We are evolved, sophisticated, forward-thinking twenty-first century modern men and women. We have walked on the moon, we have cured diseases, and we are exploring the universe in outer space and at the quantum level. We are the most advanced specimens our species has ever seen, yet we are no different from a lowly mouse. Have you ever wondered why mice and rats are so commonly used in research? Leaving the ethics of animal research aside, the answer is quite simple: they are appropriate research models for humans as their genetic, biological and behavioral characteristics closely resemble those of humans (Melina, Live Science, 2010). Though our pre-frontal cortex, the thinking center of the brain, may be more developed, our amygdala, the part of the brain behind the eye and above the ear, are no different. Making up less than 0.03% of the brain, these almond-shaped structures cause our palms to sweat, our hearts to pound and our knees to shake. They are our body’s alarm system and responsible for our ability to sense fear. When activated, they release a surge of stress hormones that render us as paralyzed and feeling as vulnerable as a mouse who just spotted a nearby cat. It is a normal, physiological reaction to a fearful, potentially life-threatening situation. But we are humans, not animals, and thus, we must ensure that our pre-frontal cortex remains in charge. As Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cautions: “insecurity begets fear, fear begets hate, hate begets violence and violence eventually turns against its perpetrators” (2013).
Sukkot is a fun holiday with so much to do. One must build a sukkah, decorate it of course, purchase a beautiful lulav and etrog set, we eat, we sing, we celebrate. It can be a loud and boisterous holiday. It is, after all, Zman Simchatenu, the time of our joy. The holiday is also rife with symbolism. Rabbi Eliezer explains that the sukkah reminds us of the 40 years we dwelled in the desert and Gd protected the people. Rabbi Akiva says that the sukkkah represents our vulnerability as we wandered the desert for 40 years and were vulnerable to the elements. The four species, the lulav, etrog, hadas (myrtle) and aravot (willow) represent the parts of the body coming together in prayer, or the different types of Jews coming together to build a community. There are a vast number of interpretations of just about every aspect of the holiday, but there is one theme that arises over and over again: unity.
When one sits in a sukkah, the Rambam warns that true joy, true simcha, can only come when we care for our community. “When one eats and drinks, one must also feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the other unfortunate paupers. One who locks the doors of his courtyard and feasts and drinks with his children and wife but does not feed the poor and the embittered -this is not the joy of the mitzvah but the joy of the stomach.” The 18th century Hassidic Rabbi Nathan writes that to have the proper kavanah in observing the holiday of sukkot “one should concentrate on being part of the entire people of Israel, with intense love and peace, until it may be considered as if all of Israel dwells together in one sukkah.”
Rabbi Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, shares a beautiful thought about the lowly willow. The “drab” and plain member of the four species, who, at the end of sukkot, is celebrated on Hoshana Rabba. On that day, in the times of the temple, we would drape the alter with aravot and declare its beauty. Though plain, with no taste or smell, its beauty is brought out through the presence of the other minim. “Like people”, he writes, “it is through togetherness that we are stronger, that we shine, and that our best comes forth.”
Rabbi Gurkow, Canadian rabbi writing for the Jerusalem Post, reminds us that now that the days of individual prayers are behind us, we must come together as a group “now more than ever, we need to be united and act as a community. As we sit in our sukkahs, there is time to gossip, to mock, to criticize, etc… Now there is time to break a law or two. It is therefore now that we have a desperate need to be heard by Gd and during the year, Gd listens to us best when we pray in groups.”
These are uncertain times, but they are also a time of incredible unity. The current pandemic has united mankind in a way we have never seen. We all share the same preoccupations for our health, for our families, for our livelihood and countless other concerns. But we are united in fear, and that is dangerous.
The coronavirus has stimulated our amygdala and sent them into overdrive. We are scared and panicked, and that is when we deviate from our position as advanced, twenty-first century humans. We point fingers, we blame, we post rants on social media….we are not at our finest. It would be a lie to say that as a school leader I do not feel the panic monster at times. The decisions are weighty, health and safety lie in the balance, we are limited by ministry directives that though they may seem at odds with our mission, have their own logic and reasoning. Dr. Michael Laitman, Russian philosopher and writer, notes that as with any crisis in history, the pandemic has sparked a wave of anti-semitism, and a growing attitude of “blame the Jews”. We must be careful that our actions do not fuel these embers. There is enough hate in the world without our fears compounding it. The holiday of Sukkot is a powerful reminder that we must remain united and not allow fear to rule. May we unite as a community in these difficult times so that we may bring Kiddush Hashem in our words and in our deeds and become a true “light unto the nations”.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Dr. Laura Segall
Head of School