Greening the Sukkah

Lori Shaller
[Shaller is a rabbinical student on the ALEPH smikhaprogram.This project was part of the course in Eco-Judaism taught by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in 2009.]

Greening the Sukkah
An Introduction

Sukkot is a harvest festival as well as a commemoration of Israel’s exile in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. But unlike other harvest festivals, it comes with the additional commandment to live in a hut, a temporary shelter. The hut has a roof made of natural materials, through which we should be able to see the stars at night. With the star and sunlight shining through and the breezes blowing through, we are able to stay connected to the outside world while we are in the sukkah.

A harvest festival arriving on the calendar around the same time as our fall harvests here in the northeast U.S., it is easy to connect Sukkot to the sustainable agriculture initiatives of which many of us are aware and in which we may already be participating. As a harvest festival celebrating the “fruit of the trees,” it is easy to connect Sukkot to providing food for those who are unable to provide food for themselves.

Some of us may belong to Jewish congregations whose social action committees devote energy to providing food for those who cannot afford to feed themselves. On Martha’s Vineyard, for example, our congregation invites members to bring bags of non-perishables to the High Holy Days’ services. After the holidays, the children in the religious school bring the bags of food to the food pantry, and this supply stocks the food pantry as it opens for the winter season. The food pantry is run by a Methodist minister out of one of the island’s churches. Thus the congregation is connected to our broader, island community in an inter-faith effort.

Indeed, Sukkot, with its harvest theme, seems a perfect time to connect with our neighbors, to connect with those in our communities who are struggling to acquire enough food to feed their families, and to connect with our local farms. It seems, too, a perfect time to connect with our planet Earth’s suffering in an effort to do a bit of repair by reaching out a helping hand to our neighbors and by living closer to the bone ourselves, in temporary shelters, for example.

The following sukkah ritual is intended to facilitate action toward Earth’s healing. It is intended to include our neighbors who are not Jewish and who share our desire to repair the Earth. Hence the ritual is intended to be inclusive: the prayers are in English and the guests or “ushpazim” invited into the sukkah are environmentalists whose life work has something to teach us about our relationship to Earth.

The sukkah ritual is made complete through action: you are encouraged to invite your guests to do the following:
• Bring fresh produce to your sukkah, preferably from a local farm, community sustained agricultural enterprise, or co-op, to donate to a family, shelter or food pantry. Be sure to ascertain in advance that the intended recipients want and will be able to use the food. You might invite the family, individuals from the shelter or users of the food pantry or its volunteers to participate in your sukkah ritual.
• Commit to a next action for reducing personal impact on the environment. Suggestions are provided in the ritual itself.

You Shall Live in Huts Seven Days
A Ritual for the Sukkah

Baruchim habaim/baruchot habaot! Welcome to our sukkah. Before we enter the sukkah, we will place the vegetables and fruits we’ve brought from our local farms in baskets outside the sukkah to donate to the food pantry, and we will make a blessing with the lulav and etrog. The lulav symbolizes all the plant life on Earth, made up as it is of three species: myrtle, palm, willow. The etrog symbolizes the produce of the trees, and more metaphorically, the produce of all, for after all, this is not just a harvest festival but a fertility festival, as well!

We say the following as we wave the lulav, holding it with the etrog, in the directions up, to the east, to the west, and downwards.
Blessed are you God of all the worlds, who has made us holy with your mitzvot, your teaching, and commanded us to wave the lulav.
(If this is the first day of Sukkot or the first time you are spending in your sukkah, you may also speak the Sheheheyanu blessing: Blessed are you, God, of all the worlds, who gave us life and kept us strong, and brought us to this time.)

This temporary shelter, in which we will eat this meal and others this week, in which we will perhaps sleep this week, and in which we will invite guests, both real and those long since departed, represents our return to the wilderness, our remembrance of our time in exile in the desert, for all of us have experienced such times of desolation and being lost in our lives. We leave the comfort of our homes to live more simply, as if we are yet to be redeemed, as if we are to finally find our way. And just as the sukkah’s temporariness is made real with each breeze that makes it shake and rustle, we are reminded of life’s impermanence, of our own temporariness. Together, let us speak the blessing for the sukkah:

Blessed are you, God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us through Your teaching, commanding us to live in the sukkah.

