Lit. Booths or huts Sukkot is the autumn harvest Festival of Booths, is celebrated starting the 15th of the Jewish month of Tishrei. Jews build booths (sukkot), symbolic of the temporary shelters used by the ancient Israelites when they wandered in the desert. Traditionally, Jews eat and sleep in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday (seven days in Israel and eight outside of Israel). The lulav (palm frond), willow, myrtle, and etrog fruit are also waved together. invites us to live more fully present lives.
The celebration of Sukkot incorporates two paradoxical elements: the uncertainty and vulnerability of the Israelites living in booths in the wilderness, and the harvest and abundance of the agricultural festival described in the The Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. (Exod. 23:16). Healing from illness or waiting for a medical diagnosis reflects that same paradox: living with uncertainty even while living in the midst of plenty.
What can we learn from Sukkot to help us through those uncertain times?
Dwell in Nature
On Sukkot, we dwell in huts, as our ancestors did; simple structures open to the elements. We are instructed to eat, sleep, and live amidst nature, to experience the movement of light and darkness, night and day. The Torah tells us to “gather in your labors out of the field” (Exod. 23:16), evoking the image of being out in nature, working under the sun. Healing traditions from Hippocrates to the modern day cite the beneficial effects of being in nature. What better way to feel healed, connected to the Oneness of God and the Universe than by taking a walk, observing a flower, resting under a tree?
When we live in our Lit. hut or booth A temporary hut constructed outdoors for use during Sukkot, the autumn harvest festival. Many Jews observe the mitzvah of living in the Sukkah for the week of Sukkot, including taking their meals and sleeping in the Sukkah., we focus on the mere essentials of our lives: food to eat, candles to bless, a place to rest. When we are sick or healing, we also reduce our lives to the essentials: rest, good food, our favorite pastimes, companionship. Through uncertain times, while we wait for the path to unfold, we can soothe ourselves with stillness, prayer, meditation, and nourishing habits.
Presence and Gratitude
Sukkot invites us to live more fully present lives. We reduce our distractions. We leave our computers and cell phones in the house. We play with our kids, entertain friends, become aware of and grateful for the many blessings and abundance in our lives.
Illness also forces us into the present moment. There is nothing like a pain in our body to make us acutely aware of our physical existence. Mind-body medicine teaches us that if we stay present to the pain, breathing into it instead of trying to push it away, we can lessen the severity of the experience. Acknowledging the discomfort of waiting for test results, the phone call from the doctor, or the next procedure can help us stay present to our lives. Gratitude for all we have received up to this point can give us strength to take the next step forward.
On Sukkot, we welcome friends into our sukkah, including our ancestral “guests” (Learn more about Lit. Guests (Aramaic) Biblical "guests" invited into the sukkah on each of the seven nights of the holiday. While the traditional ushpizin were all male, a new custom has been created, inviting female guests (ushpizot) as well. The seven ushpizin are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David. The seven female ushpizot are Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther./Ushpizot at http://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/ushpizot-guide). We share a meal, snack, or dessert. We make a blessing and socialize for a few hours.
When we are ill, we tend to isolate ourselves. We may not be ready to share our anxiety or have our privacy invaded. Sukkot offers us a different model. We can engage one friend at a time, for a limited conversation. We can invite email wishes but not phone calls. We can unburden ourselves of the anxiety of keeping a secret and open to receive the prayers and blessings for healing from our friends. We can deepen our relationships by allowing our “guests” to share our sorrows as well as our joys.
Protection and Surrender Sukkot have been called “hugs” from the Holy One in that they embrace us like a hug with their three walls. From Elul through Hoshana Rabba, the 7th day of Sukkot, we recite Psalm 27 which includes the verse: “Hiding me in His shrine, safe from peril, God will shelter me beyond the reach of disaster” (Lit. Order of prayers. The prayer book. Sim Shalom, p. 80). In times of uncertainty, many of us turn to prayer. We find comfort in our faith in whatever ways we practice it.
The sukkot in the wilderness were surrounded and protected by the Clouds of Glory. When the Clouds lifted, the Israelites moved on; when the Clouds settled, our ancestors stopped. Perhaps the final lesson we can learn from Sukkot in dealing with illness and uncertainty is to surrender. We are not ultimately in charge. We are to take as active a role in our healing as we can, and then just follow the path that unfolds in front of us.
The The rabbinic compendium of lore and legend composed between 200 and 500 CE. Study of the Talmud is the focus of rabbinic scholarship. The Talmud has two versions, the main Babylonian version (Bavli) and the smaller Jerusalem version (Yerushalmi). It is written in Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic. tells us, “There is no greater joy than the resolution of doubt.” While we’re waiting for that definitive answer, the lessons of Sukkot, the “Season of our Joy,” can help us heal.
Sue Gurland runs Jewish healing circles in Boca Raton, and is the creator of Moving Through the Tree of Life. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree from Yale University, a Master of Acupuncture degree from the Traditional Acupuncture Institute, and a Certificate of Completion in Jewish Spiritual Direction from the Lev Shomea Institute. A sample script for conducting a Jewish healing circle, by Sue Gurland, is available here.