Succot: The Environmental Festival
This short Dvar Torah from Rabbi Sacks explores a unique element of the festival of Succot – the way it connects us to nature.
Succot is – can I put it this way – a Jewish anticipation of Extinction Rebellion. It is our environmental festival. It’s a festival, first and foremost, of prayer for rain. In the Holy Land, where the Bible is set, rain was – and still is – the scarcest resource, and without it, there’s drought and famine. So on Succot we take four kinds of things that need rain to grow: a palm branch, a citron, leaves from a willow, and a myrtle tree. And holding them, we thank God for rain and pray for it in Eretz Yisrael in the year to come, even if we happen to be living in the soggiest of climates like Britain. Succot is, if you like, a festival about the fragility of nature as a habitat hospitable to humankind.
The natural world is something science and religion both speak about in their very different ways. Science explains, religion celebrates. Science speaks, religion sings. Science is prose, religion is poetry. And we need them both. Science continues to inspire us in the way it reveals the intricacy of nature and the power of the human mind. But science can sometimes make us think that we’re in control, which is why we need moments like Succot to restore our sense of humility. We’re so small in a universe so vast, and our very existence depends on an extraordinarily delicate balance between too much and too little, whose symbol is rain: too much and we have floods, too little and we have drought.
Only relatively recently in human history, only really since the second half of the 20th century, have we been aware of the damage we are doing to our natural environment. Damage that we’re doing by carbon emissions, by pollution of other kinds. The damage we are doing to animal species that are going extinct at a rate unprecedented since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The endangering of sea life by the pollution of plastic and various other detritus of civilization. And all in all, we are not obeying the biblical imperative. That imperative is set out in the second chapter of the Torah, when God plants the first human being in a garden and does so “l’avdah ul’shamrah”, to serve it, or to work it, and to protect it (Bereishit 2:15). That is one of the very first imperatives in the Torah. It is our task to protect the natural environment.
A lot of the laws of environmental concern derive from the prohibition of ba’al tashchit, the prohibition against cutting down fruit-bearing trees in the course of a siege (Devarim 20:19). But in truth, environmental concern is scattered throughout the Torah. Both in the idea that the land is entitled to its periods of rest, the shmittah and the yovel, and in the chukim, the statutes, which are, according to Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, laws designed to protect the integrity of nature: laws separating milk and meat, wool and linen, crossbreeding of animals, and so on. Nature has its own integrity, said Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in the 19th century, long before environmental concerns had entered the public square.
And that really is what Succot is about. It is the one festival when we expose ourselves to the elements of nature by sitting in a succah, and we use unprocessed natural objects like the arba minim. And in these two very different ways, we see: in the arba minim the reward of a nature well-tended, and in the succah, the vulnerability to the great forces that sometimes shake nature from time to time.
As well as knowledge, in other words, we need wisdom. And the better part of wisdom is knowing that we are guardians of a universe we can easily endanger and which we still don’t fully understand. It’s not crazy once a year to lift our eyes toward heaven the way we do when we’re praying for rain, and remember how dependent we are on things beyond our control. The more scientific knowledge and power we have, the more humility we need.