Pictured above is the lulav, made of palm, myrtle, and willow, and the etrog, which has been called "a lemon on steroids" with its fancy case, used in the ritual of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. We are currently in the midst of this joyful eight day harvest festival. Following is a sad/happy story of Sukkot in a facility for people with alzheimers and other dementias where I celebrated it together with my mom in her last year of life.
***********“Now we’re going to do a mitzvah” said the young Chabad Rabbi. He had arrived late, lulav and etrog in hand like the knight on a white horse that he was, rescuing the floundering activities assistant from having to stumble through the Friday 11:00 a.m. ‘Shabbat’ on her own. She vaguely knew it was a holiday called Sukkot, but didn’t know what to say about it, so he arrived in the nick of time, with the necessary ritual equipment.
The Rabbi spoke about Yom Kippur as Gevurah (judgment), and Sukkot as Hesed (loving kindness), about the three sides of the sukkah (the temporary hut built to dwell in, or at least hang out in, during the eight day holiday) symbolizing God’s sheltering arm. He explained about the palm, myrtle and willow, how they needed to be perfect to form a kosher lulav. His words moved me deeply. I wondered what the alzheimer’s crowd could possibly understand of his mystical Kabbalistic interpretations.
Then the real mitzvah (good deed): going individually to each resident, however seemingly out of it, and getting them to (more or less, mostly less) repeat each line of the traditional blessing, and then having them shake the lulav and etrog together, the customary ritual action.
I remembered a commentary I had read about how the three elements of the lulav plus the etrog spell the letters of God’s name in Hebrew: yud-hey-vav-hey. Because of which hand they are held in, they only read that way by someone facing the person shaking them....it would read backwards for the person themself who is shaking them. So it has to be an interactive event, it requires an ‘I’ and a ‘Thou.’ It was one of those moments when I got in touch with the humanity and soul of each person there, regardless of how advanced their dementia, and swallowed back the tears.
When it came to my mother’s turn I said “we’ll do it together”. I put my hands over hers as you would to teach a child. I repeated the blessing after him on her behalf, since she could barely speak anymore. We shook them together. Her eyes widened in amazement as she looked up towards the top of the lulav. Her face came unexpectedly alive. She looked transported to some primal childhood memory. I could see the distant bell ringing. Then, plant lady that she is, she looked more closely at the myrtle and lovingly touched the leaves. The Rabbi panicked, since he had just explained that if the leaves weren’t perfect it wouldn’t be kosher. I removed her hand. He tried to remove the entire lulav from the clutch of her other hand. “I can’t get it out” he said, asking for help. I pried her fingers loose, her hand having become frozen in a vise, and he quickly pulled it away and went on to the next person.
She uttered a few garbled words. I could only make out one of them: “nice”. She smiled. We were both happy. For a harvest festival, it was a good harvest. Every year since, every time I shake the lulav and etrog, I'm right back there.