Rabbi Yair Robinson
One of the things I love to do in the car is listen to local sports radio, mostly the Philly stations. It’s a fantastic, and often hilarious, exploration of the human psyche, isn’t it? And a lot of fun to listen to folks who seem to think that they have a great deal more wisdom and experience at playing, coaching various sports teams and running the front office. It’s uncanny how they just know what various teams should pay their players, for example. And really, who am I to argue?
The best part, though, is the personal stories that come out of these conversations. Aside from the celebrations—and griping—often people share some amazing stories about their own lives. Sometimes it’s related to sports, and sometimes very much not. Like the story I heard a couple of weeks ago. A person who had called in, a psychologist, a therapist was describing an experience he had. He had had a patient who was clinically paranoid, and as the therapist was walking down the street near his office, he realized his patient was up ahead of him, entirely coincidentally. He immediately thought, “oh no, he’s going to think I’m following him”, so he ducked around a corner and waited a couple of minutes. Thinking he had waited enough time, the therapist was about to walk back around the corner, but decided to look to see if the coast was clear. As he peered around the corner, he saw his patient doing the exact same thing looking at him, peering around the other corner. Fortunately, as the therapist told the story, they had a laugh about it afterwards.
It’s a funny story, and a reminder that we are easily influenced and affected by the people around us, by our perception of the people around us. We are, by definition, social animals, and so someone’s mood or attitude, their words and thoughts, can have a profound impact on the rest of us. Yes, of course we are all individuals who also want to maintain our own integrity and perspective of the world, but it doesn’t take much for one person to change the nature of an encounter. Sometimes, of course, we seek that out—at worship services, or a show, or a party, or a rally—we want those moments where we find connectivity and closeness. And sometimes it can be profoundly dangerous, as Kanye West’s antisemitic tweets were this past week. When a person has literally twice as many followers on Twitter as there are Jews in the world, what you say matters a great deal, and can push people to do all kinds of things. All kinds of things.
Which is why it’s important to let our actual selves, our highest selves, try to steer the car, as it were. To pause in those moments we feel other peoples’ emotions or even just the experience itself affecting us, triggering us, hooking us, and remember that the moment will pass and there will be a new moment, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, the time for tearing will be replaced with the time for sewing, and the time for refraining from embraces will be replaced with a time for embracing. In our moments of heightened emotion, our moments of disturbance, our moments when we’re motivated to go hide behind a corner, we have to remember to maintain our own integrity, our own individuality, our own highest selves.
So here we are in our festival of Sukkot, where we create these gossamer, fragile structures that represent, on some level, God’s peace. Our peace is fragile, and easily broken by the people around us. It is up to us to maintain our own Sukkah, to maintain our own peace, so that we can be our best selves, and share that peace with others. May it be so. Amen.