Looking After our Home

young woman at sunset holding planet earth in her hands

“OUR TIME OF HAPPINESS”  is the name that the sages link with the holiday of Sukkot. Our fragile huts remind us of both our journey from slavery to freedom with G-d’s protective care and seasonal harvest. When sitting in a sukkah, I am influenced by a children’s story that called the sukkah the “happy box.” Eating and socializing under the palm-frond canopy, coupled with the smells, breezes, and beauty of my backyard, I delight in the goodness of the world.

The holiday of sukkot offers a dramatic shift from the introspection of the Penitential season. During Yom Kippur we traditionally chant the long list of human failings, pounding our hearts as we chant al chet. The concluding service of Yom Kippur, Ne’ila, shifts us in word and musicality toward hope. G-d is in the business of forgiveness and we are prompted to anticipate commencing a new year with a fresh slate. The move from inward to outward, from reflection to doing enables personal and communal balance. The sukkah and the four species of the lulav turn our attention to G-d’s creation. Each of the four elements is distinctive, awakening us to the diversity of creation.

This Sukkot in particular my “happiness” is mixed with concern for the health of our planet. The earth is alive like a human body, composed of finely tuned, interdependent organs. Our planet is running a fever, a warning of underlying impairments. Our seas are rising, leading to increased flooding. Drought and desertification is reducing farm land, leading to massive population displacements. Pollution has produced air that is too dangerous to breathe in many places and in some American cities, water that has poisoned its drinkers.

Consider a sampling of facts:

  • The Earth’s highest temperature ever officially-recorded was on July 21, 2016 in Mitribah, Kuwait: 129 °F. That same month set a record for highest average monthly temperature much closer to home: 107.4°F in Death Valley, California.
  • In 1910, Montana’s Glacier National Park contained an estimated 150 glaciers; in 2016, there were only 25.
  • As of 2015, coral bleaching has impacted 40% of the world’s coral reefs, killing over 4,630 square miles of reefs.
  • Our EPA documented that emissions of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas emitted by human activities, increased in the United States from 1990-2014 by 9 percent.

To quote Thomas Friedman, “We as a species are now a force of, in, and on nature. That has never been said of humans before the twentieth century…Then starting in the 2000s, the supernova [of technological advances] …has begun to put pressure on each one of the Earth’s major ecosystems and its plumbing to a degree never witnessed before in the history of our planet. The result: our Garden of Eden way of life is now in danger.”

The Torah records that “The Lord God took and placed Adam in the Garden of Eden to work it and to protect it” (Genesis 2:15). Rabbi Harold Kushner comments, “Presumably, G-d could have created a maintenance-free world but decided that it would be better for us to take responsibility for the world we live in. We tend to value something more when we have invested our own labor in it.”

The High Holydays emphasized responsibility for our actions. Sukkot prompts rejoicing- and justified fear. Drawn to appreciate the natural gifts of our world, we are alerted to an urgent duty to protect what we were given. In the words of the sage Hillel, “If not now, when?”

 

Rabbi David Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is rabbi@ocjewish.com. 

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