SUKKOT: From Earliest Humankind to Our Planetary Crisis

[Rabbi Arthur Green, the authorof the following essay, is founder and rector of the Rabbinical School of Boston Hebrew College. He is a profound scholar of classical Hassidism, having written biographies and masterful translations of several Hassidic rebbes. He was one of the founders of the havurah movement, and is a proponent of neo-Hassidism, drawing on classical Hassidism and reframing its wisdom for a world very different from that of its birth. His newest book is a two-volume examination of A New Hassidism. Even more recently, he has taken steps into the transcendent public issue of the climate crisis, showing how his concerns are rooted in Jewish tradition. 

[When The Shalom Center began urging that we make #Sukkot4Climate Healing into an activist campaign, Rabbi Green sent us this essay. It deeply explores the spiritual meanings of Sukkot, and then joins in urging its wisdom be turned to healing our deeply wounded planet.  Do not miss the sting in the tail of this seemngly gentle exploration! 

[On the day of the Climate Strike, he, my life-partner Rabbi Phyllis Berman, and I all found ourselves in St. Louis to teach at two different synagogues. We spoke together, each of us from a different perspective, on the future of Judaism as we face one of the greatest crises in planetary history, and then we all joined in the Climate Strike demonstration. 

[For further information on #Sukkot4Climate Healing -- see the Home Page of this website -- AW, editor]

 By Rabbi Arthur Green

The two great pilgrimage festivals of the Hebrew Bible, Pesah andSukkot, begin on the days of the spring and fall full moon. Biblical scholars have long understood the origins of these festivals in ancient seasonal rites, tied to the agricultural cycle of spring planting and fall harvest. As presented in the Torah, they are at midpoint in the course of transformation from agricultural season festivals into celebrations of the national saga of redemption, the rituals of a sacred people tied to its collective history, rather than to the land itself.

Pesah, combined with the festival of Matzot, has completed that transition as presented in the text; the old festival of slaughtering spring lambs is completely subsumed within the Exodus narrative. Sukkot is just beginning that transition, as presented in the Torah. Amid much talk of the harvest, a single verse says “for I caused your ancestors to dwell in booths as I took them forth from the land of Egypt (Lev. 23:43).”

I have long had a suspicion – for which I can marshal no evidence – that there may be a still more ancient layer of memory behind these agricultural festivals. The transition from the hunter/gatherer period of human history, continuing into the wandering herdsman’s way of life, to that of agriculture and settlement, marked one of the first great changes in human history. Because it took place before written documents, and maybe even before the full development of language itself, we have no clear record of it. But it is reflected in the tale of Cain and Abel, as well as in earlier Near Eastern parallel texts. (The theme of herdsman - or “rancher” - versus farmer is familiar to all of us who grew up watching Western movies.)

 I suspect that the trauma of this change brought about a nostalgia for prior times that somehow needed to be ritually commemorated. Thus were created two great ritual occasions. Beginning on the spring full moon, for a week one ate only the food that was consumed before there were ovens, before humans had learned how to bake bread, a defining feature of settled existence in the West. Matsah, laid out in the sun to bake as best it could, took the place of risen bread. On the fall full moon, one went out and dwelt in huts for a week, just as we had “in the olden days,” when we still wandered with the flocks. The sukkah, or “temporary” home, a kind of bedouin tent, took the place of the real and solidly built farmhouse.

Sukkot is surely a festival that puts us in touch with some of the most ancient of human memories. The hosha‘not or “Save us!” processions around the synagogue, carrying the fruits of the trees, culminating in the “stripping of the willows” rite on the seventh day, Hosh‘ana Rabbah, a day of awesome judgment evoking echoes of Yom Kippur, places us back in the vulnerable mindset of early farmers in an arid climate, living on the edge of a desert, calling out for rain. Our waving of the lulav or palm-branch in all directions on each day of the festival is also surely a vestigial form of rain-dance, urging the blessed water-filled clouds to appear from one direction or another.

Just as Yom Kippur is simply called yoma, “the Day” in Talmudic sources, Sukkot is named ḥagga, or “the festival.” But the root of that word (the same as ḥaj, in Arabic, by the way) really means “circle.” In Temple times, Sukkot was the great annual pilgrimage festival, the time when Jews from throughout the land, and even from abroad, would gather in Jerusalem. The main feature of that celebration were circumambulations around the altar, still copied in the synagogue in the ritual of hosha’not. The palm, willow, and myrtle branches we carry, along with the bright yellow etrog, also carry an awful lot of history within them.


All of these things have, of course, long been spiritualized, transformed into rites in which we seek both collective and personal meaning. The early rabbis saw the four species as representing four types of Jews or four vital organs that constituted the moral self. The Hasidic masters speak beautifully of waving the branches in each direction, then coming back to the heart, as an exchange of blessing between the inner self and all the farthest corners of one’s daily life. In their spirit, we too, seeking out a more universalist Jewish spirituality, see the innermost self reaching forth in all directions, extending our love and concern to the four corners of the earth, reaching also up toward the sky and down into the soil, but then bringing that love and concern back into our hearts.

Judaism thrives on its unique way of preserving ancient religious forms and remaining open to their constant re-interpretation. But in this case, I also find something attractive about pausing in our rush to reinterpret, just to enjoy living in the presence of these most ancient of ancestral memories. This historical perspective on our sacred calendar does not diminish the power of the festivals for me, as it does for some refugees from a fundamentalist Judaism (“If God didn’t really command that we do these things, why do we have to do them?”). On the contrary, it deepens and enriches their power, and makes me more want to immerse myself into their full praxis.

