Plant-Based Torah: Sukkot – Accepting the Blessing of Vulnerability

October 11th, 2019


“On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the LORD for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the LORD your God.” – Leviticus 23:40-43

Now that the exhausting spiritual intensity of Yom Kippur has passed, the Jewish people are very quickly required to prepare for celebration and joy during the festival of Sukkot. There is much that could be said about this rapid shift in tone. Perhaps the waving of the lulav & etrog are a reflection of the spiritual & emotional whiplash of the calendar! In many respects, Sukkot is the polar opposite of Yom Kippur – but in truth they are intimately connected.

Sukkot are constructed and lived in each year for 7 days, a reflection of the Israelites’ temporary shelters while in the wilderness during the 40 years between slavery and entering the Promised Land. In that time, the Israelites are completely dependant on G-d for their physical needs, living entirely on manna provided from Heaven each day in the barren desert. Though agriculture is less directly given from Divine origins, the Torah goes out of its way to remind readers that plant agriculture was created explicitly to provide food for humanity and other animals. Therefore expressions of gratitude are necessary for the gifts of delicious fruits and vegetables!

Nevertheless, there is something ominous about these intentionally temporary structures. We are required to be joyous! This is easy to do when we eat meals with family and friends within our sukkot, but it is also a mitzvah to sleep in the sukkah. We must leave the comfort and security of our so-called permanent homes and remain somewhat exposed to the nighttime elements. It is among our most natural human instincts to be afraid of the dark – we are confronted by our limitations as non-nocturnal animals, and we may be left feeling somewhat uneasy about the unknown.

From a physical standpoint, we may be concerned about our immediate surroundings, whereas from a psycho-spiritual standpoint exposure to the great outdoors may leave us wondering about the great mysteries of our existence. The irony here is notable, and likely intentional: while living in their Sukkot, the Israelites were being cared for by the Creator of Heaven & Earth directly, however they most certainly had fears, concerns, and doubts during their decades-long limbo between slavery and liberation. So too are we surrounded by symbols of joy and plenty – and yet, we are exposed to the mysteries of the night, literally face-to-face with the heavens which must be visible through the sukkah roof.

During Yom Kippur, we reject all material reality and directly appeal to God’s mercy. Days later, we celebrate the divine gifts of fruits and vegetables that sustain life – and at night, we are reminded of God’s mercy, protection, and comfort within our temporary stay in this world. Just as we appeal to God’s mercy, compassion, and openhandedness, Judaism teaches us to emulate God’s goodness within this world. Cruelty, wastefulness, and selfishness are the polar opposites of God’s, and humanity’s, holiest traits. Though we may give ourselves the illusions of self-sufficiency through our homes, cars, “disposable” goods, and exploitation of animal agriculture, in truth, these illusions are the very poisons that will terminate the very gifts of creation that sustain humanity. Sukkot is a reminder that we are partners in creation with God – though we have made considerable strides in understanding the operating processes of nature, humanity’s arrogance has constructed a metaphorical idol of ourselves.

Sukkot reminds us of the truth of our vulnerability. It humbles us so that we are reminded to express gratitude for the gifts of this world – rather than pimping it for our own illusion of profit. Sukkot reminds us to open our hands to the true gifts of this world, especially the fruits and vegetables that were created for our sustenance, as it is written in chapter 2 in the book of Genesis: “And from the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that was pleasing to the sight and good for food…And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat’” (Genesis 2:9,16). All of humanity is vulnerable to the unknown, and therefore compassion, lovingkindness, and unity must be extended to one another, especially from those with greater prosperity and privilege than most. 

Sukkot forces us to remember that we are a part of nature, a part of creation. Though we are made in God’s image, acting as tyrants of this world is entirely contrary to that Divine Image. Natural resources are not commodities that can be bought and sold for the highest prices until we run out of them. Divine Wisdom did not intend for the most populous bird in the world to be a monstrosity, genetically perverted by big business in the last 70 years to be bred with bodies that cannot survive for more than a few months until it’s skeletons and internal organs are crushed by the weight of their enormous breasts, thighs, and wings. Divine Justice does not smile upon hundreds of thousands of these wretched, heartbreaking creatures forced to live in a single filthy warehouse. In the eyes of the True Judge, the small mercy of exposure to the outdoors, of which the amount of time and space are entirely unspecified by government regulations, is negated by the industry tripling the price of the meat. Expensive lobbyists and legal representation have no say in Heavenly Court – whether in this world or the next, fossil fuel, agriculture, and plastics executives will answer to justice one way or another. Their mutually-beneficial profitization of the destruction of God’s creation will not be settled out of court. The Source of Life is not in need of campaign contributions.

A simple reading of the Hebrew Bible unambiguously promotes approaching anything and everything with three traits: compassion, justice, and humility. May we all be reminded this Sukkot of the blessings of sustenance that we already have – fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes – as well as our collective responsibility as a species to be compassionate and gentle towards each other and all of Creation. Unless if we quickly recognize the lack of justice, compassion, and humility within the industrialized world and rectify it with open hands and deflated egos, soon we will reap the destruction that has been sown in the last century.

May the spirit of Teshuvah continue as we are reminded of the blessings we so easily take for granted. May the grandeur of nature move us towards the righteous necessity of sustainable living through renewable energy and plant-based eating.

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