Mental health, vulnerability: A sukkah moment

Sukkot is the supreme Jewish moment when nature connects us with the divine. As humanity becomes more reliant on the sturdiness of permanent structures, the possibility of hubris ensues.

 BUILDING A SUKKAH in Safed. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

The weather this summer in New Jersey has been insane. Few doubt that the climate is changing, even as political partisanship seems to determine whether you believe this is man-made or natural. Oh, how I wish we in America could agree on something, anything! But the festival of Sukkot provides a path forward to people of conflicting political ideologies to agree on the sanctity of nature without making it into a political football.

The Jewish faith has long been connected to natural settings, even as religious Jews have wrongly been associated with urban sprawl. We need not go all the way back to the wanderings of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness to make the point. More recently, the great Jewish mystics like Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, dwelled in the wooded north of Israel in Safed. In communing with nature they found God. And why think otherwise? Michelangelo said it best: “My soul can find no staircase to heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness.”

Sukkot is the supreme Jewish moment when nature connects us with the divine. As humanity becomes more reliant on the sturdiness of permanent structures, the possibility of hubris ensues. Preempting naturalist thinkers like Rousseau, the Torah was profoundly concerned that people should not become so consumed by their own creations that we become desensitized to the beauty of nature. Thus there are laws that govern the building of cities, ensuring that they never grow to become concrete jungles, where people can no longer see green grass or flowers in bloom. 

The Torah spells out how all the Levite cities were to look. There was to be a double surround to each town. First a green belt of 1,000 cubits, and exterior to that, a 2,000-cubit-wide belt for “fields and vineyards” (Num. 35:2–5). Although some exegetes maintain that the 1,000-cubit band was for pasture, Rashi explained that it was not for use, but “for the beauty of the town, to give it space.” Maimonides further reflects this idea by legislating that there be a certain distance between trees and residences, and that a strict proportion of each be maintained so that residences are not constructed to the detriment of the environment.

And why is it so critical to be touched by nature? Behind their strong wooden doors, surrounded by their strong brick walls, humans feel invincible and impregnable. We feel immune from danger as we relax in man-made abodes.

But all that security is insubstantial and easily lost as we’ve all discovered through the pandemic. By embracing vulnerability we remove the protective layers and artificial barriers that wall us off from one another and from God. Once a year, a husband must take his wife into his mud hut. So many men want to show women that they are kings who live in castles. They relate to women through shining body armor. They misguidedly believe that only strength and honor are to be respected. Confessing fault or acknowledging insecurity is to be disdained.

So men especially hide their emotions and never speak of their fears. They’re strong and invulnerable and have no trepidation or fright. But a wife also wants to know that her husband needs her, relies on her, confides in her, confesses to her. She wants to meet him not in the sturdy castle but in the open sukkah. Husbands and wives grow closer when they are out of their protective enclosures and dependency. Humanity must experience and express emotional vulnerability. A man and a woman fall in love with each other when they get emotionally naked. For that to happen, we must sometimes expose the leaks in our hearts and the cracks in our egos.

The world is finally experiencing its sukkah moment. Simone Biles rejected a citadel made of gold for a sukkah made of emotion. Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps came and added branches. Dwelling in a sukkah is no longer stigmatized. Admitting that you are human and frail is no longer seen as pathetic but strong, not weak but courageous. Fear of confessing vulnerability is a manifestation of true insecurity.

What a shame it has taken this long. How many generations of men were lost because they were told that only sissies feel? How many generations of women felt condemned because ladies were not supposed to show cracks?

In 2008 I published my book The Broken American Male, where I argued that a culture that falsely teaches men to project invulnerability is causing them to crack under the strain of an increasingly toxic masculinity.

I want to segue back to nature.

I feel most alive when I am in the outdoors. I love nothing more than being on a bike or on a hike and watching a beautiful sunset. And I love traversing America in an RV. I took our family to five national parks this summer where we camped, walked, and rode.

Which is why I want to end with a plea to our elected officials.

In the entire northeastern United States there is only one National Park, Acadia in Maine. Can you imagine? Utah has five national parks. Alaska has eight. California has the most, with nine. But in all of New England, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, etc. there is only one – in Maine. That’s nuts. There is so much beauty. Why hasn’t the government given us more national parks?

West Virginia just got a national park: the New River Gorge. I can see the Delaware Water Gap of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the Adirondacks of New York, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire all becoming national parks. Or even just one of them! If only Congress would make it so.

The world is becoming more sukkah friendly. Not just eight days out of the year but all year long.

I hope everyone had a Happy Sukkot.

The writer, “America’s Rabbi,” is the author most recently of “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell.” Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.