We welcome this opportunity to connect to this time in our history as a moment to connect as well with Earth at this very desperate time in Earth’s history. Under the sun or the stars and open to the weather as we are in this sukkah, we are reminded that our global home is threatened. We are reminded that the threat comes from ourselves. In our struggle to improve, to invent, to be industrious, we have ignored the cost Earth has had to pay. Our species has only recently begun to recognize that if we don’t reverse some of the damage we have done to Earth, Earth will be unable to heal, in turn threatening our very own existence.

Let us then invite into the sukkah and into conversation with us one or more of the seven guests whose biographies follow. We might begin our out-of-time dialogues with our guests by asking them what they think of the world that has been created since they lived. How do we imagine they would have fared in this world? What difficulties and joys might they have experienced from our world? What would worry them about our world? What hopes would they wish for us?

Conclude your time in the sukkah by asking everyone present to suggest a goal to which they might aspire in the coming year regarding living more sustainably. Goals might be to grow some of our own food by starting, revitalizing or expanding a garden; to eat foods only grown locally, preferably by farmers we know and want to support; to regularly donate fresh produce to a family, a food bank, a school, a non profit organization; to volunteer at the local food bank; to join a food cooperative or community sustained agricultural enterprise; to walk or cycle or take public transportation to purchase food; to convert our yards into native species habitats; to eat only sustainable fish species; to eat lower on the food chain; to can or freeze vegetables and fruits that are not native to our area in winter months; to take a weekly Shabbat from electricity; to lower our thermostats in winter and raise them in summer; to avoid the use of plastic products.


Henry David Thoreau
Born July 12, 1817
Died May 6, 1862

Thoreau might be said to have lived a hundred or more years ahead of his time in his appreciation for the natural environment and our human relationship to it. He inspired the environmental movement launched in the 1970s, and is called by some “the father of environmentalism.” Thoreau also inspired the 1960s politics about dropping out of society and establishing communes of like-minded folk eager to live simply and off the land and to resist the pressure to conform to societal mores. Thoreau took himself out of society, perhaps because he was by nature a loner, acknowledging his greater comfort with the natural world than with human beings, but also because he did not want to be complicit with a society whose values regarding politics, the economy, and progress he did not agree.

Thoreau lived for two years at Walden Pond in Concord, MA, where he surveyed the pond and its environs in great detail. He measured the pond’s circumference and depth, catalogued its fish species and the mammals, and the birds and bugs that lived around it. He knew its trees and measured their life spans.

Walden is his best known work, and it is a compilation of the journal entries he kept while living there; there were dozens of additional journals chronicling much of the rest of his life. His essay “Civil Disobedience” advocates active resistance to government when it is unresponsive to the people it is meant to serve, and it inspired many civil rights activists. It is hard to separate Thoreau the political dissident from Thoreau the naturalist, because he was so aware of the interconnectedness of life.

We might try our lives by a thousand simple tests; as, for instance, that the same sun which ripens my beans illumines at once a system of earths like ours. If I had remembered this it would have prevented some mistakes. This was not the light in which I hoed them. The stars are the apexes of what wonderful triangles! What distant and different beings in the same one at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant? We should live in all the ages of the world in an hour; ay, in all the worlds of the ages. History, Poetry, Mythology!—I know of no reading of another’s experience so startling and informing as this would be. (Walden, 24-25)

Aldo Leopold
Born January 11, 1887
Died April 21, 1948

Aldo Leopold grew up in Iowa exploring the forests and meadows near his home. He was educated in forestry management at Yale and worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a manager and a researcher. He held the Chair in Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. Leopold is called “the father of wildlife conservation.” Like Thoreau, Leopold wrote about his experiences with the natural world. His beautiful work, A Sand County Almanac, is remarkable for its poetic casting of the natural world. Leopold was also a respected scientist and author of Game Management, a text still in use in the field today. He was an advisor to the United Nations on conservation issues.

