Originally Posted on Ten Minutes of Torah
by Susan Paykin
On Sukkot, we remember our ancestors’ struggles to balance their lives with the surrounding environment in order to produce a bountiful harvest each year. But most of us no longer grow our own food or live at the mercy of natural phenomena in the same ways. How can we maintain the integrity of our ancestral relationship with the Earth?
Sukkot is a joyful holiday. We breathe a sigh of relief as we leave the solemnity of Yom Kippur behind, and gather outside, eating and reading and sleeping in a sukkah. We also read the book of Kohelet, known in English as Ecclesiastes, which reminds us that humankind can control only so much of what happens around us on Earth. “One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever (1:4),” Kohelet teaches. The sun will rise, the wind will blow, and rivers will always flow into the sea, uncontrollable no matter how hard we try.
It is no coincidence that the text traditionally studied on Sukkotis so humbling. Considering all the scientific advances of the last millennia, we still understand relatively little about the origins of life on Earth, and how and why natural phenomena occur. But there are some things we do know. The Torah teaches that all life is sacred and, knowing that, we are charged with tending to the Earth’s well being. Bal tashchit, or “do not destroy,” a key Jewish principle, compels us to serve as stewards and protectors of the land.
Today, the federal government holds immediate jurisdiction over much of the land and water in the United States in order to guarantee their health and maintenance for future generations. If you have ever visited a national park, monument, or wilderness area, you know the unparalleled beauty and abundance of natural resources that these lands have to offer. Thirty-six major federal environmental laws protect dry and wetlands in every national park across the country from exploitation and contamination. Some of these landmark policies include the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act. In addition to providing the framework for significant improvements in water and air quality for communities across the country, many of these laws have also been instrumental in protecting historic areas and areas of ecological importance.
Despite the established need for federal environmental protection, there has been a series of bills recently introduced in Congress that would significantly and harmfully alter environmental laws and regulations. The proposed National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act would authorize the Department of Homeland Security to command control over all federal lands within 100 miles of the country’s international land and maritime borders, so that the department can facilitate additional border patrol activities. The bill seeks to strip the Interior Department of its ability to enforce the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and dozens of federal environmental laws, while permitting construction and motor vehicle use on some 4.3 million acres of delicate ecosystems where such activities are currently prohibited. Other efforts include legislation such as the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011, passed by the House in April, which would block the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of the Clean Air Act. And on top of these legislative actions, this summer the White House announced it was delaying EPA efforts to newly limit greenhouse gases that are the main culprit behind global climate change.
These efforts are alarming, particularly on Sukkot, a holiday where we stand in awe and gratitude of nature. We build a sukkah to remember the hardships our ancestors suffered while tending the land. “Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption,” wrote the Baal Shem Tov. In addition to providing vital ecological services, wilderness and uncorrupted bodies of water are important to our sense of history, giving us a glimpse of our past. When water did not flow from the tap, where did it come from? What additional challenges did our ancestors face when unforeseeable weather patterns dictated their daily work and meal schedules? The ecological integrity of our land and water is fundamental to our own perspectives as humans and as Jews. And the quality of our air is, of course, vital to our existence. We cannot exploit the Earth for short-term gains at our long-term expense.
Life is fleeting, as is our time spent under the sukkah. Thankfully, we are able to rebuild this structure each year, so that we may celebrate the joy of the holiday once again. The environment, however, cannot be disassembled like your sukkah nor reconstructed in the same way. We cannot suspend important environmental regulations or remove jurisdiction from the department charged with enforcing them without facing the consequences. We have already seen what happens without these laws: species become extinct at a higher rate, drinking water is contaminated, and rivers catch on fire. Job creation, ensuring we have safe international borders, and meeting Americans’ energy needs should continue to be priorities of our federal government. However, they cannot and need not come at the expense of the health of the ecological systems that support life on Earth.
Kohelet teaches that even a little clod of earth can create and embody Godliness. On this Sukkot, let us heed these words and ensure that in this time of environmental crisis we protect Earth’s Godliness from border to border.
Susan Paykin grew up in Oakland, NJ, and was an active member in her home congregation, Barnert Temple of Franklin Lakes, NJ. A recent graduate of Brandeis University, Susan is now an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and resides in Washington, DC.