Sukkahs, Self Love, and Beauty Standards

By: Rachel Gilinski  |  September 20, 2021

By Rachel Gilinski, Social Media Manager

Many Jewish families have the custom to decorate their sukkah. Little kids in Jewish day schools make posters and construction paper crafts; some hang fresh or plastic fruit from the beams of the sechach, the sukkah covering made from natural materials; some families even have designated Sukkot ornaments, much like the kind people decorate Christmas trees with. I, however, grew up following Chabad customs, and according to  the Chabad custom, you don’t decorate your sukkah.

Decorating your sukkah isn’t a sin of course, but according to Chabad thought, the mitzvah of the sukkah is something that by itself is deeply beautiful, and physical decorations, pretty as they might be, just can’t reach that level of beauty. The Lubavitcher Rebbe mentioned in a letter written in 1954 that the sukkah is meant to teach us certain lessons and that the lessons would be taught best without these supplementary decorations.

I have never seen any clear parallels that have been drawn between this idea of not decorating a sukkah and adherence to conventional beauty standards, but after a recent conversation with a friend discussing the former topic, I couldn’t help but make a connection.

Primarily, I’d like to clarify that I don’t believe our bodies are what make us who we are. You are not your physical body, you are your neshama, your soul, and your body is merely a vessel hosting this neshama while it carries out its purpose. Your neshama is intrinsically connected to G-d, arguably a part of Him, and therefore, intrinsically and deeply beautiful. Even so, G-d specifically designed your physical appearance. Do you, a simple human being, know what beauty is more than the omnipotent, all-knowing G-d does? You might not like how you look—many people dislike how they look. But that doesn’t make you any less beautiful.

You are not beautiful because of the makeup you wear; you are beautiful because of what is beneath the surface. You are not beautiful because of the way you look; you are beautiful because you are you.

I think most people I know have had insecurities about their appearances at some point in their lives. It isn’t their fault either; it’s the product of living in a society that demands superficial perfection and tends to neglect most meaningful forms of self-improvement in favor of shallow, temporary decoration. I know too many gorgeous girls who are incredibly insecure whenever they aren’t wearing makeup. “But you’re beautiful,” I try to argue, “and I’m not just saying it to say it.” But it doesn’t matter. They’ve been so often torn down by demanding societal standards that they forget that their beauty comes from their beautiful actions, and their intrinsically beautiful neshamot, and, yes, even their natural physical appearances, not from smudges of colored liquid.

Sometimes, we get so caught up on decorating the sukkah that we forget about the sanctity of the sukkah itself. Sometimes, we get so caught up on what others look like that we forget that they are not their looks, that they are the thoughts and feelings and actions that belong to the person inside that body. Sometimes, we get so caught up on making sure we look picture-perfect, painstakingly obsessing over every imagined flaw and how to fix it, that we forget to analyze and work on fixing our inner selves.

I think the Chabad custom of not decorating your sukkah, the idea that supplementary decoration isn’t an enhancement but a distraction from the main idea, should influence how we see ourselves. Are you looking at the real you? Or are you so fixated on the flimsy decorations you obsessively attached to yourself that you barely know who you are anymore?