Leopold was acutely aware of humans’ affect on the land, and he wanted people to be educated about that relationship. He conceived of a “land ethic” that “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” (A Sand County Almanac 204) He goes on to argue “[t]hat man is, in fact, only a member of a biotic team is shown by an ecological interpretation of history. Many historical events, hitherto explained solely in terms of human enterprise, were actually biotic interactions between people and the land. The characteristics of the land determined the facts quite as potently as the characteristics of the men who lived on it.” (205)

Leopold called for an “ecological conscience.” “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.” (209) And he knew that this required fundamental changes in the way in which the average person viewed her/his relationship to the land. “No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” (210)

Leopold lived out his conservationist beliefs, through his work, his writing and his purchase of a property in Wisconsin in 1935. It was over 100 acres of land that had been over-farmed, its soil having reverted to sand and in danger of being washed away. The goal was to restore the land to its natural habitat, and every year he and his family went to this land to engage in observation, reclamation and restoration of habitat. He wrote much of A Sand County Almanac on this property, and he died of a hard attack after helping a neighbor to put out a brush fire on his adjacent property.

Rachel Carson
Born May 27, 1907
Died April 14, 1964

Rachel Carson wrote and was published as a child; she went to college for English and in graduate school changed over to study biology after an experience studying at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, where this picture was taken. She worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a researcher and editor.

Carson’s most famous work, perhaps, was Silent Spring. In this environmental classic of 1962 she stated that

We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.(277)

The “silent spring” referred to the absence of bird song after wholesale spraying of DDT to obliterate the Dutch Elm disease that had itself obliterated vast tracts of elm trees in the Midwest. The book called for the ban of DDT use and governmental controls on pesticides. It suggested that human beings needed to rethink their relationship to nature, to become less adversarial towards and more coexistent with nature. Moreover, she advocated for research into the deleterious effects of pesticides and other chemicals on human beings.

In Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World, J.R. McNeill suggests that “[i]n a sense, the economic growth of the industrial countries in the era 1945 to 1973 provoked its own antithesis in environmentalism.” (337) That environmentalism was the movement started with the publication of Silent Spring. Thanks to Carson’s research and relentless efforts on behalf of the natural world, the U.S. government conducted its own research, which eventually led to the ban of DDT use in 1972. Carson’s work also galvanized public opinion about environmental issues culminating in the first Earth Day in the U.S. in 1970.

John Muir
Born April 21, 1838
Died December 24, 1914

John Muir was knows as the “Father of our National Parks,” particularly because he influenced President Theodore Roosevelt to claim the Yosemite wild area as a national park, taking it out of California’s control and preserving it as a natural area. He also founded and was the first president of the Sierra Club, after exploring, researching and writing about the Sierras. He was a self-taught botanist and geologist. Though an amateur, he published papers on the geological formation of the Yosemite Valley, for example, which informed the scholarly work in the field. He was also a successful rancher and orchard farmer.

Muir believed that nature came before and would outlast man; that the Divine wasn’t man-centered but was rather nature centered; and it was up to man to figure out how to be a part of that cosmology.

"We all flow from one fountain—Soul. All are expressions of one love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.”

Muir believed that anyone—rich or poor, Protestant or Catholic, native or European American—who was interested in being outdoors and appreciating nature in its un-improved state was worth encouraging, because it was precisely human improvement of the natural world, or progress, as it was glorified in late 19th century America, that was the problem. He was anti-consumerist; like Thoreau and so many other environmentalists, Muir believed that consumer culture was at the root of the destruction of the natural world.

Muir valued nature for its spiritual and transcendental qualities. In one essay about the National Parks, he referred to them as "places for rest, inspiration, and prayers." He advocated for people who lived in towns and cities to go into nature to restore their souls.

