Wednesday night begins the holiday of Sukkot, a time when Jews around the world move temporarily out of our comfortable homes and eat, and sometimes also sleep, in sukkot, fragile structures with three to four walls and a roof that lets in the wind and rain.
Sukkot was originally a harvest holiday, the original thanksgiving. It reminded our ancestors of their vulnerability to the vagrancies of the weather, and their concurrent dependency upon God.
Today we are generally insulated from the agricultural year and the vagrancies of weather by our home thermostats, global agribusiness, and car air conditioning. Even the effects of global warming do little to impact our daily lives, except perhaps to leave our lawns brown due to local water restrictions. We are unaware of the dangers of climate change, that is unless we live in New Orleans, the Midwest where floods have ravaged communities, or the West where forest fires have raged for the last few summers.
Our sukkahs remind us that all of us are still vulnerable to the vagrancies of the weather and that we should thus be much more concerned than we appear to be about what is happening to the earth that God left in our care.
This year I decided to add a new tradition to my Sukkot celebration: In addition to building our sukkah and hosting meals there, I also purchased a Terrapass to offset my car’s carbon emissions. Terrapass uses the donations it receives to fund alternative energy and purchase and retire industrial carbon credits. I proudly placed the bumper sticker and pass I received from them on my car and I plan to renew it each year. I see my Terrapass not only as a feel-good band aid (although it does make me feel better), but also as a tool to raise awareness about the need to diversify our energy sources and use what we have more carefully. The passes are just part of what my family is doing to reduce our carbon footprint, which was much higher than we would have guessed, once we calculated it.
The sad truth is that we in the Jewish community, and our Jewish institutions, can do much more to reduce our carbon footprint, to reduce our dependency on foreign oil as well as to protect the earth. Such changes would take time, effort and financial investments. So often our communities are caught up in day-to-day projects and dramas that make it hard to focus the necessary human and financial resources to make the changes we must make to do the most we can in this area. (See COEJL for ideas for greening synagogues.)
But that is what these holidays are for: to redirect our attention to what is most important. Sukkot reminds us that we cannot ignore our impact on the earth or how what is happening to the environment ultimately affects us.