Eco-Torah on Sukkot
What is a lulav? Here's the executive summary:
Each of the four species of plant represents one of the four types of habitats in Israel.
1) Lulav-Palm branch = desert
2) Hadas-Myrtle = mountains
3) Aravot-Willow = rivers and streams
4) Etrog-Citron = lowlands, agricultural land
Each one needs the most water of all the species that grow in its region. Between them, they make a kind of ecological map of Israel, and they represent last year's rainfall. And we use them to ask for this year's rain. Read more below.
"When Israel was encamped the pillar of cloud was...like a sukkah and made a canopy over the tent (of meeting) from without, and filled the tabernacle mishkan from within...and this was one of the clouds of glory that served Israel forty years in the wilderness: one on their right and one on their left and one before them and one behind them and one above them and the cloud of the Shekhinah between them."
(ch. 14 of B'raita Dim'lekhet Hamishkan, also quoted centuries later in Yalkut Shimoni, Pekudei) In Kabbalah, God is called the soveiv kol almin, what surrounds all worlds, and the m'malei kol almin, what fills all worlds. In this very ancient midrashic passage, the ultimate principle of God that fills and surrounds all is the Shekhinah, the indwelling presence of God, in the form of a pillar of cloud that made itself manifest in the mishkan, the dwelling place created for God. The Shekhinah dwells on this earth when the people make a dwelling place for her "between them," that is, in their relationships and connections. We will turn back to this text at the end.
Sukkot is about water. Everyday in ancient Israel the priests poured water on the altar and prayers from the blessings of water were made. The four species (arba minim) of the lulav are all about water too. The lulav itself, the date palm, was the most water-loving plant of the desert; the myrtle (hadas) needs the most water of the mountain plants; the etrog fruit among agricultural trees requires the most rains to grow; and of course the "willow of the brooks" (arvei nachal) are synonymous with abundant water, growing often with their roots right in the streams.
Each of these species represents one of the primary habitats of the land of Israel: the desert, the mountain, the lowland (sh'feilah in Hebrew), and the river or riparian habitats. Each of these habitats is distinguished of course by how much rainfall and how much groundwater are found there. Together, the four species make a bioregional map of the land of Israel, and they each hold in greatest abundance the rains that fell in their region from the year that has passed. That's why the tips of each species, the pitom of the etrog, the unsplit central frond of the lulav, the end leaves of the myrtle and willow, cannot be dried out: it would be like praying for good health while eating junk food. Bringing these four together, we wave them in all directions around us, up and down, praying that the coming year will again bring enough water for each of these species to grow and thrive, and with them all the species of each habitat. All the other explanations you may have heard for the four lulav species are beautiful midrashim, but this is the ground-level reason for it all. We are praying, fundamentally, for the climate, for the stability and sufficiency of the rain and sun, on which every being living upon the land, plant or animal, depends.
How can we make our prayers heard? We can make them heard by hearing them ourselves. All ecosystems are connected, and we cannot harm one without harming the others. When we pray for abundance and sustenance while living in ways that destroy our climate, it is like praying with a dried-out lulav, or worse, praying for health while eating poisons and toxins. Since we must pray for these things, let us also pray for the wisdom and ability to act consistently with our prayers, to change how we live so that we might live sustainably on the earth, as the Torah enjoins us: Uvacharta bachayim! Choose life!
What does it mean to be a "nation of priests"? If you look at the liturgy and the midrashic teachings on Sukkot, it means praying for all the families of the earth – this includes the other peoples and nations, which according to the midrash correspond to the seventy sacrifices over the holiday, but it also includes, as we read in the Hoshanot prayers for each day, the crops, the animals, the trees, the rains, the sustaining blessing and sustenance of all the earth. We cry out in different moments with such pleading as: "Please save human and animal! Please, save! Please save flesh and spirit and breathing! Please save likeness and image and weave! Please save the ripe fruit, sweeten and save! Please save the clouds from withholding! Please the animals from miscarrying! Please save the rooting of the breathing trees! Please save, Renew the face of the earth!"
What species and habitats need our special prayers this year? Some examples: Save the polar bears from drowning; save the fireflies from becoming lost; save the honeybees from colony collapse; save the coast live oaks from decay; save the old-growth redwoods from becoming lumber; save the cloud forests from vanishing; save the seas from dead zones. Not all environmental crises are our fault, but they are all exacerbated by the pressure, stress and loss of habitat created by both climate change and by our use of more and more land for our purposes (which also accelerates climate change). What can each of us do to protect the particular species in our own locale and "bioregion"? How do each of our actions and choices about what to buy and use and how to live affect species in other places? Finding out the answers to these questions is part of what we need to do to make our prayers real. One way to help us focus on this is to be aware of the fragility of life as we know it in this era of our planet's history, on the fragility of all that is "suspended on nothingness", t'luyah al b'li mah.
Ultimately, it's about each of us taking responsibility to make things different. In this light, two of the lines from the Hoshanot said on Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot are especially striking: "Please save the soul from desperation! Please save what is suspended upon nothingness! Hoshana nefesh mibehalah! Hoshana t'luyah al b'li mah!" Behalah can mean all the forces that turn us away from action, that make us believe we do not make a difference. The way to save the soul from "behalah" is to fulfill the mission described in the Hoshanot: to act as priests and pray on behalf of the other species, to fix what we can, to mourn for what is being lost, and to celebrate in joy what remains.
