As we gather beneath the makeshift shelters that lend the Festival of Sukkot its name, we are invited to reflect upon the incomplete and uncertain nature of the structures we erect around us — both the physical buildings within which we live as well as the ephemeral beliefs into which we pigeonhole others.
The sukkah, with its thatched roof and permeable walls, speaks to the reality of our physical experience. The fact that we are enjoined to see the stars through the sukkah’s ceiling, and to feel the wind and water that blow through its sides, is testament to Judaism’s insistence that we acknowledge that what we believe will protect us is but temporary. Our homes, after all, are but “sticks and stones.”
In the same way, the humble walls of our sukkot also teach us that our beliefs about others are only partial and often false. Of course, our ideas and judgments about others are necessarily based on our own limited understandings (so humility is counseled) but, even worse, all too often, our perceptions are shaped by the ill-intentions of others.
There is a Rabbinic teaching that speaks directly to the impact of innuendo and talk that isn’t kind. The Rabbis teach there are three parties involved in such vile talk, what Judaism knows as lashon harah. They are the speaker, the listener and the one spoken of. Our Rabbis write, when words that disparage or besmirch are exchanged, each of the three parties are harmed by the speaker’s irresponsible speech (we need not ascribe such acts to malevolence), perhaps in ways one might not at first recognize. But one party, our Rabbis tell us, the one whose free mind is claimed — the listener — is hurt most grievously of all.
Does this reasoning surprise you? On Sukkot, it is the foundation of our faith.
Sukkot arrives only days after Yom Kippur, the holy day on which our tradition invites us to engage in our greatest acts of self-reflection. Now, only days later, our tradition invites us to reflect once more — but this time we are not enjoined to reflect upon ourselves per se, but rather upon the whole of the narratives we’ve constructed about those around us.
The feebleness of the beliefs we construct about others becomes painfully evident in the harsh glare of the true impact of lashon harah, wherein others insist we are entitled to their innuendo and false narratives shatter any illusions that “words can never hurt” us.
Indeed, if the sukkah’s walls could talk, they’d describe the impermanence and inadequacy of physical elements to protect us from nature’s harshest decrees. And, too, these same walls would implore us to recognize that our inherited, perhaps whispered, perceptions of others are similarly inadequate and incomplete. For our beliefs about others, or the pigeonholes we build for others, are too often influenced by suggestions and gossip — by lashon harah — and thus, our beliefs, like our sukkot themselves, are held up by flimsy and false material.
And so, as we celebrate Sukkot this year, let us reflect upon the fragility of both the physical structures upon which we rely (including our own bodies), as well as the ephemeral stories we have erected for ourselves about others. For in spite of the fact that within both our buildings and our beliefs we feel secure (most days), neither is forever and in some of the truest ways, both are necessarily false.
Therefore, as we gather within the impermanent embrace of our sukkah, let its fragile walls remind us that just as these physical structures are unsteady, so too are the narratives we craft about others. Let us determine to create in all our dwellings stability and strength founded upon authenticity
and truth. PJC
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the Frances F. & David R. Levin Rabbinic Scholar at Rodef Shalom Congregation and the founding director of the Center for Interfaith Collaboration. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association