Earth Sukkah - Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
There is nothing I appreciate so much after Yom Kippur as going outdoors to build the Sukkah. If Yom Kippur takes us to the depths and challenges of the inner world, Sukkot leads back out among the leaves and branches to an appreciation of the world of nature and agriculture around us.
Building a Sukkah is a pleasure, a practical engagement with poles and string, laurel and bay; it’s the epitome of simchah shel mitzvah, the joy of living the commandments. Sukkot is Chag Ha’Assif, the celebration of the harvest. Growing up in a family of gardeners, I relish the endeavour to grow vegetables specially for the Sukkah, - pumpkins, corn, courgettes, this year even a (miniscule) melon. A Sukkah should be a thing of beauty, graced by the produce which we are thankful to be able to enjoy. No festival so tangibly expresses our dependence on the gifts of the soil, the moral and spiritual importance of our relationship with the earth.
That is why Sukkot also reminds me of my deepest fears. What are we doing to this earth, which, according the second chapter of Genesis, we are here le’ovdah uleshomrah, ‘to work and keep’, or, more thoughtfully translated, ‘to serve and respect’?
In 1991, the philosopher Hans Jonas gave what was to prove the final address of his life. He was expected to speak about the Holocaust, in which his mother had perished and which had profoundly influenced his thought. Instead, he focussed on a concern so challenging that it would make issues of racism ‘anachronistic, irrelevant, almost farcical’. The next revelation, he said, would not come from Mount Sinai or beneath a Bo tree, but from ‘the outcry of mute things’, the wordless cry of the earth against humanity’s exploitation. Three days later, Jonas died.
The earth has become less mute since. It has begun to express itself ever more forcefully in devastating droughts, floods and hurricanes, in the silence where once there was birdsong, in the extinction of species and the wash and sway of waste plastics, bottles, bags, microfibres in even the remotest beaches and oceans.
The Mishnah describes living for seven days in the Sukkah as going from our permanent home into a temporary shelter. This probably represents a physical move of no more than a few metres. But it expresses a far greater mental and emotional transition: from the illusion of permanence and safety, to a fragile structure, subject to wind, rain and cold, and which reminds us of our vulnerability and dependence.
‘Even a king is subject to the soil’, wrote Ecclesiastes, - words we, and political leaders across the world, must urgently take to heart. We can’t keep on consuming the earth and expect it to keep on sustaining us. Our western civilisation needs to learn swiftly to consume what we need, not what we wear twice and throw away; to be far less careless in what we waste; and to understand, respect and show greater humility towards the earth and the life it sustains.
The succah, defined by its pervious and impermanent roof of leaves and branches, reminds us that we are fragile and dependent. The earth may be able survive without us, but we can’t survive without the blessings of the earth.
Jonathan Wittenberg was born in Glasgow to a German Jewish refugee family. After reading English at Cambridge and teacher training at Goldsmiths, he studied for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College, London, and in Israel, following family tradition. He was appointed Rabbi of the New North London Masorti Synagogue in 1987 and Senior Rabbi of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues UK in 2008. He is chair of the European Region of the Rabbinical Assembly and has been a strong supporter of the work of Masorti Olami around the world. He is a President of the Council of Christians and Jews and a member of the Council of Imams and Rabbis. He is a co-founder of Eco-Synagogue and deeply engaged in environmental issues. He is closely involved in supporting refugees. Further interests include pastoral work, hospice care, and literature, especially poetry. He teaches and speaks widely, including on Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day. His publications include The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year (2001); The Silence of Dark Water: An Inner Journey (2008); Walking with the Light (2013); My Dear Ones: One family and The Final Solution (2016) and most recently Things my dog has taught me – about being a better human. He is married to Nicola Solomon; they have three children and a dog. He loves plants, animals, people, and woodland and mountain walks.