As I look up to the sky from my home in central Israel, I take careful notice of the clouds. Not just because I’m living outdoors during the week of Sukkot and want to gauge the weather. But because I’m thinking of something far more existential: the Mushroom Cloud.
Iran is in a race for nuclear weapons. Enriched uranium from thousands of centrifuges has been moved into underground bunkers at Fordow. Iran’s Shahab-3 missile, with a range of 1,200 miles, has been successfully tested. Iranian teams are working to assemble the component parts of a nuclear bomb: trigger devices, missile casings, and delivery systems. This is no “peaceful electricity project.”
Iran’s primary target is Israel. Whether it’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated threat to “wipe Israel off the map,” or the Supreme Ayatollah calling Israel “a cancerous tumor which must be removed,” or Iran’s top military commander Hassan Firouzabadi projecting “the full annihilation of the Zionist regime,” 6 million Jews in Israel are clearly under mortal threat. Just last week, Ahmadinejad reiterated these genocidal intentions in the “hallowed halls” of the UN.
The pressure here is enormous. Eighty percent of Israel’s population resides in the center of the country, an area the size of suburban Chicago. This could all be destroyed with one bomb.
None of us can truly imagine the horror of what would be unleashed. Nuclear bombs today are a thousand times more powerful than the ones dropped over Japan. And for Jews who have already suffered one recent Holocaust, this is no mere rhetoric.
The warning of Eli Weisel rings in my head: “We have learned to take the enemy’s words of hate seriously.”
Illusion of Security
Whenever I speak to friends in the States, they ask: “Are you afraid?”
My answer: Concerned – yes. Afraid – no.
Which is not to say that things here are all doom and gloom. A new survey by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that more than three-quarters of Israelis are optimistic about their country’s future. Still, I updated my family's gas masks and have stocked up on canned goods and bottled water. When I mention it to my friends, most agree it’s a good idea (and frankly, I think those who don’t are in denial).
But no, I’m not afraid of the Iranian Mushroom Cloud. Because I’m tapped into a far more potent Force: the Clouds of Glory, the Ananay haKavod. During the Israelites' 40-year sojourn in the desert, the Manna provided food, the Well provided water, and the Clouds offered 24/7 protection from the elements and enemies – a vital benefit for Jews camping out in flimsy sukkah-huts.
Back then, the miracle of God’s protection was open and revealed.
This miracle is not forgotten. Every year on the holiday of Sukkot, we venture outside the comfort of our homes and dwell in our own flimsy backyard hut. This is not mere theoretics or symbolic lip-service. For seven days, we treat the sukkah as our full-fledged dwelling: eating, studying, entertaining and even sleeping in the sukkah. In doing so, we return to that miraculous state of protection which nurtured the Jewish nation during its vital period of infancy.
Yet there is one crucial difference: Back then, the miracle of God’s protection was open and revealed.
Today, we have to work much harder to attain what the kabbalists term, Tzila d’Hemnusa – the “Shelter of Faith.”
This is not an easy task. In the old days, people were much more in tune with the natural spiritual rhythms. Harvest season and reliance on rain instilled gratitude for the Creator of all life. Roaming bandits and violent kings gave an appreciation for the passing of every peaceful day.
Today it is much harder to click in. Food is plentiful year-round and nobody needs to look Heavenward to see what the clouds foretell. News, shopping and friends are all one click away, enjoyed while sitting in a climate-controlled home with steel-reinforced roof and security gate out front – all protected by the institutions of democracy.
This illusion of security is what Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller terms "the most damaging illusion that blocks our inner eye from seeing God's presence."
This is precisely what the sukkah comes to correct. We leave our bricks-and-mortar homes in order to experience vulnerability, to train ourselves to find another, more permanent and dependable source of security. It is what Rabbi Akiva Tatz calls "an exercise in ego negation," working to build faith in the spiritual Source and not in the material domain of man's control.
To this end, we give ourselves over to total immersion – enveloped by the sukkah’s walls, mindful of the Almighty’s cradling arms.
Nowehere is this message more crucial than in Israel. Over the past 70 years, Israel has numerous times appeared on the brink of annihilation, with the Rabbinate distributing supplies of burial shrouds throughout the country and preparing to convert public parks into mass gravesites. Yet when all seems hopeless, that same miraculous Force always seems to intervene:
- In 1942, Nazi forces led by Rommel, en route to slaughter all the Jews in Israel, were stopped at El-Alamein in Egypt. A massive sandstorm mucked up Rommel's tanks and led his troops blindly into enemy defenses.
- In 1948, with no planes and only three tanks, the rag-tag Israeli militia staved off attempted annihilation by seven invading Arab armies.
- In 1967, again on the verge of annihilation by the three-front aggression of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, Israel scored a lightning-swift victory in the Six Day War – returning historic Jerusalem to Jewish hands.
- In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria broke through Israeli defenses and threatened to overrun the population centers, U.S. President Richard Nixon – embroiled in the Watergate scandal and thus with nothing to lose politically – quickly ordered the largest resupply effort in history, airlifting to Israel tons of ammunition, tanks and aircraft.
