On the evening of Oct. 1, the Jewish community will begin celebrating the harvest festival by building sukkot.
What is a sukkah? Just a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, because it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, where its roof must be not only leafy but leaky -- letting in the starlight, and gusts of wind and rain.
In the evening prayers, we plead with God, "Spread over all of us Your sukkah of shalom."
For much of our lives, we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness. Pyramids, air-raid shelters, Pentagons, World Trade Centers. Hardening what might be targets and, like Pharaoh, hardening our hearts against what is foreign to us.
But the sukkah comes to remind us: We are, in truth, all vulnerable. If "a hard rain's a-gonna fall," it will fall on all of us.
Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet yesterday, the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.
Not only the targets of attack, but also the instruments of attack were among our proudest possessions: the sleek transcontinental airliners. They availed us nothing.
Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us.
There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is one interwoven web of life. I must love my neighbor as I do myself, because my neighbor and myself are interwoven. If I hate my neighbor, the hatred will recoil upon me.
If I treat my neighbor's pain and grief as foreign, I will end up suffering when my neighbor's pain and grief curdle into rage.
But if I realize that in simple fact the walls between us are full of holes, I can reach through them in compassion and connection.
Suspicion about the perpetrators of this act of infamy has fallen upon some groups that espouse a tortured version of Islam. Whether or not this turns out to be so, America must open its heart and mind to the pain and grief of those in the Arab and Muslim worlds who feel excluded, denied, unheard, disempowered, defeated.
This does not mean ignoring or forgiving whoever wrought such bloodiness. They must be found and brought to trial, without killing still more innocents and wrecking still more the fragile sukkot of lawfulness. Their violence must be halted, their rage must be calmed -- and the pain behind them must be heard and addressed.
Of course, not every demand becomes legitimate, just because it is an expression of pain. But we must open the ears of our hearts to ask: Have we had a hand in creating the pain? Can we act to lighten it?
Instead of entering upon a "war of civilizations," we must pursue a planetary peace.
Reprinted with permission of The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California.