By Beth Huppin. Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity, the Jewish education program at JFS. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.This is Beth’s last blog post before she retires! We want to thank Beth for all the love, dedication, and effort she put into her work at JFS for the past six and a half years. If you would like to read more of her work, click here.
The holiday of Sukkot marks the conclusion of our second fall Jewish holiday season under the shadow of COVID. Although the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed close to 2,000 years ago, a practice from those ancient times might be instructive as we contemplate the meaning of our experiences during this past year and a half, as a community and as individuals.
Sukkot, not Yom Kippur, was the major Jewish holiday of the fall season during ancient times. Sukkot not only concluded the fall holiday cycle, but also was the last of three annual celebratory pilgrimage festivals. Thousands of people traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem to show their gratitude for their final harvest of the year. It was a time of great joy. And yet, the tradition acknowledges that not everyone arrived in the same emotional state.
Most people came into the communal Temple space through entrances on the right. Others, however, would enter through doors that generally served as exits, on the left. Rabbi Chai Levy describes the scene as people came and went from the Temple courtyard:
The Mishnah describes a choreography for pilgrims going to the Temple for festivals. All would enter the Temple and circle from the right, but these would circle to the left: a mourner, an excommunicated person, one who has an ill person in their house, and one who lost something. The rabbis understood that those who experienced suffering or loss, those who have been shunned, and caregivers to the sick needed some emotional support. Those circling to the right would ask, “Why do you circle to the left?” and those circling to the left would answer, “Because I am a mourner” or “because I have a loved one who is ill.” And those circling to the right would then respond, “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you” or “May the One who dwells in this house have compassion on your loved one.” (Mishnah Middot 2:2 and Masechet Semachot 6:11)
This tradition is striking in that it acknowledges that although people gathered for a joyous event, they weren’t all in need of the same experience. Some people managed to arrive that year as respite from caring for a sick loved one. Others arrived in mourning or feeling excluded for any number of reasons. This ritualized entry provided a socially acceptable opportunity to ask for extra community recognition and care.
While some categories for entering on the left were clear, such as that of a mourner, not all these categories are easily delineated. Was the illness severe enough? Was the lost object valuable enough? The decision to enter in the opposite direction of others, thereby signifying the need for extra community support, was made by the individual. No gatekeeper decided whose needs were significant enough to warrant the extra attention. No shame or awkwardness came from a person stating the truth of their status.
I’m struck by this tradition because I’ve met so many people who are afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. “I’m much more comfortable helping others.” “I don’t want to be a burden to the community.” “Other people have greater needs.”
And yet, I imagine that in this ancient tradition everyone entered through the exit door at some time in their lives. Nobody gets through life without the help of others along the way. Nobody. I like to think that this tradition normalized asking for help while also providing useful language for those who didn’t know how to respond in those moments.
This tradition speaks to me as I conclude my work at JFS as the founding director of Project Kavod, the Jewish educational project of JFS. I’ve been humbled by lessons I’ve learned from my colleagues as well as from volunteers and community members. They remind me daily that everyone needs the support of others, and everyone can offer support to others in one form or another. Quite often, whether we are aware of it or not, in giving, we receive; and in receiving, we give.
Our staff members speak of how they learn and grow from their clients. Volunteers and donors tell of times they received help from JFS or other community support systems and how volunteering and donating are part of healing from their own pain or traumas. I’ve repeatedly seen that the artificial line drawn between staff, donors, volunteers, and clients is false, deceptive, and even harmful when it prevents people from seeking needed help.
A year and a half into COVID, may we remember the lessons from this ancient pilgrimage festival tradition, appreciating that categories of “helping” and “helped” are fluid and false. On one holiday we enter through the metaphorical exit door and the next we comfort those walking in the direction we walked the year before. True healing, then and now, occurs in relationship, through both receiving and through giving to others.