- During the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles scored direct hits on Israeli apartment buildings, there was nearly no loss of life.
We acknowledge the tireless efforts of Israeli diplomats and IDF soldiers to protect our borders and promote our case. Our physical response is, of course, equally necessary. But we also recognize that redemption from the vise grip of Iran is ultimately not dependent on political strategy or military might. As David Ben Gurion, Israeli’s founding father and by no measure an observant Jew, famously said: “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”
The Torah says that for the Jews in Egypt, it wasn't until "We cried out to God, that He heard our voice and saw our affliction" (Deut. 26:6-9). We had to hit rock-bottom, to see there was no other option but to turn to God. At that moment, redemption was under way.
That is the purpose of Sukkot – to reach the point where we recognize that the Almighty is our only option. It is our personal mission and our national imperative.
Yet this does not mean we are to rely on miracles.
God put us into a world of action, where we are to make an effort to affect positive change. Not because He needs it, but because we need to create a change within us and around us. This is the idea of world repairs – tikkun olam – the bedrock principle of Judaism.
So what can we do? It is surely impractical to parachute into Iran and perform covert acts of sabotage. But there is much that we can do. We can lobby representatives in Congress, write op-ed pieces for local newspapers, and work to fight anti-Israel bias. For example, the folks at Hasbara Fellowships mobilized American college students to protest Ahmadinejad’s appearance last week at the United Nations (#UNwelcome). If you have more ideas, share them in the comments section below and let’s get a discussion going.
We are expected to make the effort, yet the results are totally in God’s hands.
On the other hand, we must be totally clear that our efforts do not make or break the final outcome. In the words of the Talmud (Avot 2:21): “It is not up to you to complete the task, but neither are you exempt from trying.” Thus the classic Jewish anomaly: We are expected to make the effort, yet the results are totally in God’s hands.
That is the path we are headed down today. I am concerned that we are not waking up to the threat. A Hitler-wannabe visits New York, makes his intentions plain, on Yom Kippur no less, and where are the protests? Where is the outrage? If this isn’t a wake-up call, what is?
The issue is our very existence. Israel is a tiny country, surrounded by a sea of 250 million Arabs, possessing 640 times greater land mass with great oil reserves. Muslim fundamentalists are calling for jihad – a holy war to forcibly remove the infidels from the land.
Indeed, Zechariah chapter 14 speaks of the fateful War of Gog and Magog, when the entire world will descend upon Jerusalem and try to expel the Jews. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a 16th century kabbalist, wrote:
All the nations will unite together against Jerusalem, for they shall make a peace treaty among themselves to turn against Israel and annihilate her, because Israel will have established a sovereign state for themselves. It will be "a time of crisis for Jacob [Israel]," but they shall not be broken, rather, "they shall be saved from it."
Israel is merely the first target, not the only one. The virulent Iranian strain of Twelver Islam seeks nothing less than a global revolution dictated by full Sharia law.
Yet I believe there is no need to fear. To where shall we run?
We’ve just completed the High Holidays, the annual opportunity to gain clarity on what we are living for, what is our plan for getting there, and how to best transform ourselves in order to fulfill that dream.
If we haven’t woken up yet, there is still time. As is well-known, our fate for the coming year is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. What is less well-known is that the document is not “delivered,” so to speak, until the seventh day of Sukkot – Hoshana Rabba – which is the final sealing of judgment that began on Rosh Hashanah.
What is the answer? While we must make reasonable efforts in the area of Homeland Security, that’s not enough anymore. As Yonason Goldson wrote on these pages, we cannot imagine the design and the reach of evil. We can make our best effort, ensconce ourselves in thick walls, but we will never be completely safe. The world is too unpredictable an arena, the mind of the wicked too dark a cavern.
Professor Nicholai Berdysev, writing in Moscow in 1935, described the apparent key to Jewish survival:
“[Jewish] destiny is too imbued with the "metaphysical" to be explained either in material or positive historical terms... The survival of the Jews, their resistance to destruction, their endurance under absolutely peculiar conditions and the fateful role played by them in history; all these point to the particular and mysterious foundations of their destiny.”
Today, that “mysterious foundation of Jewish destiny” is more crucial than ever, and the mitzvah of sukkah is more relevant than ever before. The Midrash says that following the Clouds of Glory is a "mitzvah for all generations." Every single Jew, both collectively and individually, has a Cloud that emerges to guide him.
Yet we need to search for our Cloud. The very nature of a cloud is ethereal, beyond our grasp, beyond our understanding. So too, the Almighty intentionally does not reveal Himself too clearly, so that we can gain the merit of seeking Him and choosing. It may not always be easy to find, but it definitely does exist.
As we look up at the flimsy thatched roof, the vast expanse of stars offer a glimpse of the infinite power of God. And as the winds of autumn blow through our sukkah, we may shiver with cold but never with fear.