By Rabbi Avi Shafran
I love the United Nations. Yes, I know, the General Assembly was well and memorably described by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu as a “theater of the absurd.” Actually, a better metaphor might be a tribe of savages, or, perhaps, a zoo.
But that leads to the reason for my affinity for the world body, namely, how wonderfully the menagerie brings to life the metaphor of the Jewish People being the lone sheep among 70 wolves-the State of Israel serving as the contemporary stand-in for Klal Yisrael. Particularly evocative was how, recently, one of the wolves, bedecked in ill-fitting sheep’s clothing (pleading victimization even while allied with a particularly bloodthirsty fellow beast), received thunderous applause for rejecting his Jewish neighbor’s offer of peace. Mr. Abbas, of course, should have lost all credibility when he embraced Hamas. (Not that he dares set foot in Gaza; even wolves fear bigger wolves.) Instead, he gets ovations from fellow predators and the various vultures that keep their company.
Shortly before the Palestinian leader announced his opting for confrontation over negotiation, another creature-this one part loon-shared again his imaginative take on history, which lacks a Holocaust but includes the United States attacking itself in 2001. And, of course, Mr. Ahmadinejad reprised as well his view of Israel as the contemporary world’s resident evil.
The perfect time for gaining perspective on such things is Sukkos; the perfect place, sitting in the sukkah, gazing up at the schach.
Avraham Reisen, a Yiddish poet who died in 1953, left a voluminous body of short stories and poems. Only one, though, is regularly recited these days-and mostly by observant Jews. It’s sung to a plaintive, moving melody whose composer is unknown to me. The song is familiar to many from immigrant parents or grandparents. Remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.
Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical.
Several years ago, I translated it into English; it’s not a perfectly literal translation but I tried to remain faithful to the Yiddish original’s rhyme scheme and meter. It has been published before, so my apologies to any Ami readers who may have already seen it. But I wanted to share it with those who may not have, since it’s really about, well, Klal Yisrael and the United Nations:
A sukkaleh, quite small,
wooden planks for each wall,
lovingly I stood them upright;
laid thatch as a ceiling
and now, filled with deep feeling,
I sit in my sukkaleh at night.
A chill wind attacks,
whistling through the cracks;
the candles, they flicker and yearn.
It’s so strange a thing
that, as the Kiddush I sing,
the flames, calmed, now quietly burn.
In comes my daughter,
bearing hot food and water;
worry shrouds her face like a pall.
She just stands there shaking
And, her voice nearly breaking,
says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”
Dear daughter, don’t fret.
It hasn’t fallen yet.
The sukkah’s fine; go banish your fright.
There have been many such fears,
for nigh two thousand years;
yet the little sukkah still stands upright.
It was reassuring that, before the General Assembly, Mr. Netanyahu was so polished and blunt with the wolverine delegates. And that President Obama spoke so strongly about Arab violence and about the Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael. (And it was nice to find out shortly afterward that our government has quietly sold Israel “bunker-busting bombs,” which can really come in handy sometimes.). But we mustn’t forget that Klal Yisrael’s safety, in the end, doesn’t hinge on world leaders or world-class ordnance. The less-than-substantial schach symbolizes both our vulnerability and our true Source of protection: Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.
Let the wolves bay and the vultures circle. With our repentance, prayer and charity, the sukkeleh, as it has for millennia, will continue to stand.
© 2011 Ami Magazine
[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]