The Succah of Peace

The Succah seems like such a straightforward, simple entity – four walls composed of any material that can withstand a routine wind and topped by schach, a covering that comes from anything that grows from the ground and has been detached. Nevertheless, the creative leniencies through which our Sages delineated the Succah deserve our attention for the critical lesson they contain.

Indeed, a kosher Succah requires but two walls built at a right angle, with a third (even partial wall consisting of a bare handbreadth) jutting out from one of the two existing walls. But even that third wall need not be flush against the one to which it is adjacent. It suffices that it be within a foot or so of the wall. This is the principle of lavud, by which empty spaces less than three handbreadths in size are considered non-existent, as if they are filled in. This is true of both walls and schach. So too the halachic constructs of gud asik mechitzta or gud achit mechitzta in which short walls are considered elongated up or down to meet their counterparts. Thus, a wall need not extend all the way to the floor or to the schach, depending on the size of the opening. (Consult your Rav for specifics.)

Similarly, schach that is disqualified for use will not invalidate a Succah if such schach is within four cubits of the wall which is then construed as a dofen akumah, a wall that is bent over and extends horizontally into the Succah. It is actually quite complicated, which begs the question: why did our Sages allow for this enfeebled Succah to pass muster? Why not just require four walls that are solid and stretch from ground to schach without any allowances for empty spaces?

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook pointed to the familiar expression of Succat Shlomecha, the “Succah of Your peace,” to explain this paradox. The Succah is the symbol of peace which we beseech Hashem to spread over us. Peace cannot be made through maintaining rigid absolutes but rather through forbearance, understanding and even compromise. Thus, peace does not always come with four intact walls. Sometimes, even partial peace is welcome. Even a diminished peace still has value.

Such a concept may not be relevant in politics or diplomacy – the good will of the enemy should not be assumed – but it is certainly the key to harmony in human relations. How can peace be achieved – within and among families, with neighbors and community members and erstwhile friends, between groups with different and sometimes conflicting ideas and values? We can look to the Succah for the answer.

Peace usually requires that we not insist on the unconditional surrender of the other side and accept that we cannot get everything we want. We can’t always have, and certainly do not require, four walls that will not bend, walls that surround us and keep out the world. We can make do with less, even two walls plus. That is the Succah of peace. Sometimes peace demands that we be a dofen akumah, a wall that is bent over. If we stand inflexibly – like a wall – on our positions and our interpretation of events, on every slight and insult, then no progress is possible. If all we perceive is our personal hurt and no effort is made to analyze our role or contribution to the conflict, then resolution is impossible. We should bend a little for peace.

Peace between people sometimes requires gud asik mechitzta – that we reach upward to someone we harmed even if we think they don’t care and didn’t take offense. Children should extend themselves to reconcile with parents, disciples with teachers, and young people with their elders.  Other times it demands gud achit mechitzta, thatwe reach down to someone we offended whom we consider (improperly, but nonetheless) below our level – even parents to children, teachers to students, and the elders to the young. Peace requires that extra effort.

And the most common application of this principle of peace-making is lavud, filling in the gap of less than three handbreadths. How often do people become estranged from each other because of small things, pettiness – a non-invitation, a disfavored seat at a simchah, a miscommunication or a misunderstanding, a cross word said in anger? In any dispute between parties, it is often the last “three handbreadths” of the argument, after everything else has been resolved, that is the stickiest and causes the strife to linger. Families can implode, marriages can fail, businesses can collapse, and communities can be torn asunder by this tiny fissure.

Our Sages taught us when that happens, just consider these last three handbreadths – the dying embers of ancient acrimony– as if it no longer exists. Look at the wall that is there or the schach that is extant. Look at what is present – the framework of a cordial and harmonious relationship – and disregard the small aperture that remains. Then, what once appeared to be a chasm will assume its true proportions and in due course be dismissed as irrelevant and soon forgotten.

The Succah of peace is Hashem’s gift to His people. If we bend a little, reach up or down as necessary, and let small differences disappear, we will see the good in each other and build a Jewish society worthy of our Creator’s faith in us.

Chag Sameach to all!

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