Healing Through Uncertainty: Lessons From Sukkot
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 Torah (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 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?
Simplify When we live in our sukkah, we bring with us 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.
Hospitality On Sukkot, we welcome friends into our sukkah, including our ancestral “guests” (Learn more about Ushpizin/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 Sukkahs 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.”(Siddur 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 sukkahs 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 Talmud 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.