By Tori Greene
I’ve spent the last three and a half years feeling fairly lost and lonely — from the entire world shifting in a matter of weeks in early 2020 to the start of graduate school in a new country. Then, I had to leave that country, feeling largely unfinished with my time there, and move back to the United States to continue grad school in a totally new state where I had practically no community. It’s been a tough few years with a lot of change, adjustment and readjustment. In the times when I most felt like my world was crashing down, the outdoors held me and healed me.
The holiday of Sukkot is a time when we as Jews from all around the world take our indoor lives outdoors as we build temporary dwellings — called sukkot — to eat, hang out and even sleep in. After spending about a month and a half from Elul to Yom Kippur, delving inward and focusing on the self, Sukkot pulls us outward.
It requires us to interact with community and nature in a way that can be rejuvenating for the soul and, potentially, for the mind.
People experience lower levels of stress and reduced symptomology for depression and anxiety when they have closer proximity to and interaction with greenspace (1), which can be defined as an area of grass, trees or other vegetation set apart for recreational or aesthetic purposes in an otherwise urban environment. Sukkot is full of requirements that encourage engagement with greenspace and nature. To start with, the roof of a sukkah must be made with s’chach — any natural material that grew from the ground, like tree branches or reeds. Additionally, the s’chach should be laid out in a way that creates more shade than sun in the sukkah (Mishnah Sukkah 1:1). The Jerusalem Talmud adds that dwellers should also be able to see the stars in the sky above them in the spaces between the s’chach. (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 2:3)
Why would seeing the stars be important? Perhaps it serves as a reminder of the power and presence of the Divine. King David wrote in the book of Psalms,Source
But staring up at the stars also creates an environment for soft fascination and restores directed attention, which is necessary for executive functioning and not overwhelming our minds. From collecting the materials to build the sukkah to dwelling underneath the stars, nature envelops this holiday — and it envelops us.
But staring up at the stars also creates an environment for soft fascination (2) and restores directed attention, which is necessary for executive functioning and not overwhelming our minds (3). From collecting the materials to build the sukkah to dwelling underneath the stars, nature envelops this holiday — and it envelops us.
Significant evidence shows that social support and feeling connected can decrease depressive symptoms and improve overall mental health (4). Sukkot (like many Jewish holidays) is a social holiday. It requires communal interaction. In Genesis 18, three strangers approach Abraham’s tent. He runs to meet them, welcomes them into his tent and prepares a meal for them. Abraham models the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, or hospitality. Traditionally, during Sukkot, those who have sukkot will welcome family, friends and the community into them. Additionally, the Zohar, a foundational work of Jewish mystical thought known as the Kabbalah, introduced the idea of welcoming ushpizin, or guests from the past.
This unique mystical feature of Sukkot emphasizes the central theme of hosting and communing with others. When I lived in Jerusalem, sukkot filled the streets, and people went from one to the other sharing in meals, singing, learning and so much more. Sukkot is celebrated best when it’s celebrated in community, and being in community benefits one’s mental and spiritual well-being.
I am a Miami native. I’m happiest when it’s sunny and 80 degrees to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. During my year in Israel, I lived in Jerusalem, where the winter brought intense cold and rain. On top of that, my apartment didn’t have heat (or air, for that matter), so the warmest place to be was my bed. As finals approached, I felt an immense sense of dread, wondering how I could possibly get all of this work done when my bed was the only comfortable spot. I was stressed, anxious and fearing for my productivity. Thankfully, my dear friend, who lived in Kibbutz Ein Gedi (which has its own botanical garden!), had a standing invitation for me to come whenever I wanted. So, I asked if I could head down and do my finals in the sunny high 70s of the Judean desert. Final exams usually cause me such strife, but with the backdrop of the Judean mountains, the Dead Sea before me and various cacti surrounding me, I genuinely enjoyed my final papers and performed at my highest level of productivity that year.
This Sukkot, make an effort to go out. Host and be hosted, study Torah with friends, enjoy meals outdoors, and fall into amazement underneath the stars. May it be a holiday of spiritual healing. Chag Sukkot sameach!
(1) Pearson, David G., and Tony Craig. “The Great Outdoors? Exploring the Mental Health Benefits of Natural Environments.” Frontiers in Psychology 5, (2014): 93642. Accessed August 31, 2023. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178.
(2) Ibid. Defined by Kaplan and Kaplan as scene content that automatically captures attention while simultaneously eliciting feelings of pleasure
(4) Martino, Jessica, Jennifer Pegg, and Elizabeth P. Frates. “The Connection Prescription: Using the Power of Social Interactions and the Deep Desire for Connectedness to Empower Health and Wellness.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 11, no. 6 (2017): 466-475. Accessed September 3, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827615608788.
Tori Greene is an explorer, community builder, innovator, and collaborator. She has led 13 Birthright trips, headed the first-ever Moishe Pod and launched the Miami hub for OneTable. As a passionate educator for all things Israel and Jewish, she’s launched an Instagram page with the hope of being a strong voice for liberal Zionism. You can follow her at @DivreiTori.
Currently pursuing rabbinical ordination with a dual master’s in nonprofit management and Hebrew letters at Hebrew Union College, she reenvisions the Jewish nonprofit sector as a laboratory for purpose-driven community formation and the exploration of ethical business practices rooted in the wisdom of our tradition.