Our ancestors dwelt in the wilderness as they evolved from a mixed multitude of liberated slaves into a nation committed to building a society based on the ideals of the Torah.
In the wilderness, at Sinai, we experienced the Eternal most directly. Through this extended excursion in an uninhabited place, we shed our previous identities, developed new kinds of relationships and institutions, and cultivated commitments to enduring values of justice, compassion and righteousness.
During Sukkot, we recreate the experience of dwelling in the wilderness. The Torah explains that “all citizens of Israel shall live in huts [for seven days] in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in huts when I brought them out of the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 23:42-3)
We construct temporary booths with a covering that has grown from the ground (plant material). There should be enough of the covering that during the day there is more shade than sun, but not so much that we cannot see the stars at night.
Last fall, while at a gathering of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment in the Catskills (the quintessential place for an American Jewish wilderness experience), I wandered up to a mountaintop on a dark, moonless night. Suddenly I came into a clearing and was surrounded by stars, thousands upon thousands of shining points of light.
I was overwhelmed by a sense of awe at the beauty of the stars that surrounded me as tears streamed down my face. I felt the Living Presence of the universe. I marveled at the faithfulness of the stars. Although we obscure them through light pollution and air pollution, the stars remain faithful to us.
Not so long ago, people regularly experienced the mystery of the night sky, even in cities. With the advance of civilization, however, we have become increasingly alienated from the natural world. The practices of Sukkot offer us an opportunity to break through some of this alienation.
First, during Sukkot, the Season of our Gladness, we find joy in the “simple pleasures” of life – building and decorating the Sukkah, having festive meals in it, dancing and singing, sleeping under the covering and the stars.
In a society in which we have become accustomed to being entertained, shopping for pleasure and spending our time in high-tech pursuits, Sukkot is a welcome reminder that the greatest pleasures and most fulfilling moments can be found in human relations and nature.
Second, Sukkot connects us with the rhythms of the agricultural cycle. In our early days as a people, we all were intimately connected to land, the seasons and agricultural cycles. Today we can buy any fruits or vegetables throughout the year. Many of us are not aware of what is “in season” in our areas. Some urban children today do not understand where food comes from.
Sukkot reminds us of our direct dependence on the bounty of the Earth and our responsibility to share that bounty among all people.
Third, Sukkot connect us with wilderness. Leaving the security of our homes and the possessions that keep us continually “plugged in”, we enter of wildness where we can hear the small, still voice inside of our own souls.
We can gain spiritual insight by spending time away from the dominant civilization and experiencing the wild world, just as our ancestors heard the voice of the Eternal in the desert God created. The beauty, grandeur and power of nature are profoundly inspirational. Sukkot teaches that our human spiritual well-being is intimately and inextricably connected to the well-being of the rest of Creation.
The rest of Creation, however, is facing new dangers this season. Congress is now considering radical revisions to one of our nation’s core environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act, which is up for reauthorization. This law, passed in 1973, mandates that the federal government prevent harm to species in danger of becoming extinct.
Humans are now causing the greatest wave of species extinctions since the last ice age, and many scientists believe that the rate and extent of extinctions may threaten the integrity of the ecosystems upon which all life depends, including our own.
The Endangered Species Act has been interpreted by the Department of Interior to mean that the habitat of endangered species must be protected. This past summer, the Supreme Court affirmed this interpretation. Subsequently, selfish and short-sighted interests in the House and Senate – Reps. Don Young (R- Alaska) and Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash) – have introduced versions of the act that would strip the protection of habitat from the law.
Sukkot’s lessons about human well-being bear directly on the issues related to protection of habitat and the fate of God’s unique creatures. By pursuing the simple pleasures of life, we not only gain spiritual fulfillment, we also take up less space in the world, consume less resources and produce less pollution. We leave more space for the millions of species with whom we share the planet.
Our awareness of our own dependence on the Earth during the harvest season heightens appreciation for the webs of ecological relationships that keep soil healthy, land stable, and water pure.
And the wild places to which we go for spiritual renewal are also generally crucial habitats for other species. The last few virgin forests, such as those in the Pacific Northwest, and the last remaining large wild places, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are some of the most inspiring places left on Earth and some of the last remaining habitats for many species.
These places of refuge for the human spirit are also the last places of refuge for a multitude of species.
May this Sukkot inspire in us reverence for the Earth, its wild places and its Creator.
And may we be moved to communicate to our elected representatives the importance of protecting our nation’s habitats and refuges, and the Endangered Species Act, which has served as an ark for so many species.
The ecology of Sukkot teaches us that our spiritual aliveness and the preservation of Creation find common cause in the protection of wild places. By turning away from trying to feed our souls with consumer goods toward nourishing ourselves with human connection, spiritual exploration and experiences of the wild, we do good for the soul and good for all Creation.