3) The month of Tishrei
We have been praying, fasting, purifying ourselves since the new moon of Rosh Hashanah, for one overwhelming reason: to make ourselves ready and worthy to pray for the well-being and fertility of the earth, the crops, the animals, and all the peoples. Only now, after we have completed that process through Yom Kippur, can we start to say those prayers. That's why the tradition says the gates don't really close until the last day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah. That's why it's traditional to wear a kittel (the shroud worn on Yom Kippur) on that day, and why the Chazan (cantor) may don a kittel the first time we begin the prayers for rain, on the following day.
On Yom Kippur, in the Sefardic prayers, there are long confessions that detail every possible sin. One line bids each person to ask forgiveness because "I have not chosen life / Lo bacharti bachayim." To do t'shuvah means to choose life. Sukkot teaches us how.
If you know how to build a sukkah, you know that its roof is made of s'khakh, branches and leaves. This is not only the essence of the sukkah, but also the reason why it's called "sukkah". S'khakh can be made of anything that grows from the ground that has not been manufactured into something new (i.e. not a woven grass mat). S'khakh can't be held together by wire, it should not be tied down in anyway, and it should ideally rest on plain wood, not metal. All these rules are referred to by the idea that s'khakh cannot be made of anything that is "m'kabeil tuma," able to become ritually impure.
An object can become "impure" or tamei only when it has fully become a part of the human world, because the categories of ritual purity are human constructs, as the Talmud explicitly acknowledges. The essence of what it means for s'khakh to not be "m'kabeil tuma" is that it is in between Nature and the human world, halfway between naturally growing and being manufactured or turned into a human object: it is cut from the ground (or from a tree growing in the ground), but not yet re-formed or shaped into something useful or woven or tied down. The roof made of s'khakh represents many things: the interface between heaven and earth, between atmosphere and ground, the meeting place between us and God, but it also (and most importantly) represents the interface between Nature and our human-made world.
S'khakh is the "in-between," the filter and screen through which we experience the greater reality of divinity and nature. It also represents the atmosphere and climate that gives and tends and protects us, and it represents the fragility of that protection.
Traditionally, s'khakh covers more than half the roof by creating more shade than light, but it should have openings throughout, smaller than a handbreadth, but big enough to see some stars. Though what is unseen appears to be less than what is seen, what is unseen, invisible, hidden from the eye, is actually greater than what is seen, and it permeates what we see, like that stars that shine through the sky and the s'khakh. Shefa, the blessing of overflowing abundance, pours in, whether we are aware of it or not. The sukkah gives us the privilege and opportunity to sense this happening. The essence of the tradition is to teach us to live in the "in-between," to find shelter and comfort in vulnerability and in making ourselves open to the elements, and to bear witness to the Shekhinah-radiance that underlies all that we can experience. Being aware of the fragile liminality of our separation from God and from Nature, right over our heads, is an entry to thanksgiving, acceptance, and joy.
5) Waving the lulav
We read above: "When Israel was encamped the pillar of cloud was...like a sukkah and made a canopy over the tent from without, and filled the mishkan from within...and this was one of the clouds of glory that served Israel forty years in the wilderness: one on their right and one on their left and one before them and one behind them and one above them and the cloud of the Shekhinah between them." We are surrounded by divine presence, what is called "glory" (kavod) in the Bible and Shekhinah in rabbinic and post-rabbinic Judaism. If the lulav is meant to draw down shefa and blessing to the earth and all creatures, then we wave it in all directions both because we want to draw blessing from all quarters of creation, and to simultaneously bring blessing to all quarters and corners of creation. Right and left, before and behind, up and...between. Because the last direction, toward the earth, is really the direction of all that binds us together, all that we are made of, the direction of adamah, and Shekhinah. The Shekhinah truly rests in the "in-between," in the relations between all creatures, in the "weave" of creation, and in the weave of human caring.
Sukkot reminds us that our relations are not just with other humans, but with the world that is one step beyond the human, the more-than-human world that gives us all that we need. Both the s'khakh and the lulav draw us by steps toward a greater reality which is the bed and bedrock of our lives.
When we pray for all creatures, as our tradition bids us do on Sukkot, we act this out ritually by waving the lulav. We wave or shake the lulav three times in each direction, returning the lulav after each wave to our hearts. A kavanah for each set of three waves could be to wave the first time to receive blessing from the direction (and all that comes from there), the second time to send blessing to that direction (and all that dwell there), and the third time to express gratitude or to unite our hearts in compassion with the One who cares for all of them.
It's not enough to think about blessing: we call for it by acting and gesturing with our whole bodies, using what we gather from the earth. We can only make this physical gesture real by purposeful action to change our impact on the planet, to change ourselves instead of the climate. What we give to the earth must also become this: a blessing. A blessing for all the families of the earth, mishp'chot ha'adamah, all the tribes of species and genus, of region and ecosystem, all our relations of earth and sea and sky. This is how we can choose to act, how we can measure our actions, in an age of global climate change and uncertainty. This is how we can measure policies, community decisions, and the ends of justice. This is how we can ask God to "renew the face of the ground" chidush p'nei ha'adamah, and be answered.
The final dimension of action is joy: V'hayita ach sameach! And you will rejoice! The gates are still open, and the way through them is joy and service: both are the characteristics of acting as priests to bring down blessing for all our relations. May we all be blessed to rejoice, with the Shekhinah dwelling between us, in all our relationships, with all the creatures of heaven and earth.
These teachings were originally prepared for the Shalom Center.