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Save the Earth! Save Us! Joy and Desperation on Sukkot

Dr. Mirele B. Goldsmith, Hazon board member

Sukkot is my favorite holiday.  I love spending time outdoors in the sukkah. And I love the joyful emphasis on thanksgiving and celebration.  But the message of Sukkot is more complicated than it appears.  Sukkot encourages us to appreciate and enjoy the bounty of nature, while at the same time it reminds us that life is fragile.  Just like the sukkah, which will topple in a strong wind, we are vulnerable to the unpredictable forces of nature.

The particular aspect of nature that we focus on during Sukkot is water.  In the Land of Israel our ancestors were keenly aware of their dependence on rain.  So while Sukkot is a celebration of the past year’s harvest, it is also a time to pray for the rain that will insure the harvest in the year to come.  Each day during Sukkot we wave the lulav, a bouquet of plants associated with varied water sources, and call out to the heavens to save us with life-giving rain.

By the final day of Sukkot our mood has changed.  Cries of joy have become cries of desperation.  By tradition this is the final day of the high holiday season; the last chance to repent and be inscribed in the book of life.  This day is known as Hoshannah Rabbah, which we mark by circling the synagogue again and again crying out hoshanna – save us!

This year the message of Hoshannah Rabbah has struck me with special force because I am thinking about what I can do about climate change.  Climate change is already influencing the earth’s water cycle and causing terrible human suffering.  Scientists predict that the impacts of climate change will include more droughts, more storms and flooding, and the melting of glaciers.  This means people will face the destruction of their homes and livelihoods as well as shortages in drinking water.  As Rabbi Arthur Waskow teaches, hoshannah should be translated as “Save the earth!  Save us!”

Right now is a critical time in the effort to mobilize our government and governments throughout the world to take action to stop the approaching climate disaster.  Climate legislation is under consideration in Congress and international talks on climate change will be taking place in Copenhagen in December.  This year on Hoshannah Rabbah we need to cultivate the sense of urgency about climate change that our ancestors felt about the coming of the rains.

The complex message of Sukkot is that as we call on ourselves and others to act for the future of the planet, we need to keep joy and despair in balance.  Experiencing the joy of being outdoors teaches us to love and appreciate nature.  Telling the awful truth about how we are destroying the planet by burning fossil fuels makes us feel frighteningly vulnerable.  Hopefully the combination of joy and desperation will inspire us to action to save the planet and save ourselves.