For Rabbi Nosson (Mark) Sachs, a Reserve Chaplain in the U.S. Army, building a Sukkah last year in Afghanistan against all odds showed him Hashem’s hand more clearly than almost any other experience of his life.
Rabbi Sachs traveled to Afghanistan in 2006 for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot to lead services for American personnel. For most of his time there, he was based at the Bagram Air Base. When he arrived, the Presbyterian chaplain at the base assured him that the base had not just one, but two sukkahs for the coming holiday. Rabbi Sachs was ecstatic – of the 15 personnel who attended his Yom Kippur services, 11 said they would be interested in coming back for Sukkot, so two Sukkahs would be enough to seat everyone.
Four days before Sukkot Rabbi Sachs opened the boxes and immediately realized they didn’t hold two Sukkahs, but the broken parts of a single small pop-up Sukkah.
Sukkot was starting on Friday afternoon, so Rabbi Sachs had to quickly design and build a new Sukkah. He sketched plans and brought them to the sergeant major involved with the base’s engineering corps to see if they could build it. The sergeant major handed him a stack of papers which required several signatures.
“How long do you think it will take to build it?” Rabbi Sachs asked. “The holiday starts in four days.”
“Maybe we could finish it by December,” the sergeant major replied.
Rabbi Sachs gulped.
Rabbi Sachs decided to try to build the Sukkah himself. He and the Presbyterian chaplain ran around the base for the next few hours getting all the necessary signatures.
Rabbi Sachs next went to the base’s building supplies store. The two Bosnian Muslims manning the store had never heard of a Sukkah before, but were eager to help. They said all the supplies would be available by Thursday afternoon.
The only items they did not have were metal L brackets to connect the sukkah to one wall of the chapel. In a country of mostly mud huts, metal brackets were almost nonexistent. Finally after an hour driving around the base looking for somewhere to acquire brackets, Rabbi Sachs finally found a building that made aluminum air conditioning ducts.
Rabbi Sachs ran into the building and asked the man inside, this time an Afghani Muslim, if he could make L brackets. He was so excited to make something other than air conditioning ducts.
“How many you need?” the man asked. “I can make a lot. A thousand?”
“Actually no. Twenty will be sufficient,” Rabbi Sachs said.
Rabbi Sachs returned two hours later. The man had made sixty brackets.
Thursday afternoon came and Rabbi Sachs picked up the rest of the materials. He had requested wood beams to build the frame of the Sukkah, but the only beams available were twelve feet long! So he borrowed a saw and began the long process of cutting the wood.
Also on the base were a group of civilian comedians who had been brought to entertain the troops. They were set to return to the U.S. but were unable to arrange a transport out of the country. Soldiers and military supplies are given priority on aircraft in a theater of war, so for civilians not essential to the war effort, finding a way out can be a challenge. Each day the comedians tried to arrange a flight back to America. It was especially pressing as one member of the group was set to get married the following Monday.
The groom happened to walk by Rabbi Sachs as he began cutting the wood and asked what he was doing.
“I’m building a Sukkah,” Rabbi Sachs responded.
“What’s a Sukkah?”
Rabbi Sachs explained the fundamentals of the holiday, and noticed a shocked look on the comedian’s face.
“Is everything okay?” Rabbi Sachs asked.
“You know what my full time job is? I’m a carpenter by trade. A carpenter!” he yelled. “Don’t you get it? Now I understand why I’m stuck here! If I help you, I’ll get out of here.”
“Halleluyah!” Rabbi Sachs shouted.
The carpenter began cutting the wood, and in three hours the two men had assembled the entire frame. And just as the comedian hoped, he and his friends caught the next flight home.
As they were finishing the frame, an officer came by and asked what they were doing. Rabbi Sachs described the fundamentals of the Sukkah.
“What are you going to use for the walls?” the officer asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” Rabbi Sachs said.
“Come with me.”
The officer brought Rabbi Sachs behind his quarters, where there was a large, unused bundle of camouflage netting. When they brought the netting back to the Sukkah frame to see if it would work, it fit to the inch.
For skach Rabbi Sachs used tree branches, but he had another problem: the valley surrounding Bagram experiences extremely strong wind storms every fall afternoon which threatened to blow the branches off the Sukkah.
In another miracle, just as Rabbi Sachs finished assembling his Sukkah, the wind stopped blowing and it didn’t start again until after Sukkot.
Friday night came and 11 Jews joined Rabbi Sachs in the Sukkah for a beautiful meal full of singing and dvrai torah. It was the first time most of them had ever eaten in a Sukkah. Here they were, in the middle of war, and for a few days could have the spiritual bliss brought by the miracle Sukkah of Afghanistan.
As Rabbi Sachs learned, when a Jew tries to bring light to a dark part of the world and inspire Jewish souls, Hashem makes anything possible.
Michael Gros is the Chief Operating Officer of the kiruv organization The Atlanta Scholars’ Kollel. The Teshuva Journey is a monthly column chronicling amazing teshuva journeys and inspiring kiruv tales. To share a story or send other comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org To receive the column via email or see back issues, visit http://www.michaelgros.com