A Reflection on Sukkot and Healthcare Chaplaincy
Sukkot is the third and last of the three Jewish pilgrimage festivals (with Passover and Shavuot).
Sometimes referred to as z’man simchateinu, the season of rejoicing, its hands-on, home-based customs make it a refreshing contrast to the dramatically solemn synagogue-based High Holy Days.
Historically, Sukkot celebrates the 40 years during which the Israelites wandered in the desert living in temporary dwellings. The holiday takes its name from these dwellings or booths, these Sukkot. It is also a harvest festival. Today, its primary observances include: dwelling in some way in a Sukkah; ritualistically waving a lulav (which is a “bouquet” that is made up of a palm branch that is embraced by willow and myrtle branches and fortified with a citron); and saying extra prayers.
Among Sukkot’s themes are four primary messages. The first two messages are about inclusiveness and being joyful. Traditionally, during Sukkot, spiritual, ancestral and, of course, living guests are welcomed. For the past decade, HCC has raised a Sukkah on the terrace of its East 62nd Street offices and made it available to staff, board members, friends and neighbors who wish to fulfill the commandment to dwell – or at least to dine – in booths during their business hours.
“Ten years ago, when we leased additional office space, access to an expansive outdoor terrace was part of the rental agreement,” recalls Chaplaincy CEO, the
Rev. Dr. Walter J. Smith, S.J. “This terrace afforded us an unparalleled opportunity to purchase and annually raise a sukkah; each year our multifaith staff collaborates in constructing and adorning it for the festival.”
“I am humbled by the way in which our HealthCare Chaplaincy community responds to my annual request for help in raising our Sukkah,” says Rabbi Dr. Bonita Taylor, HealthCare Chaplaincy’s director of Jewish studies and associate director of clinical pastoral education. “Staffers from many different faith groups
and observance levels and from throughout HCC interrupt their crowded schedules to raise the Sukkah’s external structure or to decorate its interior.”“I’ve been doing this for the past five years” says Christopher Chiu, manager of corporate and foundation giving. “I’d like to think that having someone like me, a Roman Catholic, helping to build and decorate a sukkah—and having fun doing it—sends a powerful message of multifaith tolerance, cooperation, and understanding.”
A third message is about fragility. Normally, we can pretend that our external structures can protect us from all of life’s painful encounters. These structures include our bodies that house our souls as well as our homes that house our bodies. It is traumatic when we discover, despite our best efforts, that our physical homes, whether skeletal or brick, cannot always protect us from hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, floods and the like. During Sukkot, we intentionally dwell in structures that we know can be “huffed and puffed” away. This allows us to experience feelings of gratitude for that which we think is enduring in our lives, even as we experience feelings of apprehension about the ephemeral.
Finally, a fourth message encourages us to embrace mystical facets within ourselves. One way that we do this is by “waving a lulav.” This year, on the first day of Sukkot, we opened our Sukkah with a brief teaching and an opportunity for those present to wave the lulav in each of six directions: east, north, west, south, towards Divinity, and toward the earth, and to conclude with a private prayer. One tradition involves waving it three
times in each of these directions because in Jewish mystical tradition, the number ”3” is associated with balance, reconciliation, wholeness and holiness. Many present, most for the first time, participated in what they later said felt “spiritual and special.”
HealthCare Chaplaincy project development manager Jess Geevarghese says, “While we, the staff, come from various faith traditions, participating in the Sukkot service took me beyond our differences. The transient nature of our lives, gratitude for our bounty and participation in self-reflective rituals are links to our shared human nature. The sukkot is a powerful reminder of this.”
Later, some said that they would do it during the seven days, when they were alone. “This is one of the many ways that HealthCare Chaplaincy ‘walks its talk,’” Rabbi Taylor concluded. “I feel so blessed to facilitate it, to witness it and to be a part of it”.
Sukkot Priestly Blessing. Moses said concerning the feast of Sukkot, "On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days" (Lev. 23:40; JPS). The Jewish people have interpreted these four species to be the etrog (citron) - yellow fruit, the lulav (palm branch), hadas (avot tree branch), and aravah (willows of the brook). They carry these with them throughout the week to their prayers in the synagogue. (Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Perspective, http://www.jerusalemperspective.com)
Thank you! firstname.lastname@example.org at Healthcare Chaplaincy for this article.