs than we do.  Moreover, since the presidential election almost two years ago, people have lost friends because of political beliefs.

With our ability to curate social media, we tend to hear our own opinions being shouted back to us, and we are able to block out the opinions we don’t want to hear because we disagree.  We no longer allow for the possibility that someone else might have a valid point of view, even if it is one with which we disagree.

Over the summer I read, Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.”  In it, he offers reasons why Liberals and Conservatives have different intuitions about right and wrong and explains why both groups are right about their central concerns.

On his website,, Haidt writes, “Americans have long known that they have racial, ethnic, class, and partisan divides.  But the 2016 presidential election has forced all of us to recognize that these gaps may be far larger, more numerous, and more dangerous than we thought.  Americans are not just failing to meet each other and know each other.  Increasingly, we hate each other—particularly across the partisan divide.  Hatred and mistrust damage democracy, and they can seep onto campus and distort academic life as well.”

Mistrust hasn’t only entered the academic sphere, and the political arena – how many politicians are known for reaching across the aisle these days?  It has entered religious communities too.  Houses of worship are becoming increasingly one-dimensional.

In her July 11th op-ed in The New York Times entitled “When Politicians Determine Your Religious Beliefs,” Michele Margolis writes, “researchers have found that hearing diverse political messages promotes tolerance, interacting in politically integrated social settings curbs partisan biases, and having key social groups represented in both political parties helps maintain civil political discourse. Churches used to facilitate this, uniting people with diverse political opinions.  But when politics affects whether and where Americans go to church, even our houses of worship become political echo chambers. Americans will increasingly find themselves able to bitterly denounce or unflinchingly laud Donald Trump, to a chorus of agreement. In the end, this will further divide us.”

This is not a healthy trend.  It does not help us build or maintain a sukkat shalom if we cannot make space to hear one another’s opinion.  Perhaps Hashkiveinu employs the image of a sukkah rather than a solid building to remind us that if we do not tend to it, if we are not careful, it is fragile, and it will eventually collapse.

The sukkah is also open.  When we are inside, we are not really inside. I know the elements aren’t too concerning here in Saratoga, but in New York, you can feel the wind, the rain, and occasionally the snow.

And when we are in the sukkah, we are supposed to be spiritually open.  Being open to the physical elements and being open to our spiritual needs make us vulnerable.  If we were sheltered in a secure building, we would not need to ask for God’s protection.  We would not need faith.  But in a sukkah, we cannot afford to be without them.

In a sukkah, we prioritize our immediate needs, which must include each other.  We are a community.  We may hold different beliefs about politics – both here, and in Israel, and throughout the world.  We may use different lenses through which to understand the events of our world, but at the end of the day, we must prioritize one another.  We must not shut each other out because we disagree.  The sukkat shalom reminds us that we need each other, and that we must open our minds and hearts to hear one another.

We have a long tradition of valuing different beliefs.  The Talmud in Masechet Eruvin (13b) teaches, “Rabbi Abba said in the name of Shmuel, For three years, Beit Hillel – the house of Hillel and Beit Shammai – the house of Shammai argued.

Beit Hillel said, ‘The halakha – the Jewish law – is like us,’ and Beit Shammai said, ‘The halakha – the Jewish law – is like us.’  Then, a Bat Kol – a Divine voice spoke: “Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chaim – these and these are the words of the living God.”  In other words, both opinions are valid, and even though the halakha, is decided according to Beit Hillel, the Talmud acknowledges and records Beit Shammai’s ruling as well.  This type of respect for opinions when they are coming from an intentional and holy place is a powerful model for us today.

Everything I have experienced in the short time I have been at Congregation Beth David makes it clear that we are a family, and a place dedicated to process, and to allowing for a multiplicity of voices.  However, as we know, we live in a divisive age, and so we must work continuously to maintain our sukkat shalom.

In this new year, let us use Hashkiveinu as a nightly reminder that there is room at Beth David for a variety of opinions and beliefs.  Let us use Haskiveinu as a nightly reminder that when we engage one another in meaningful and intentional conversation, we deepen the bonds of community and we are able to say “elu v’elu divrei Elohim chaim – these and these are the words of the living God.”  When we do this, we will truly be able to feel God’s presence in our sukkat shalom.

Kein Yehi Ratzon – so may it be God’s will.


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