From the month of Elul through Yom Kippur, we undergo the process of teshuva, of self-reflection and repentance. For me, this time consists of checking in with myself by asking, “how can I repair my relationship with myself, or other people?” Much of this process is people focused. As I turn the corner from Yom Kippur and look towards Sukkot, I am reminded that teshuva is not just a process between me and myself, or me and my community. During the week of Sukkot, we spend dedicated time sitting outside, as a process of reflecting and doing teshuva on how we act as a part of the physical world we live in.
Just in the past few months, we have seen the destructive nature of the Northern California wildfires and Hurricane Laura in Louisiana and Texas – natural disasters even worse than we’ve seen in years’ past. In a year of so many unpredictable phenomena, these natural disasters are yet another addition to the list of unending hardship.
The holiday of Sukkot, in which we are commanded to dwell in temporary, outdoor huts, comes at a peculiar time. One may think the Jewish calendar may command us to live outside in the spring, when the weather starts to get better. Instead, we are commanded to live in sukkot in the fall, at the beginning of the rainy season. A thirteenth century sage, the Tur, comments on this by saying:
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).
We enter the impermanence of the Sukkah to fulfill God’s divine commandment, and not at a time where it is easiest or most pleasant to be outside. For me, this means turning my focus on teshuva towards the environment. With my plan for teshuva towards myself and my community in my back pocket, I use the time in my Sukkah to notice my outdoor surroundings, and come up with a plan as to how I can be the best inhabitant of our planet in a time of immense climate change.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of We Are the Weather, says “to save the planet, we need the opposite of a selfie.” When taking a selfie, one looks at themselves. Sukkot forces us to turn the camera lens around, look out at the environment that surrounds us and the nature that we don’t always have time to appreciate. By gathering outside for seven days, we are forced to remember the environment around us, and begin to think about the teshuva that is necessary for not just ourselves, but for the world.
By: Lilli Shvartsmann