One Minute Torah: Confronting our Fears Sukkot 5780

Jews worldwide share a tradition of reading the book of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot.

This week’s One Minute Torah is a shortened version of a sermon delivered this past Shabbat afternoon. The full sermon focused on Climate Change. Email me for the full text.

Jews worldwide share a tradition of reading the book of Ecclesiastes on Sukkot. At AJRCA, where I attended rabbinical school, Ecclesiastes and Job were taught together – not an uncommon pairing, as the two books share a similar philosophy. But what made my school’s class a little different is that it was by an oncologist, Dr. Jacob Zighelboim.

Dr. Zighelboim had treated many cancer patients during his years of practice. He knew exactly how to feel a lump on a person’s body, and determine if it was likely to be cancerous. One day, a lump appeared in his own neck. And for many months, he ignored it.

How could he, an expert in cancer, not notice the lump in his own neck? He literally did not see or feel it. He was in denial.

When he was finally forced to recognize what was growing right there before his eyes, he was furious at himself for losing months of treatment. But he was very fortunate. His colleagues gave him excellent care, and after months of hell he did recover. He went on to study Ecclesiastes and Job in depth, to write a book about his understanding of these works, and to teach classes about them.

Why Ecclesiastes and Job? Because, as Dr. Zighelboim and many other scholars understand them, these books are about denial. Human beings are afraid of pain. We are afraid of loss. And most of all, we are afraid of death. Many of us, rather than confronting these fears, hide from them. We distract ourselves with money, and pleasure, and to-do lists, and self-righteousness. We stress eat. We videogame. We email. We refuse to talk. “Hevel hevalim” – “vanity of vanties” is the refrain in Ecclesiastes. These are all distractions from truths that we are afraid might overwhelm.

Some of us are in denial about harm we are doing to our bodies – through eating habits, lack of exercise, sleep habits. Some of us are in denial about harm we are doing to our relationships. Some of us are in denial about harm we are doing to our souls. And some of us are in denial about harm we are doing to our planet.

At the core, all forms of denial come from our fears of pain and loss. Judaism insists that we confront those fears head-on. Just at the start of the rainy season, when we are fearful of another drought, our tradition tells us to spend ten days searching our souls, and speaking aloud the possibilities of real loss, even death. “Who by flood? Who by fire?” The Netaneh Tokeh High Holiday prayer asks.

And then, we go outside. We build little huts, called sukkot, that are open to the stars and the sun. For a sukkah to be kosher, it cannot have a solid roof. Spending time in a sukkah is a tangible expression of our vulnerability.

But sukkot is also a joyous holiday. “ושמחת בחגך” the Torah tells us – you shall celebrate on your Sukkot holiday. It ends with a huge dance party, simchat torah. Because when we allow ourselves to face our vulnerabilities, when we shed denial and accept the fragility of life, there can be a great feeling of release. When we are free of delusion, we can live in our dangerous, crazy, beautiful world as it really is.