The PTSD holiday: Sukkot

Over the course of the pandemic, I have realized that Sukkot is the PTSD holiday. In several ways it is designed to address the trauma of Passover and of our lives:

 An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy carries palm branches during preparations for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood September 24, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy carries palm branches during preparations for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood September 24, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Sukkot is the PTSD holiday.
Every festival has both an agricultural and a historical dimension. The historical dimension of Sukkot is that it follows Passover. Passover was liberation, and Sukkot was how Israel dwelled, in booths, in the desert.
Passover was an experience of trauma. It began with the trauma of slavery, but even the liberation was attended by a sequence of traumatic events.
Imagine enduring plagues all around you, the possibility of leaving and the constant denial of Pharaoh, the repeated hope and disappointment.
Then came liberation itself, which compounded the sense of trauma. There was a fear of being captured; the chance of drowning; crossing the sea and watching others drown.
The initial exultation was followed by entering a desert without knowing whether there would be food or water. The entire experience was like a protracted war, and the attendant trauma had to be addressed.
Over the course of the pandemic, I have realized that Sukkot is the PTSD holiday. In several ways it is designed to address the trauma of Passover and of our lives:
1. The Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is associated with narrowness, “tzar.” After the constriction of slavery and the inability to escape, comes Sukkot. In the desert, there is space. The sukkah is un-claustrophobic by its nature. The sukkah is not a structure that will prevent you from leaving. It is fragile and open, a gentle house. Since there is no covering on the roof, you can see the outside. You are not hemmed in, which is one of the triggers of trauma.
2. The Rabbis say “sukkah” refers to the sukkah of clouds that God provided for the Israelites as they walked through the desert. Being taken care of, a gentle shade over your life, is calming after the brutality of Egypt. Fear is soothed by caretaking.
3. The sukkah reminds us that we are not alone. Part of the terror of trauma is feeling alone. Not only do we invite other people into the sukkah, but traditionally we also bring in the ushpizin – historic figures from the Jewish past who share our history and gave us their dreams. We are not alone in space or in time. And the vision of the stars above is a further reminder of God’s presence. As Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother Theo: “I feel a tremendous need for religion, so I go outside at night to paint the stars.”
4. Like a mikveh, the sukkah is done with one’s entire body. Just as you immerse completely, you walk into the sukkah completely. The idea that all of you is involved works against the splitting that is a part of trauma. As we have learned – particularly in the classic work on trauma The Body Keeps the Score – trauma is stored in the body.
Sukkot is not only a holiday done with one’s entire body, but it is the only holiday that mandates building something. Activity is also an important part of healing. Slaves who built for others now build for themselves.
5. Sukkot is the only holiday whose name is an emotion – Z’man Simhatenu, the time of our joy. Trauma robs joy. Sukkot encourages us to feel joy, reminding us that it is good and healthy to be happy. This holiday that returns us to nature, to greenery and the elements, lifts our spirits.
Even the holiday that precedes Sukkot on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, is part of this spiritually therapeutic process. Yom Kippur grants us absolution. Once again we can breathe and feel unfettered by the past. Then Sukkot, just in time, gives us back our joy.

The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe