Sukkot: The Gift of Vulnerability

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot is festive, vibrant, strange and exciting. In neighborhoods with large Jewish populations, passersby might notice wood and plastic huts going up in driveways and on lawns, young children with bags of candy walking through the streets or people dressed in celebratory clothing shaking what appear to be large lemons and pointed-edge plants.  

Jewish sages call this period Z’man Simchateinu (the “Season of our Joy”) or Chag He’Asif (“the Festival of the Harvest”). Those who celebrate the eight days of Sukkot each year sit in huts they build and decorate, often with fairy lights and homemade posters. This tradition aligns with the biblical commandment that the Jewish people “shall live in booths for seven days… in order that future generations may know that… the Israelite people live[d] in booths when I, G-d, brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43-44). 

Imagine how the Jewish people may have felt following their departure from Egypt. Exhausted but hopeful, carrying the heavy burden of generations of physical and emotional pain, having experienced unbelievable miracles, it is likely that they were in some state of shock. The transition from the agony of slavery and oppression to a state of freedom and possibility was almost certainly too hard to process immediately. Instead, as they journeyed through the desert, the fledgling Jewish nation may have struggled with the overpowering feelings and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The notion that the new nation of Israel might have been experiencing some of the characteristic symptoms of PTSD is supported by biblical texts and commentators alike. Despite the miracles they had experienced as they fled Egypt, such as the splitting of the sea, it is clear on multiple occasions immediately following these miracles that they struggled to feel secure. They repeatedly mourned leaving Egypt each time they feared not having enough water or food — yes, Egypt, the place where they were treated as subhuman and denied their basic human needs. One symptom of PTSD as defined within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM V),  is “intense or prolonged psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event(s),” and this certainly seems to resemble that. Upon Moses’s ascent to Mt. Sinai, and his subsequent late return, the Jewish people panicked, thinking they had been rejected and abandoned by Moses and G-d — a reaction that might be described as “persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about oneself, others or the world,” another symptom of PTSD listed in the DSM-V.

Sukkot may seem even stranger now, given this framing:If the Jewish people, already feeling profoundly vulnerable, lived in desert huts unprotected from the elements and neighboring enemies, surely that would have worsened any post-traumatic symptoms. The question becomes even more powerful when considering this was also a harvest festival in Judean times. The harvest determined whether farmers would live well through the coming winter or struggle to feed themselves and their families, making the period a particularly vulnerable time.

One of the treatment protocols for PTSD is the development of a “safe space,” one in which those suffering from the disorder feel protected and cared for. The regulation of trauma symptoms through this safe space can allow for the development of mental wellness and the management of distressing flashbacks and anxieties. 

It might be possible to reframe the sukkah — the booth or hut erected in the desert, weathered by the elements — as such a safe space. In fact, some commentators believe the booth described within the biblical text is figurative and symbolizes the clouds of G-d’s presence that protected the Jewish people within the desert. According to the 13th-century scholar Nachmanides, also known as the Ramban, the holiday of Sukkot is an opportunity for the Jewish people to “know and remember that they were in the wilderness and did not live in homes, and they found no city of habitation for forty years, but G-d was with them and they lacked nothing.”

Let us look at the sukkah as such a safe space and envision G-d’s presence as a cloud holding the traumatized Jewish nation. This cloud protected them from the inclinations of the weather and any other inhabitants of the wilderness, allowing them a place where they could recover, grow, reflect and develop new relationships with one another. For the first time in their lives, these individuals could learn the boundaries and limits of freedom within a protective environment, engage with making choices for themselves and speaking up for themselves and learn about appropriate consequences and reactions to their behavior. For a group of people that likely had tremendous disabilities within these areas due to generations of suffering and lack of agency, the cloud of G-d (and metaphor of the sukkah) was a gift and a blessing.

A safe space requires two seemingly dichotomous characteristics. First, it needs to be safe; its inhabitant(s) must feel trust inside its walls and that they can meet their needs and will not be threatened. Second, it needs to be a place where its inhabitant(s) can feel vulnerable so they can engage with those feelings as a way to begin to recover from the trauma they have experienced. We might say a safe space must be a place where a person with PTSD symptoms can feel vulnerable safely

That may sound strange, yet it is an essential part of moving forward for the survivor of trauma, as there will always be moments of anxiety, pain and fear in life. Anyone working on post-traumatic recovery must develop systems and structures for healthy engagement with these vulnerable experiences and learn new ways of engaging with the sensation of being vulnerable.

With all of that in mind, we return to the sukkah, the symbol of the safe space G-d gives to Israel to allow them to recover. Some halakhists (experts in Jewish law) posit that a sukkah is not considered valid unless it is built impermanently enough that rain can penetrate its roof (Piskei Teshuvos 631:2). Indeed, the vulnerability of the sukkah is the whole point! We celebrate Z’man Simchateinu in a vulnerable structure we build to commemorate the tremendous gift G-d gave to the nation of Israel as its people traversed through the desert wilderness — the gift of feeling vulnerable safely.

May we experience the blessing of joy on this holiday, and may the metaphor of the sukkah remind us of the places we can safely develop authenticity and strength in our recovery from past traumatic experiences. Wishing you a chag sameach (joyous holiday)!

Ruthie Hollander was born in Germany, grew up in Michigan, and has spent the last six years in the tristate area. She has worked in Jewish school settings for the last five years and is very passionate about educational accessibility and asking “the big questions” with her students. Ruthie works in admissions and development at a Jewish school in Bergen County, is partnering with the mayor of her city to build a sustainability-focused community garden in her neighborhood, and is the founder of Achayot: a community network that enables Jewish women in her community to find support, friendship, free events, and Shabbat meals. Ruthie loves inventing new recipes, doing yoga late at night, and finding old bookstores to explore. She lives in New Jersey with her husband Max, her dog Momo, and lots of plants.

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