Sukkot on fire

Wildfires and other natural disasters worsen with climate change. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It’s a lemon.”

“It’s not a lemon.”

“I’m telling you, it’s a lemon.”

“It’s not a lemon.”

“Oh my god. It. Is. A. Lemon. Okay? Why would I lie? What do I have to gain from lying about this?”

“I’m not saying you’re lying…just that you’re completely wrong. An etrog is some sort of exotic, yellow, sour fruit that grows in the Middle East.”

“Right…A lemon.”

Every year, without fail, Sukkot with my friends begins with some version of this argument — you’d think they’d have worked it out by now. I like to imagine them as Talmudic scholars, locked in debate over the reading of some central Torah passage; parsing the meaning of encoded dispatches from God. But no. They’re ripping their hair out over a lemon.

Their battles are always light, filled with a sense of release after the ontological tonnage of Yom Kippur. They spar in consolation. But there may be more to it than that: these citrus crusaders may be closer to Maimonides than they seem. The etrog, and the plants it accompanies in the floral dance of sukkah ritual bear heavy symbolism. My friends’ mistake is one of category: the question isn’t if the lemon, but rather why the lemon?

Sukkot is a holiday with biblical roots, making it one of our oldest. The purpose is twofold: celebrate the year’s harvest, acknowledge our existential dependence on God’s will. If the crops don’t survive, then neither do their sowers, and, according to the ancient Israelites, God controls the life of the harvest. The naturalism is abundant. Our fate millennia ago was of the land, no different than today, and God stirs in the dirt. Judaism is freighted with this mystic appreciation of nature: it has always been the purest expression of our connection to the divine, its blossoming a reward for our covenant.

Sukkot is a reminder of this. It impels us to consider the fragility of sustenance. The Earth is a fickle thing, sometimes stifling the flower, sometimes setting it ablaze. Who by famine, who by fire. Our ancestors conceived of these swings as heavenly wrath, but we know better. We know that six years ago, devices summiting Mauna Loa detected an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of 400 ppm. We know that 35 billion tons of this heat-trapping gas are dumped into the sky every year. We know that the melting of ice caps is the provenance of man, not of God. Bonds to nature are severing by our hand; that harvest is shrinking by our hand, sometimes eaten up by worsening wildfires. This celebration of food’s annual return will become a mourning of its loss if these trends are not reversed.

It’s fitting that Yom Kippur should abut Sukkot, casting its weight over our reedy shacks; it provides us a chance to discover their connection. Yom Kippur sees the book of life close and the sealing of outcomes. What will become of you in the year to be is guided by the one past: actions and reactions. A society burns down its forests and is starved for oxygen. Sukkot is the flowering of Yom Kippur’s promise, the florescence that follows the seeding. Look almost anywhere in the world right now and you will find the consequence of this tainted promise.

This may seem like an inappropriate politicization of religion, but I assure you, apocalypse is apolitical. Some of our greatest calls to action have been delivered from the bima – think of Leo Baeck’s Yom Kippur prayer. He warned of a crisis, growing in the beer halls of Munich, that threatened the future of Jewish existence. It is no exaggeration to place climate change alongside the Shoah in the danger it poses. In fact, its threats are much broader. It will sweep up the kibbutz with the cathedral, the shul with the city. And while a warming globe will not ghettoize the Jewish community in particular, it demands of us a response as concerted and urgent as that called for eighty-four years ago in Germany.

Fifty-four years after Baeck delivered that warning, lauded environmentalist Bill Mckibben published The End of Nature, a book examining just that. It was one of the first screams in what would come to be the climate chorus we hear today. He spoke in terms so dire, so shocking the reader couldn’t help but listen. Its tone mirrored the German epistle. And like Baeck, McKibben was right. We stand now as we stood then on the brink of his title’s forecast: an end of the natural world; to those Israelites in the desert and to our earthen tradition, an end of the divine. We are compelled to act. We have been on the vanguard of every major social struggle of the past half century – this one should be no different.

As you stand in your Sukkot this year, or as you observe the holiday in some other fashion, or as you don’t observe at all, consider the ways you have contributed to the warming of the planet this past year, and more importantly, consider ways to change. Consider your current means of transportation, and whether you could reduce your emissions in getting around. Consider that the meat eaten by an average North American in a month produces as much CO2 as 12 transatlantic flights. If you’re invested in the stock market, consider divesting from fossil fuel companies. Discuss this most pressing issue at temple, at home, with friends. Argue about etrog. Agitate for policy change on the local, state and federal levels. There are hundreds of methods by which to affect change that when taken together amount to transformation. In the face of so great a threat, nothing short of this will suffice. Baeck spoke with indignation of the perils he saw around him. Surely, we should do the same. And we should act.

About the Author
Sean lives in Toronto with his lifelong partner, neurosis, and his girlfriend. He is an active member of the Jewish community.
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