On Friday evenings at Congregation Beth Hatikvah, we sing the first line of the nighttime prayer hashkiveinu, which we follow with a chorus of “Everything’s gonna be all right.” Long ago, when hashkiveinu was written, night was a time when people were vulnerable to attacks by wild beasts and robbers. The prayer gives voice to our fear of the dark as we ask for God’s protection.
During the pandemic, hashkiveinu has taken on new meaning. Suddenly, we are all in need of protection, not from robbers or wild beasts, but from an invisible virus that has killed hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone. During the past year, we all have felt frightened and isolated. We have experienced so many losses, it has been hard to imagine that “everything’s gonna be all right.”
Hashkiveinu begins by asking that God cause us lie down in peace and raise us up to life renewed. And it ends with a plea to spread over us a sukkat shalom. Shalom usually is translated as peace, but it comes from the Hebrew root meaning “whole.” We are praying for safety and protection from external dangerous, and we also are praying for inner peace. We are praying to feel whole.
Rabbi Marc Saperstein points out that the prayer does not ask God to build for us a castle of peace or a mansion of peace — something made of stone or bricks that will last for hundreds of years. Rather, we ask for a sukkah of peace. A sukkah is a flimsy structure that will not protect us from rain, and as my husband and I learned from personal experience a few years ago, can easily blow over in a strong wind. So if we are seeking safety, why wish for a sukkah of peace? Rabbi Saperstein suggests it is because a shelter like that needs constant tending and attention. He says: “You have to watch it almost constantly, and care for it incessantly.”
I found the quote from Rabbi Saperstein in a curriculum that the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland developed for this time of pandemic. Part of the curriculum is based on sukkat shalom — inviting children to share what helps them feel safe. The curriculum guide suggests that a sukkah of peace might not be a structure at all. It might be a parent’s arms around you.
The image that came to my mind was of a parent tucking a child into bed. We all know that a blanket cannot actually protect you from danger, but the safety comes from the act of spreading it over you, tucking you in. The safety comes from knowing that you are tended to, that someone is watching over you, caring for you.
The idea that a shelter of peace might not be a physical structure at all can be helpful not only for children but for all of us. At a time when we cannot gather in our physical sanctuaries, it is important to remember that we do not need bricks and walls as much as we need each other. We can create a sukkat shalom — a shelter of peace and safety and wholeness — by tending to each other.
I was reminded of this idea at Torah study recently when we discussed parshat Terumah. God says to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them.” On the simple/p’shat level, the Israelites are to build a physical structure where they will feel God’s presence. Indeed, the rest of the parashah offers detailed instructions of materials, construction, and measurements. But a radical interpretation envisions each of us as a sanctuary, challenging us to live our lives in such a way that the divine can dwell within us. The definition of sanctuary is a holy place, a refuge, a place of safety. At Torah study that morning, a participant posed the question: How can we be a sanctuary for each other? How can we help each other feel safe?
I was telling a friend about the question my congregant posed, and she shared a story about someone she knows who has been having a hard time. This woman’s friends joined together to contribute enough money to pay her rent for a year. They are literally spreading a shelter over her to keep out the cold and dark and danger. And they are also tucking her in, letting her know that they are tending to her and watching over her.
In this difficult time, it is tempting to pull inward. We feel isolated in our homes. Yet we need each other more than ever. We are yearning to feel safe and protected and we provide this for each other by tending to our relationships and our communities. We have it in our power to be a sukkat shalom for each other. We can build a sanctuary made not of silver and gold, fine yarn, and lapis lazuli, but made of kindness, generosity ,and compassion.
We can watch over each other, knowing that when we do, everything really is going to be all right.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.