No other month has as much sacred choreography as the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Tishrei: the month of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, the Feast of Booths, ancient Israel's fall harvest festival.
Rosh Hashanah, perhaps the most universalist of the Jewish holidays, celebrates the creation of Adam and Eve, and inaugurates a period of deep introspection, reflection and personal accountability (heshbon ha-nefesh), leading to Yom Kippur, a day of at-one-ment with one's God and one's fellow human beings. Five days later we celebrate z'man simhateynu, the season of our joy. It is a celebration marked by liturgy and choreography taking us back to the agricultural origins of the Jewish people. Our Sages suggest that the 70 bulls offered in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem on Sukkot represented each of the then-known nations of the world. Prayers were offered for rain to fall as a blessing in its proper season.
For an agrarian society, highly dependent on rainfall, Sukkot marked the end of the annual harvest: the barley of Passover, the wheat of the Feast of Weeks, the vintage in anticipation of the fall festivals. Only for the festival of Sukkot does the Torah mandate joy three times: "You shall celebrate in your festival ... and you shall have nothing but joy" (Deuteronomy 16:14, 15) and "you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days" (Leviticus 23:40). There is not even one command to rejoice on Passover, and there is only one command to rejoice on Shavuot seven weeks later. A fifth-century rabbinic compilation, the Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, suggests that on Passover, the beginning of the harvest cycle, we do not know whether crops will be plentiful or not. On Shavuot, while field crops have been brought in, we do not know whether our fruit harvest will be successful. Since we are more anxious about our lives than our possessions, there is no command to rejoice on Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Day of Judgment. Having received pardon on Yom Kippur, the Day on Atonement, field crops have been gathered, as have fruits of the tree. The harvest year has come to an end: we rejoice either in its plentitude and abundance or in the awareness that the next agricultural cycle may be more productive. In either event, we rejoice. As we became more urban, the Jewish community lost sight of the vital connection between the New Year, the Day of Atonement, personal accountability and the prayer for rain that concludes the sacred days of Tishrei, on Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of solemn assembly.
Long before the Star of David came to be associated with Jews, the arba'at haminim -- the four species of the lulav (festive bouquet of willow, myrtle and palm) and the etrog (citron) -- were among the quintessential Jewish symbols in the rabbinic period. They still are to be found on the mosaic floors of late antiquity synagogues and in the Jewish catacombs of ancient Rome. Most of the oldest liturgical choreography continues to be practiced during Sukkot, with the ritual waving of the lulav and etrog, and festive processions around the synagogue, culminating in a seven cycle procession on the last day of Sukkot, Hoshannah Rabbah. As worshippers sway with the festive branches, singing the words of Hallel, psalms of praise, it is not difficult to imagine one's self intimately and intricately tied to the natural world.
Each item in the bouquet requires differing degrees of water: the palm requires very little; the willow a great deal, myrtle suffices with rainwater, the etrog depends on human irrigation. On Sukkot, at the turn of the season from dry to rainy, we emphasize the importance of water and its impact on how things will grow. A prayer for rain is inserted into the liturgy, imploring that rain will fall at its proper time. On Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly, the concluding festival of Sukkot, Jewish tradition inserts a prayer for rain as we add the phrase "Who causes the wind to blow and rain to fall" to daily prayer. Congregation and reader ask for rain as blessing, not curse; for life, not death; for abundance, not famine. Witness the devastation of the Midwest this past summer, the devastating rains, winds and floods of Irene and Lee, cycles of drought, wildfires burning out of control across parched, once-verdant farmland -- evidence of climate change above and beyond El Niño and La Niña. While much can or may be ascribed to natural quasiperiodic fluctuations, pattern and recurring patterns, it seems increasingly clear there is more than passive human intervention and involvement in the warming of our planet.
Sukkot reminds us of our connection to God from whose universal design the rains come, and the need to acknowledge personal responsibility in assuring that the rains come in season. Among the interpretations given to the arba'at haminim is that the myrtle represents the human eye, the willow the mouth, the etrog the heart, and the palm the spine. With but a slight variation, Sukkot and its festive bouquet serve as an annual reminder of the need for head, heart, soul and spine, using that which animates us to animate others in active stewardship of this planet we call home.