Sukkot – Human Denial

Denial is a part of the human psyche.

Many years ago I was at a dinner table with a high-up executive in the Marlboro company. Her brother was a friend of my parents. And I remember so clearly, at some point in conversation, she said, “There’s no connection between heart disease and tobacco,” and she shook her head sorrowfully. There was no doubt in my mind, she believed what she was saying. Let me say that again. A high executive at the Marlboro cigarette company was honestly convinced that smoking does not cause heart disease. I was astounded.

Some years after that, her brother – my parents’ friend – who had smoked for much of his life, suffered a massive stroke. The stroke hit the language center of his brain, and he never spoke another word. 

I never met his sister again, and if I did, I would not have had the chutspah to ask if she still believed there is no connection between heart disease and tobacco use. Anyway, I’m pretty sure I know what her answer would have been. Many people who never smoked suffer debilitating strokes. And many people who do use tobacco never suffer heart disease or stroke. 

I think we all in this room understand that smoking greatly increases your chances of bad things like that happening, but that there are no guarantees either way.  (Kids – if you don’t understand that, come talk to me afterward. I mean it!) For someone whose livelihood depended on tobacco sales, there was plenty of space in that ambiguity for denial.

Right now, our world is in peril because of this type of denial.

This year, it was Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, and Cyclone Fani in India and Bangladesh, and Cyclone Idai in southern Africa, altogether leaving 7 million people displaced. Last year, wildfires destroyed a million acres of our beloved California. The year before, Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria. 

And I know that many of us in this room are shaking our heads and saying “How can anyone be denying what is right before our eyes?”

But the thing is, denial is a part of the human psyche.  I suspect every one of us is in denial about something. And if you had that something shoved in your face, chances are you would only push back harder.  

During the week of Sukkot, Jews have the tradition to study Ecclesiastes -one of the books of the Tanach, or the Hebrew Bible. In my rabbinical school, Ecclesiastes was taught together with Job – not an uncommon pairing, as the two books share a common philosophy.  But what made my school’s class a little different is that it was taught not by a rabbi or an academic, but by an oncologist, Dr. Jacob Zighelboim.  

Kids – an oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer.  Dr. Zighelboim had treated many, 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.  And then one day, a lump appeared on 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 so many months that he could have been getting treated.  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, they 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, exercise habits, 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 – our psyche, our emotional well being. And some of us are in denial about harm we are doing to our planet.

Ambiguity is great for encouraging denial.  How many of you really understand the science behind climate change? If someone were to tell you that they do not believe human activities are influencing the climate, could you explain to them the data?  Most of you cannot. Most of us take it on faith, because we believe in science. But science is not about faith, and I suggest becoming familiar with the data. If you email me after Shabbat, I can send you a primer. Because how can you blame someone else for questioning the consensus, if you can’t understand it yourself?

Even once you understand the pretty convincing evidence that climate change is our responsibility, there is still lots of room for ambiguity. The consensus is, climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. But does that mean that climate change caused Hurricane Dorian?  Not exactly. There were bad hurricanes 200 years ago, too. Just like smoking and heart disease – you can’t say it causes anything, just that it makes the chances worse.   And how much worse will things get? We don’t really know.  None of the likely outcomes are good, but some are much, much worse than others.  And in that ambiguity, there’s lots of space for denial.  

Why engage in this denial?  For one thing, climate change has become a partisan issue.  This is tragic. Wouldn’t it be much better if you and I could have different ideas about rent control, or abortion, or welfare and still agree about protecting the planet?  The more bitter our partisan fighting, the more people are driven to separate camps, and inclined to simply fight the party line on a whole range of issues. 

For some, denial originates with the purse.  That was clearly the case for the Marlboro executive I met so many years ago, and it has been the case for many corporate interests fighting environmental regulation. And here we have some good news! Clean energy is beginning to make financial sense to a lot of businesses – big and small.  Who would have thought that the automobile industry would be defending tighter emissions standards – as they did this year?

At the core, all forms of denial come from our fears of pain and loss.  Judaism insists that we confront those fears head-on. This is what the High Holidays are all about.  Do you know why the High Holidays always occur in the fall? It’s because in Israel, the fall is the start of the rainy season.  It is the time when we are – or should be – most aware of our vulnerability. A healthy rains will bring good crops, strong soil and full reservoirs.  Too much rains will cause flooding, and not enough will bring drought, fires and dead crops. These very real fears are not new to our generation. And our tradition tells us to spend ten days, right before the rainy season – starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending in Yom Kippur — 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. Do our best to push outcomes in the direction we want – your personal chances of good health improve with each cigarette denied, and our planet’s chances of health are improved with each hamburger, or car ride, or dryer load denied, and with each plant planted.  But also realize that the future is always uncertain, and enjoy the moments given to us.