No Jewish holiday is more beloved among American and Israeli environmentalists than Sukkot. With its agricultural roots and its dictum to live close to the earth, Sukkot is the sine qua non of Jewish environmentalism. Camp out under the stars in what is essentially a lean-to, eat all your meals in it, invite friends over for homemade food and singing, and hang seasonally appropriate produce from its rafters? It’s almost as if the Torah anticipated patchouli-scented, croc-wearing hippie Jews.
And yet, each year, we produce a massive carbon footprint in the lead-up to Sukkot’s celebration of abundance and its message to live more sustainably and more in concert with the seasons. I’m talking about the lulav and etrog — the palm frond, myrtle, willow and citron that we Jews are commanded to bless during the holiday. As compost friendly as they may be, they are flown in from Israel and shipped en masse to American Jewish communities that couldn’t grow a palm tree or an etrog grove if they tried. (I’m looking at you, Chicago, New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Denver and everywhere with a winter).
Adding to the absurdity of the transnational schlep is the cost of lulavim and etrogim. An etrog with a really nice pitom (the withered stub of the etrog that once connected the fruit to the tree) can run you upward of $100, $200 or even $300.
The mitzvah of the arba minim, the commandment of using and shaking the four species required in a sukkah, was conceived in a time and place where these species were commonplace, local and sustainable. Maimonides, when he wrote Hilchot Sukkah, which makes clear the requirement for an etrog and lulav, was living in Egypt, where finding an etrog, a palm tree, a willow and myrtle leaves was like finding a good cup of coffee in Rome today (hard not to find).
In other words, the requirement of the four species made a great deal of sense in their original geographical and agricultural context. It doesn’t anymore.
But what luck. We’re smack in the middle of the harvest season here in North America. We have maple and oak and aspen leaves (at least in Colorado, where I am); we have squash, apples and pumpkins in abundance. So why are we still insisting on importing astronomically expensive produce and leaves from the Middle East rather than picking an apple off our trees, using maple and oak branches from our own yards, and shaking them the same way we do with the lulav and etrog?
Now, I’m all for lulavim and etrogim in the right context. I love the sound of the lulav and the smell of the etrog — and the nostalgia that both evoke — as much as anyone. So if you live in Southern California or Arizona or Florida, or anywhere where palm trees and citrus fruit grow with abandon, be a crafty Jew and make your own local, sustainable lulav (and even etrog, if you have the foresight to have, or live in proximity to, an etrog tree; if not, a lemon will suffice and will smell just as good). At some Southern California Reform congregations, etrog trees have been planted for just this reason.
There’s a Jewish value underlying the adaptation I’m proposing. It’s the value of ba’al tashchit, refraining from needless waste or destruction. It’s part of an ancient and sacred environmental ethic teaching us that when at war, one is not allowed to cut down the fruit trees of the land one is besieging. How much more so, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud added, we should not needlessly destroy or waste other natural resources. In the Sifrei (a Jewish legal midrash), Rabbi Yishmael even writes that if the Torah tells us not to destroy fruit trees, then we should be even more careful about destroying the fruit of those trees — the concrete benefit they bring us.
So, if you do insist on shipping in an etrog from thousands of miles away, at least keep it when the holiday is over and make etrog jelly with it. There are some great recipes available online. And if you have more than one etrog, well, their rinds were commonly used in Florentine cooking, so have at it.
None of this is meant to do away with the beauty and message of Sukkot. As I said, the requirement of the four species made sense in its original historical context. By using the abundance of their own harvest, and local crops, Torah-era Israelites were using nature to celebrate the presence of the divine in the natural world. Because they couldn’t use produce from faraway lands, they made use of what was most familiar to them. And they participated, perhaps unknowingly, in creating an environmental ethic that would last for centuries.
Had they known from airplanes and freight trains, it’s easy to believe that they still would have made do with what was local and environmentally responsible. After all, the shaking of the lulav and etrog is meant to point out directions of holiness in this world. And the Israelites knew, as we should, too, that holiness can be found anywhere — even in our own backyards, if we we’re willing to look closely enough.
Jordie Gerson works as a full-time rabbi for Adventure Rabbi, in Boulder, Colorado. She is a public speaker and a writer with a blog at The Huffington Post. To read more of her articles, sermons and talks, find her on Facebook.