Z’man Simchateinu: Joy during Climate Change

it's a great happiness - to hide in the house during a thunderstorm
it's a great happiness - to hide in the house during a thunderstorm

My partner and I take a night walk and indulge in dreaming out loud about the future, where we’ll live, what we’ll do, and what we hope to achieve and experience together. We are getting married in a few weeks, November 10, 2019 — shortly after the rush of fall Jewish holidays has ended — and I think back to November 10, 2018. That day, ash rained down into eastern reaches of Los Angeles from the Santa Monica Mountains where the Woolsey Fire raged. People we know cancelled, rescheduled, and relocated their events to safer grounds. Our families and friends’ families evacuated their homes. Even miles away, the air hung thick and caustic, and it was uncomfortable to be outside for more than a few minutes. 

These fierce outbreaks are no longer anomalous; whether or not 2019 wreaks the same devastation as last year, California fire season is already kicking off with frightening intensity. As my partner and I relish the gift of continuing a life together, we stare soberly into the face of this new normal. As we walk, we process together what 4th graders to 40-somethings — people with most or much of their lives ahead of them — increasingly ponder: what kinds of unpredictable, life-altering phenomena will pervade our future because of the damage to our planet? How will this reality shape our day-to-day experience?

More than ever, I wonder what it will mean — what it should mean now — to embrace joy and celebrate during climate change. Sukkot, the harvest holiday we observe this week, speaks to this existential question in its ritual. By commanding us to build temporary shelters, Sukkot urges us to understand our lives as susceptible to seasonal and circumstantial change. I have always thought it curious that we nicknamed this, among so many other Jewish holidays, Z’man Simchateinu — literally, “the time of our joy.” Thirteenth century sage R’ Jacob ben Asher (also known by his scholarly epithet, Ba’al Haturim, or author of the Tur), taught that we dwell in huts in the fall rather than the spring because, well, sitting outside in balmy April wouldn’t quite carry the same religious significance: 

That is why God commanded us to make sukkot in the seventh month, which is the rainy season, when most people would be leaving their hut and moving into their homes.  But we [Jews do the opposite; at this time of year we] leave our homes and dwell in a sukkah in order to show everyone that we are fulfilling a [divine] commandment. (Tur, Orach Chayim, Siman 625)

To distinguish ourselves and our practice from what’s otherwise expected, we live, eat, and sleep outside. The sukkah, with its flimsy walls and open ceiling, reinforces the notion that we are a part of—and not immune to—the natural world and its forces. In it, we gather and celebrate not in spite of, but precisely because of this shared vulnerability to the elements. In a world where material wealth is ephemeral, and even brick and mortar homes can be so easily annihilated, we remember the central place of joy, love, and compassion. 

If we live in a place that doesn’t preclude building one, observing the residential ritual of Sukkot is a “weather-permitting” exercise for most of us; the holiday coincides this year with prime fire season on the Western coast and, historically, the tail end of hurricane season on the Eastern seaboard. What will happen to Sukkot—or any impulse to celebrate for that matter—as fire seasons intensify and hurricane seasons lengthen? When inclement weather and shortage of resources are no longer unusual, how will we practice—and mark—the times of our joy? Instead of answers, here are two insights: 

First, our hope, and our continued dedication to action over indifference, will preserve the possibility of joy. The book of Kohelet, which we read on Shabbat of Sukkot, describes life as full of hevel—translated in various texts as vanity, pointlessness, or futility. In a time that seems increasingly all hevel, it gives me hope that Jewish and other religious leaders increasingly use their platforms to inspire behavior change. It gives me hope that young people drive movements and transform our communities. It gives me hope that perhaps an unprecedented number of sermons on the high holidays this year—delivered from the bimah and sent out as readable letters—covered the topic of collective action to mitigate climate change. Many quoted excerpts from Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, We Are the Weather, which makes the crucial connection between climate change mitigation and animal agriculture: “We must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is that straightforward, that fraught” (p.71). Everyone—most people reading this article—can start by eating plant-based for two out of three meals. That isn’t the only change Foer recommends, but it’s his central call to action because we can achieve it individually and collectively, immediately. 

It’s not that huge structural changes aren’t also required; it’s just that we are past the point of considering change on an either/or basis, and “when it comes to working against the destruction of our home, the answer is… always both/and” (p.129). There is power in thinking of ourselves as temporary residents—in our literal houses and apartments, our institutions, our cities, on this planet—and acting like it. It is the difference between consuming without limit and deciding deliberately. It is the difference between amassing material possessions and amassing quality relationships. It is the difference between reigning like owners and living as stewards. There is a flipside to hevel, and that’s simcha, or happinessused in Kohelet more times than any of Moses’ five books. If we gratefully accept the gifts of the present, and drastically reorient our consciousness to assume our role as stewards, we may live to see a future in which we continually rejoice.

How will we practice—and mark—the times of our joy? Here is the second insight: the nature of our joy will shift. We’re going to learn to celebrate intentionally, and without forgetting our obligation to tikkun olam, repairing the Earth. Every aspect of celebration will contain an act of protest, an intentional realignment of actions with values. We will consider the power of doing what’s not normalized or expected of us; we will sit outside in huts in the rain to draw people’s attention to the significance of our choices. It may seem like a future in which joy is never purely joy, but tradition equips us with the tools to acknowledge multiple—and even contradictory—feelings in one moment. We diminish our merriment at the Passover seder with commemorating the plagues and Egyptians’ suffering; we punctuate the ecstasy of a wedding ceremony with smashing a glass to recall the temple’s destruction and to recognize the inevitable and ongoing breakdown of relationships, bodies, and ecosystems in the world. During Sukkot, we hold space for both transience and permanence. We are masters of honoring pain amidst joy, cultivating wholeness and connection amidst brokenness. And we will draw these lines and create these policies, more than ever before, as a group. Our individual actions matter—but it’s moments of gathering where what we eat, what we do, and what we waste will have outsized ripple effects within and beyond our own communities.

As we know from planning our own wedding in a major US metro area, existing architectures are not always designed to make these better decisions easy by default. To make choices that do the least harm and the most good, we need to swim against the current. My partner and I brainstorm about this—with regards to our wedding and our day-to-day life—on our walks. We fail consistently on some fronts, and yet we make strides on others, toward the effort of generating a new default. 

In a few weeks, we will stand under a chuppah—a four-staved, open structure so similar, in essence, to a sukkah. It symbolizes a future home, one so fragile and easily thrown off balance, like a relationship with a person—with a planet. In our case, family and friends will literally usher in and hold our chuppah in their hands, and create a space for personal and collective transformation under a flimsy cloth ceiling. There’s no guarantee that ash won’t rain from the sky that day. There’s no guarantee of anything. But in that moment, I can only imagine we’ll know—and rejoice—that we all played a role in creating that home, together.

About the Author
Melissa directs the Jewish Initiative for Animals (JIFA), a leading Jewish sustainable food and animal welfare initiative. In her role, she consults with Jewish organizations and communities across the country to develop ethical food practices, as well as curriculum and programs that foster compassion for all living beings through the lens of Jewish values.
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