Sukkot: The environmental perspective

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Click photo to download. Caption: Beth El-Kesser Israel in New Haven, Conn., has a grid-tiled photovoltaic array on its synagogue roof due to the work of Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen and his son, Tzvi, for Tzvi's bar mitzvah project. Credit: Beth El-Kesser Israel.

The weather is changing and in North America the leaves are falling, yet around this time of year Jews persist in going outside just when the rest of the world is going in. 

Sukkot, the fall holiday where Jews are mandated to dwell in booths in imitation of the Israelites’ homes during the biblically described 40-year wandering in the desert, has become in modern times a perfect vehicle for Jews concerned with our impact on the environment to connect lower-impact living with religious tradition.

However, during a holiday when we read the book of Ecclesiastes, the futility he speaks of seems apparent. While Sukkot is a chance to revisit our environmental footprint and think of what we wish to incorporate from our temporary dwellings into our daily lives (How about those energy-draining homes and vehicles?), the sad part for humans in the industrialized world is that even when we attempt to live lower-impact lives, our huge global warming and environmental problems would still remain.  

Nonetheless, a number of Jewish organizations have suggestions about what we can do:

Hazon suggests composting and taking a locavore challenge—trying to eat only locally grown foods or foods produced within a 250-mile radius of where one lives during the eight days of Sukkot, or even just the first and last days: http://www.hazon.org/resources/holidays/healthy-sustainable-sukkot-resources/

The Green Prophet website talks about green events in Israel, where a green sukkah was built at Kibbutz Ein Shemer and classes on sustainability and Jewish views toward it were held: http://www.greenprophet.com/2008/10/green-sukkah-holiday/

One congregation that has been a leader in making itself green is Beth El-Kesser Israel in New Haven, Conn. The rabbi there, Jon-Jay Tilsen, and his son Tzvi installed a grid-tiled photovoltaic array on their roof as Tzvi’s bar mitzvah project. There is a section of the synagogue website dedicated to their efforts to put the “conserveinto Conservative Judaism”and teach about the biblical concept ofbal tashcḥit (from Deuteronomy 20: 19-20), which prohibits destruction of the natural environment and wasting of resources: http://beki.org/ecology/energy.html

Another organization dedicated to connecting Jewish texts with sustainable living is Canfei Nesharim. Their Sukkot page (http://www.canfeinesharim.org/community/sukkos.php) has a number of activities and classes which give Torah insights on the environment, including ba’al tashchit, the need for open space (migrash), and responsibility to the land, from Deuteronomy 11:10.

The need to make a connection between Sukkot and awareness of our environment is shared by secular and religious Jews alike. A website dedicated to secular Jewish culture also contains a list of suggestions for how to be more environmentally aware on Sukkot and valuing the simplicity of the Sukkah: http://www.secularjewishculture.org/sukkot_secularism.html

The “Big Green Jewish Org” has a directory of organizations and resources relating to Judaism and environmental connections: http://www.biggreenjewish.org/links-judaism-and-environment.php

Leaving one’s customary dwelling, and putting oneself at the mercy of the elements, is about making ourselves vulnerable. We are commanded to make the sukkah our permanent dwelling, performing all the functions of a home—eating, sleeping, living—in it while our more permanent home becomes our temporary dwelling. In short order, we need to turn our lives inside out on this holiday. 

Yet, environmentalism is not the sole prerogative of this holiday, merely one aspect. Rabbi Tilsen from Beth El-Kesser wrote the following in an email to JNS.org:

“Sukkot forces us outside to experience what most of humanity historically has experienced, and most people in the rest of the world still do today—the elements, the outdoors. Sukkot reminds us that our structures are temporary, but what is important is our history—the story behind the festival—and the relationships, which we celebrate with Ushpizin (inviting our ancestors and heroes into the sukka) and with our family, friends and neighbors.” 

In keeping with this concept, when we recite the “LeiShev baSukkah” blessing this year—literally translated as “to sit in the sukkah”—we should think not only of the structure itself, but also of eating in it. This reminds us that we need to promote our values as a community not merely by practicing environmentally responsible living in an isolated manner, but rather, with each other.

A few years ago, I was teaching Jewish studies at a college. Since the Sukkot holiday fell on our of our class days, I decided that I could not travel on the holiday to the students, but rather I would have them come to me. The class took a road trip to my sukkah and was fascinated to see the diversity of sukkot populating my very Jewish neighborhood. We spent the class period discussing Ecclesiastes and the holiday while I fed them soup and cookies.  

It was a perfect cloudless fall day, the kind that makes one glad to be outside, happy in the sun, with good food and thoughtful conversation. The students, particularly the non-Jews, were struck by the value of this holiday of exposure, and how attuned one can be to the world by leaving the safety of a house for a fragile structure, rendered kosher only when it can be blown down. They felt that the awareness mandated by this had the possibility of making people much more aware of the value of our environment and its fragility. They also noted that there is probably a great deal of savings on energy expenditure if so much time is spent in a place without the need to consume energy. 

Children, too, see the wisdom of making our celebrations more “green.” When JNS.org asked Rabbi Alexander Davis of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minn., about his take on environmentalism, he wrote that his 10-year-old son Yonah questioned the building materials for the sukkah, saying “Why are we using plastic, non-non reusable cable ties? We should use bungee cords and make the first mitzvah of the New Year ‘green.’”

Though Rabbi Davis has been to Hazon conferences on sustainable eating and makes an effort with his family to eat more locally grown foods and support community supported agriculture (CSA), as many synagogues around the country do, he said he finds himself learning from his children on this matter. 

The desire of children to live more environmentally friendly lives gives us hope for the future, but even if we all tried to live with no impact, there would still be environmental problems.

However, Sukkot reminds us that just as we are not free to complete the work of changing the environment (and ourselves), we are not free to desist from it.

Beth Kissileff has taught Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College and for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School in three states. 

Posted on September 24, 2012 and filed under Features, Opinion.