Sukkot: The Season of Our Joy, the Festival of Earth  & Rain

Sukkot: The Season of Our Joy, the Festival of Earth & Rain

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow | 10/14/2008

By Rabbis David Seidenberg & Arthur Waskow

Sukkot, the Jewish harvest festival, is traditionally called THE season of our joy. (My book about the Jewish festival cycle, Seasons of Our Joy, treats them all; but Sukkot is preeminently joyful.)

Joy comes from a fruitful harvest, when hard human work – joined to the soil, the sun, the rain, and the seed that human beings do not make, gives us physical, emotional, and spiritual sustenance and the time to refrain from hard work so as to take joy in the One Who is present in all these aspects of the harvest. Sukkot also looks forward to the coming of the rainy season in the Land of Israel that will make possible the next harvest.

Last night (October 12, 2008) I celebrated my 75th birthday – a harvest moment for the past and toward the future – in the midst of my close-in family and my extended mishpocha of 300 people gathered for joyful song, delicious food, an insightful interview of me and my life by Dr. Dan Gottlieb, and a video-blessing from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, plus another 100 or so people who sent greetings and donations to carrying out the harvest-work of The Shalom Center but could not be physically present.

Blessed is the One Who has filled us with life, lifted us up, and carried us to this moment!

I will be writing more about that moment in another letter. But now, some thoughts about the festival that begins tonight (Monday night) on the full moon of harvest month. Some brief thoughts of mine, and then a series of earth-centered comments by Rabbi David Seidenberg, Eco-Judaism Fellow of the Shalom Center and creator of . Rabbi Seidenberg focuses on the global climate crisis.

Blessings of a fruitful harvest of shalom, salaam, peace to us all — Arthur

[AW: When my son David was 8 or 9 years old, I first invited him to join in the Sukkot ritual of waving the lulav and etrog — the branches of palm, date, and myrtle trees and the citron fruit. After he waved them in what Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches are the seven (not six) directions of the world (east, west, north, south, up, down, and inward), I asked how it felt. He said, “I felt that I was a tree; I could hear my own leaves rustling in the wind as my own branches waved; I could smell my own fruit!”

And to an ancient midrash, add this note: the rabbis long ago said that the etrog was the shape of the Hebrew letter “yod”; the three branches, in the shape of “hey, “vav,”, and “hey.” Thus they embodied the four letters of God’s Name. But since the etrog is held in the left hand, if the waver reads the four species from right to left, as Hebrew is read, the letters come out “HWHY.” It is only if I look at your waving and you look at mine that the letters come out in the right order to spell “YHWH,” the Divine Interbreathing of all life. It takes I-Thou to bring God fully into our awareness.

[David Seidenberg:] The teachings that follow explore the symbolism of the lulav species, the Hoshanot prayers, the Tishrei cycle, and the rules about s’khakh [the foliage that roofs the sukkah] and the waving of the lulav, all in light of the global climate crisis and our role in changing how the future unfolds. Read more about Hoshanot, building a sukkah, and related topics at and at

“When Israel was encamped the pillar of cloud was…like a sukkah and made a canopy over the tent 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 Braita Dim’lekhet Hamishkan, also found 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 midrash, the ultimate principle of God that fills and surrounds all is the Shekhinah, the presence of God, made manifest in the mishkan. 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.

1) Lulav.

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 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. Together they make a bioregional map of the land of Israel, and they hold in greatest abundance the rains of 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 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!

2) Hoshanot.

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) Tishrei.

We have been praying and 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 say, “I have not chosen life.” Lo bacharti bachayim. To do t’shuvah means to choose life. Sukkot teaches us how.

4) S’khakh.

If you know how to make 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 tumah, able to become ritually impure.

The essence of what this means is that s’khakh is in between Nature and the human world, halfway between naturally growing and manufactured: cut from off the ground (or from a tree growing in the ground), but not re-formed or shaped into something useful or woven or tied down. The roof made of s’khakh represents the interface between heaven and earth, between atmosphere and ground, between us and God, and also (and most importantly) it represents the interface between Nature and our human-made world. It represents an 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. What is unseen, invisible, hidden from the eye, is greater than what is seen, but what is unseen also permeates what we see. 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.

he 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 the “sole” of 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 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.” 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 al 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 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. It’s not enough to think about blessing: we call for it by action with our whole bodies, with 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 gates are still open, and the way through them is joy.V’hayita ach sameach! Then, you will rejoice. May we all be blessed to rejoice, with the Shekhinah dwelling between us, in all our relationships, with all the creatures.

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