On this eve of Sukkot, when we celebrate Israel's post-Exodus travels for 40 years in the wilderness, we celebrate the shelters God provided: Sukkot, flimsy kiosks against nature's assault of wind and rain. In our prayers we ask that God spread over us the sukkah of God's peace. It's almost a messianic hope, and as our country increasingly sets citizen against citizen, we must worry for peace within our nation, between ourselves and our neighbors.
In the Book of Numbers the pagan prophet Balaam (the one who rode the donkey, remember?) was compelled to bless Israel, "How lovely are you tents, Jacob, you're dwelling places, Israel."
According to the midrash, Balaam was looking down from above on the Israelites encamped in Moab before entering the Promised Land. What inspired his blessing? The midrash teaches that the tents in which the people lived (the sukkahs of their dwellings) were placed in such a way that neighbors could not spy into the neighboring tent, so that a family's privacy was protected.
What's the lesson? courtesy and respect for our neighbors. And is this not the basis upon which society is built? Peace within the home is called Shalom Bayit, and that's a different matter between people naturally intimate with one another. But what about our neighbors? Society is built on respect and allowing them their own existence, without unfair or undo encroachment.
Perhaps this holy week can remind us of the respect we owe to our fellow citizens just because national orderliness and peace rest upon that respect. Balaam was impressed just by looking down and seeing what Israel had built after a 40 year sojourn. Perhaps, on the eve of an American election, and the actual eve of Sukkot, we can learn what it means to live together in a democracy -- respect for mutually creating an orderly society, without undo suspicion and without coercion.