Theodore Roosevelt
Born October 27, 1858
Died January 6, 1919

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States (1901-1909), was known as the “naturalist president” and the first conservationist president. “‘The conservation of our natural resources and their proper use constitute the fundamental problem which underlies almost every other problem of our national life,’ he told Congress in 1907. This sentiment underscored the message of Roosevelt's conservation record in office.” (Environmental Defense Fund, 2009, ) The National Park Service was created during Roosevelt’s presidency, as were several national parks, and 230,000,000 acres of national land were put into protected status.

Roosevelt’s attitude toward the natural environment wasn’t just politically motivated; he was himself a camper, hiker and hunter who knew from personal experience the value of undeveloped land. He hiked the Yosemite Valley with John Muir, learning from Muir about the area’s geology and geography, and the area was the first he targeted for national stewardship. He was a student of natural history, and in addition to land management, also pushed for water and forest conservation. “The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method,” Roosevelt wrote in 1916. (Environmental Defense Fund, 2009, )

Roosevelt also worked with the Southern Pacific Railroad and agri-business in California to dam the Salt River, a tributary of the Colorado, and he worked to “reclaim” desert in the Southwest for farming, two moves that were not environmentally positive in the long run but were considered so at the time. (McNeil, Something New Under the Sun, 177.) Roosevelt’s greater legacy was the establishment of the then new field of conservation and a popularization of the notion of environmentalism, where the government began to consider environmental costs when discussing industrial and economic development.

John James Audubon

Born April 26, 1785
Died January 27, 1851

While John James Audubon was interested in natural history, and birds in particular, from an early age, it wasn’t until his business failed that he packed a knapsack, went into the rugged territory of the Mississippi River, and began drawing birds full-time. He took his drawings to England in 1826, and the first edition of Birds of America was published there between 1826 and 1838 as individual watercolor plates.

As a hunter and naturalist, Audubon was acutely aware of the impact on wildlife that would result from loss of habitat, and this sent him in the direction of conservation. While his credentials as a scientist were often called into question—for example, he organized the paintings in his magnum opus aesthetically rather than taxonomically—the works attracted thousands, both in Europe and the U.S., to an interest in the North American continent’s natural history. His field observations formed the basis for all ornithologists working in North America after him, both in terms of bird anatomy and behavior and in terms of the art of drawing birds.

While today we would question Audubon’s methods—in addition to painstaking field observations, he killed birds in order to be able to look at them closely long enough to paint them accurately—his work inspired an interest in the avifauna that has only grown in each generation since his own life.

The National Audubon Society was created in the early twentieth century to protect bird species from extinction. The Society took its name from John James Audubon’s legacy.

Karen Silkwood
Born February 19, 1946
Died November 13, 1974

Karen Silkwood might not have called herself an environmentalist or conservationist, but social justice in the areas of environmentalism and labor rights became her life-work, almost accidentally so. While working as a chemical technician in the Kerr-McGee Corporation, a company that did research and development in the area of oil and natural gas resources, she became involved in investigations of radiation leaks at the plant in Crescent, Oklahoma. Silkwood was hired to make plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. She became a member of the bargaining committee in the plant’s chapter of the Union of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. In this capacity, she began to look into worker accusations that the plant was violating health codes and that workers were being exposed to extraordinarily high concentrations of plutonium. After testifying before the Atomic Regulatory Commission, she herself tested positive for plutonium contamination. She also alleged that the plant failed inspections and was negligent in its storage of contaminants. The Atomic Regulatory Commission found validity in several of the complaints against Kerr-McGee that it investigated at Silkwood’s instigation. Kerr-McGee closed its nuclear fuel plant in 1975.

Silkwood told her story to a New York Times reporter shortly before her death. Allegations were made by the company that she intentionally exposed herself to unhealthy levels of plutonium in order to make Kerr-McGee look bad, suggesting emotional problems as a motivation. Other allegations suggested that her death was a murder perpetrated on behalf of Kerr-McGee to keep her quiet. However, after her death, her estate brought suit against Kerr-McGee, and the estate was eventually awarded punitive damages but without a guilt admission on the company’s part. As a result of publicity from Silkwood’s case, the public pushed for and won a federal investigation of Kerr-McGee’s plant. Moreover, concerns about nuclear energy and corporate responsibility gained momentum nationally.


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