Shelter and peace
September 30, 2007
Maariv -- evening prayer -- is short and sweet. Especially on weekdays, maariv often has a contemplative flavor. Often maariv is a little wistful. Day is winding down. Whatever we'd hoped to accomplish today, either we've done it or we haven't, but the gates of the day are closing.
I spent most of my day in the sukkah: davened shacharit here, hung out for part of the afternoon, returned after a walk past the beaver dam. As twilight began to turn into evening I ran back inside to grab my siddur, and davened maariv here. (Just in time, too; by the time I made it into the amidah it was growing difficult to see the letters on the page, so I took that as an opportunity for personal prayer on the general themes of the written text I could no longer make out.)
I write this from my chair in the sukkah, dimming the light of my computer screen so it doesn't drown out the subtle colors of the sky, which is a deepening blue overhead and tinged with pink at one edge of the horizon. Already the stalks of goldenrod and branches of sumac with which I roofed the sukkah have lost all definition; they're black silhouettes against the dusky eggshell of the sky.
During evening prayer there's an extra blessing added -- extra because it doesn't appear in morning or afternoon prayer -- which asks God to shelter us through the coming night. We pray ופרוש עלינו סכת שלומך, ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, "spread over us the sukkah of Your peace."
Of course, a sukkah is by definition permeable. The safety and comfort we seek as night begins isn't the comfort of armored gates and locked-down windows. This is a peace that's open to the changing sky, and to the sounds of crickets and cicadas playing their end-of-summer tune. A peace that knows the heady scent of new-mown grass, and the spiciness of woodsmoke.
The word שלום (shalom) comes from a root which means wholeness, completeness. What we're asking for in this prayer is to be made whole, to find our whole selves sheltered by the Infinite. This shelter is real, but it's permeable. Our wholeness is possible only when we embrace fragility. It's a paradox: protection comes when we embrace humility, not strength. The way to be safe is to open our hearts.