This is what I mean by a post-critical or post-modern return to Judaism. The historical dimensions of Jewish religious life, including our many borrowings from various cultural settings amid which we have lived, make the ritual forms all the more interesting and attractive. Certainly, my kavvanah or inner intent in doing them will focus on the spiritual, but the historical and anthropological “baggage” that comes along with that becomes part of the inspiration. The fact that my Sukkot celebrations draw me nearer to the Plains Indian, dressed up for his Rain Dance, or the Masai shepherd in Kenya who is still undergoing the transition from nomadic to settled existence, enhances my sense of partaking in our Jewish version of the great human drama called religion.

There is certainly a profound demonstration of human frailty and vulnerability in the command to “go forth from one’s permanent home to this temporary dwelling.” Although the authorities were lenient in allowing one to leave the sukkah if being there causes suffering, the very fact that you have to leave your true “home” and seeker shelter elsewhere is itself a significant statement. With all the great systems of protection we have – be they residential, medical, economic, or whatever – the truth is that we are utterly frail, vulnerable human creatures. We do not know whether a sudden fall, a heart attack, or an aneurism might cause us to disappear from this world tomorrow. The hastily thrown together shelter in which we are told to dwell for this week serves as a reminder that our vast network of creature comforts and security devices creates nothing more than an illusory bulwark against mortality.

Sukkot comes at the moment of seasonal transition. In the Land of Israel, the endlessly sunny summer is over, and the much-needed rains are about to begin. At the conclusion of Sukkot, we will pray for rain, and will begin to ask for it daily in our winter ‘amidah. But in our four-season climate, too, this is the week when we end our summer of outdoor living, knowing that we will need shelter from the rain, snow, and frost to come. That we first enter into this frailest of all structures is a way of recognizing the frailty of all our efforts to protect ourselves. It is only by entering the true inner sukkah that the Kabbalists call “the shade of faith” that we will really find ourselves protected.

It is almost ironic that this demonstration of vulnerability is given to us in the context of the single festival that is liturgically designated as zeman simḥatenu – “the season of our rejoicing.” The joy is in celebration of the fact that we are still here, even in the face of all that vulnerability. The psalms of Hallel, chanted throughout the festive week, are very much in that spirit. They are not proclamations of simple joy, but of the special gratitude for having been saved from the seemingly arbitrary clutches of death. “I shall not die, but live, and recount the deeds of God.” ”For you have saved my soul from death, my foot from stumble, my eye from tears, my foot from stumble.” “The dead praise not Y-H-W-H, nor those who go down into silence. But we” – the living – “shall praise YaH from now and forever!”

There is a sense here of proclaiming immortality, not by defeating the inevitable, but by a sense of continued existence in the ongoing community of the faithful, who will forever continue forward in their songs of praise. That defeat of death represents a special quality of joy.

This sort of celebration is, of course, entirely appropriate to the season. The harvest is in; the fields are empty. Soon they are to be devastated by winds and rain – in our case, covered with snow. Some of us, as individuals, will also be harvested or culled from the flock in the course of this harsh season, and will no longer be here when the spring comes. But there will be a spring, and there will be a community singing Hallel once again. The passing of the fall full moon means that the spring full moon is now less than half a year away.

As we engage in this demonstration of vulnerability, it is not surprising that our remotest ancestors, desert wanderers that they were, show up for a visit. The original ushpizin, spiritual “guests” we welcome into the sukkah, are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Greeting those ghostly guests (and hopefully their female counterparts), along with all the real flesh-and-blood guests who show up with them, is an essential part of this celebration, where bounty and vulnerability are tied together. Harvest time – there is suddenly more than we could possibly eat (think of the price of zucchini in September!), and it won’t keep very well. So let’s invite our poorer neighbors in. They have been having a hard year, but we know full well that it could be we who will be struggling next year.

There is a sense here that we are all bound together – all of us in our farming community, studded with these little huts – but also all of Israel, all of humanity, all of nature - face the same threat of mortality, and are thus called upon to share. The patriarchs – and now the matriarchs - and other heroines of Jewish history who have decided to join them in these visits – are here to remind us of all that.

As the produce is gathered in from the fields, so are we gathered, and sometimes crowded, into our tightly-packed sukkah. We can only make room for yet another guest by loving each other a little more, as a Hasidic saying would have it. That too is why the sukkah is called by the Zohar tsila di-mehemenuta, “the shade of faith.” It is our faith – in Y-H-W-H and in the human community with whom we share so much  – that shades and protects us from the hot sun beating down on us, here perhaps a stand-in for the pressure of mortality. We will wither under it, if we stand out there alone. Here, being together under these frail branches, we find a bit of shade. Dwelling in the sukkah, together with guests both real and imagined, is a statement of our collective survival in the shade we share.

That consolation, however, is not enough to shield us any more. Sukkot, with its combined celebration of the harvest’s plenty and awareness of life’s frailty, is a festival that calls out to be transformed once again.

As we made the move from the fall full moon festival to the memory of our ancestors’ wanderings, then on to commemorating the Temple rites long after they were gone, the inner voice demands yet another step in this celebration’s long history.

Sukkot is a time to acknowledge that today our planet, including all its future harvests and all our ensuing generations, is under dire threat, much of it caused by the intentional and irresponsible blindness of the society in which we live, especially by our so-called “leaders.” As lovers of God’s created world, we cannot be guilty bystanders to its rampant destruction by forces of human greed.

 In times like these, our gathering around the sukkah table should contain an element of strategic planning alongside the celebration. What can we do, in this longer winter season ahead, to thwart the plans of those who consistently put short-term profiteering above protection of our shared natural legacy? What can we do this year to bring their wicked plans to naught?

Think of Rabbi Akiva and his friends sitting all night at the seder table on Pesah. Were they indeed, as some have claimed, planning the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the Roman Empire? How can we, following God’s call to our generation, become sukkah revolutionaries?

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