Having raised four kids, I can confidently report that better than all the fancy, electronic toys manufactured these days, the best gift to give a kids is a cardboard box large enough to crawl inside. The all-time, best-ever present is an appliance box. My kids logged in many happy and creative hours with cardboard boxes. For one birthday party, each 4-year-old was given a box to decorate as a dinosaur. Then they sat in them, riding their dinosaurs. For another birthday party, I opened several large boxes and reshaped them into a crude cardboard rocket ship. My son and his 5-year-old friends happily decorated and played in the rocket ship all afternoon — and for many months afterward. What children know, and sometimes adults forget, is how to be playful and joyful with very little. Sukkot to the rescue. A sukkah is even better than a refrigerator box. The whole family, along with friends, can share meals in it. You can play and sleep in it. Simplicity is one of the virtues of the festival of Sukkot.
Beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you are to take the produce of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy and willows of the brook, and rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days; you shall observe it in the seventh month a a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:39-43)
It is often pointed out that living in the sukkah is an experience of vulnerability, especially to the elements (that is, nature). We live in snug, tight, insulated homes. We travel in cars fully equipped with heating and air-conditioning to workplaces, stores, and entertainment venues similarly climate-controlled. When we are outside in the cold or rain, we don clothing made of modern miracle fabrics that keep out the chill and the wet. Our experience of vulnerability makes us more aware of, and deeply grateful for, the luxuries we enjoy year-round. True enough.
But it’s not just the experience of vulnerability that makes Sukkot so valuable. It is that the very simplicity of living in a sukkah that allows us to focus joyful attention on the wonder of the outdoors, which we are so often shut off from in our daily life.
And perhaps even greater than the lesson of simplicity, is the fact that living in a sukkah gets us outside. Scores of psychologists, physicians, and experts on well-being have touted the importance of our connection to the natural world. Being outdoors raises our oxytocin levels and helps us feel connected with the world beyond our computer screens and personal concerns. In a paper published in 1984, Roger S. Ulrich investigated “the restorative effect of natural views on surgical patients” in a hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery. Those who could see trees outside their window recovered more quickly and required less pain medication than those whose windows opened to an urban view of a wall. Ulrich wrote: “Views of vegetation, and especially water, appear to sustain interest and attention more effectively than urban views of equivalent information rate. Because most natural views apparently elicit positive feelings, reduce fear in stressed subjects, hold interest, and may block or reduce stressful thoughts, they might also foster restoration from anxiety or stress.” It is not surprising, therefore, that hospital gardens not only provide an aesthetic atmosphere but promote medical healing.
The Harvard Health Letter (July 2010) informed readers of five reasons to spend time outdoors: (1) raise vitamin D levels; (2) get more exercise; (3) be happier; (4) improve concentration; and (5) heal faster. An article tellingly entitled, “Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning,” Florence Williams is summarized: “These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside. Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stress—and even prevent cancer.” In Your Brain on Nature, authors Eva Selhub and Alan Logan highlight research that links the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing,” a leisurely visit to a forest in which one breathes in phytoncide, which is wood essential oils) to increased cerebral blood flow, immune defense, and improved mental health. Here are additional articles you might enjoy reading:
The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation endorses “forest bathing.” They tell us:
Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. Numerous studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at the trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Looking at pictures of trees has a similar, but less dramatic, effect. Studies examining the same activities in urban, unplanted areas showed no reduction of stress-related effects. Using the Profile of Mood States test, researchers found that forest bathing trips significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. And because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of forests are further magnified.
The psalmist understood this well. Psalm 23, attributed to King David, expresses the sense of peace, satisfaction, and healing one can experience outdoors. This translation of Psalm 23, by Pamela Greenberg, reflects it beautifully:
A psalm of David.
God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
You lay me down in lush meadows.
You guide me toward tranquil waters, reviving my soul.
You lead me down paths of righteousness, for that is your way.
And when i walk through the valley, overshadowed by death,
I will fear no harm, for you are with me.
Your rod and staff—they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the face of my greatest fears.
You drench my head with oil; my cup overflows the brim.
Surely goodness and kindness will accompany me all the days of my life
The sukkah draws us outdoors and keeps us there for hours. Celebrating Sukkot is a unique opportunity to combine mindful living (and mindful eating) with a keen appreciation of the world beyond our homes, offices, schools, and especially screens and devices. Living is mindful when we experience novelty, and the sukkah provides that beautifully. It’s been a full year since we dwelled in a sukkah—it is again new. (Dogs are masters of novelty. If you’re away from them for only a few hours, they greet you with enthusiastic love and affection as if it’s been a year since they saw you. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from them.)
In his wonderful book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, Dr. Amit Sood, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, offers us guidance on how to mindfully soak in nature and benefit from its stress-relieving and healing properties:
In the yard, attend to the green carpet of grass, the blue sky and floating clouds. Savor the color, the variety of plants, and the squiggly tracks in the grass. Look at the plants and trees as selfless sages standing quietly, emblems of peace, purifying the air, holding the soil together and giving us flowers and fruit while asking nothing in return. Send them your silent gratitude for adorning your environs.
Notice the tree’s physical form—its height, branching pattern and the moss on its bark. Appreciate leaves’ shape, size and color, and the patterns of their veins. Look at the flowers and the squirrels and the birds finding shelter on its branches.
One of the blessings of Sukkot is that it sends us outdoors into the natural world, a place of healing. At a time of year when many of us are resigned to spending far more time inside as autumn rain and chill move in, and those who live in very hot climates find it is finally cool enough to get outdoors, this is a valuable reminder. Dr. Sood assures us:
With practice, nature will move to the forefront of your life, no longer part of the unattended background. You’ll notice more trees, flowers, even insects. Nature will give your mind a flourishing break from [non-constructive and often negative] ruminations.
This year, in addition to the blessings for dwelling in the sukkah and waving the lulav, you’d like to add this, the last line of the Hashkiveinu prayer of shabbat ma’ariv, the evening service:
ברוך אתה יי הפורש סכת שלום עלינו ועל כל עמו ישראל ועל ירושלים
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who spreads a shelter of peace over us,
over all God’s people Israel, and over Jerusalem.
Chag sameach — may your time in the sukkah be filled with joy and may your senses be awakened and stimulated by the wonder of the outdoors throughout the coming year.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman