November 22, 1963. We know where President Kennedy was traveling. He had landed at Love Field and was enjoying the now infamous slow motorcade through downtown Dallas. His destination was a luncheon business meeting at the Dallas Trade Mart before members of the Dallas Citizens Council and the Dallas Assembly. The President was to speak there about matters of foreign and domestic policy. We know he never made it. But here is the last paragraph of the speech he was scheduled to give. The President would have said:
We in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than choice – the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, good will toward men.” That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: “except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.”
Here the President would have been quoting the pasuk from Tehillim Perek 127:
שִׁ֥יר הַֽמַּֽעֲל֗וֹת לִשְׁלֹ֫מֹ֥ה אִם־יְהֹוָ֚ה | לֹֽא־יִבְנֶ֬ה בַ֗יִת שָׁ֚וְא | עָֽמְל֣וּ בוֹנָ֣יו בּ֑וֹ אִם־יְהֹוָ֥ה לֹֽא־יִשְׁמָר־עִ֜֗יר שָׁ֚וְא | שָׁקַ֬ד שׁוֹמֵֽר:
If Hashem will not build the house, in vain do its builders labor on it.
If Hashem will not guard the city, in vain is the watchman vigilant.
David Hamelech dedicated this song in honor of his son Shlomo who was to construct the Beis Hamikdash. And David was vividly reminding him – our efforts are only successful when God crowns them with success. You may think the house you built affords you with protection. But in reality your safety and security comes from Hashem alone.
In these stirring words, David Hamelech destroys the myth we are often tempted to believe: the fallacy of control over things outside our own moral and ethical choices.
We have spent the first 10 days of Tishrei saying lots of words about our lack of control over world events. How we need Hashem to give the guard protection; otherwise all is fruitless. We have focused on our own actions and begged Hashem to turn everything else in our favor. But on Sukkot it’s not about saying the words. It’s about acting like we really mean them.
Contrast Pesach with Sukkot, for example. On Pesach, we basically exit normal existence. Our homes are completely transformed. Our diets change drastically (unless we are gluten-sensitive year-round). The very name Pesach means to skip or jump, out of this world, into the realm of spirituality.
But on Sukkot we do not refrain from anything that we normally do throughout the year, except for the location where we do it. Taishvu K’Ain Taduru, dwell in the Sukkah as you would in your house. Eat, snack, read, sleep, learn, talk on the phone, relax, work, as you would in your house. Sukkot is normal, everyday existence – especially on Chol HaMoed. Life is the same except for the location.
The Jew, having just expressed through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the vainness of protection that is not divine, put his money, puts his food, puts his furniture, puts his life where his mouth is – to the outdoors, exposed to the elements, with no roof over our heads to fool us.
By moving life out of our houses, we live in the protective embrace of Hashem alone. We dwell in the sukkah as a means of asking our Shomer to spread his canopy of peace over us.
One of the greatest lessons preached by the religious Zionist movement as the State of Israel has blossomed is that there is a Watchman hovering over us as our soldiers stand guard over our city and our land. This Watchman, who oversaw our great military victories, continues to protect and attest to His presence in Israel’s affairs. While some may claim that it is by our own might that we have wrought these wonders, Sukkot takes us outside and reminds us of the protective canopy spread above us, enabling all our watchmen to succeed.