Sukkot is one of my family’s favorite holidays. It was not always this way. As a child, I did not pay much attention to the holiday other than at Sunday school. My family did not participate in any celebrations, nor did we know anyone who had a Sukkah. For me, the joy of Sukkot is a recent discovery.
When our son was born, my husband and I both knew we wanted him to grow up with a fruit and vegetable garden in our yard. I had one as a child and my husband had fond memories of his grandfather’s. In addition, environmental and sustainability issues have always been important to us. So, beyond wonderful childhood memories, we saw a garden as a way to challenge ourselves to create healthy organic food that was good for us and good for the environment.
The connection between a garden and Judaism, and Sukkot in particular, was not immediately apparent. But after our second year gardening, it occurred to me that we should be celebrating the results of our hard work and giving thanks for our harvest. Sukkot provided the perfect opportunity.
Our initial Sukkot celebration was basic and did not even include a Sukkah. We simply said the blessings before dinner using a lulav my son made in preschool and a lemon posing as the etrog. Not perfect, but a small step for an interfaith family muddling its way through a holiday we had never before celebrated in the home.
As our garden has grown, so has our celebration. We graduated from our rudimentary observance to having a Sukkah with a table and chairs, and saying the blessings using a real lulav and etrog in addition to the ones our son made in school. Our Sukkah was campy; a four-person tent with homemade decorations. We loved it and enjoyed holiday dinners outdoors.
This year, we will return to celebrating in our tent. We will dine picnic-style, and we’ve promised our son that we can try sleeping in the Sukkah one night. Being in Dallas, several things in our garden are still producing, and we are in the process of planting a winter vegetable garden for the first time. We have many delicious foods to be thankful for and celebrate.
It is easy to connect Sukkot, which is agricultural in origin, to celebrating the fruits of our own garden. Our 5-year-old son can see firsthand how the holiday applies in his own life and it is an easy way for my husband who doesn’t identify as Jewish to connect to Judaism as well. My husband does the hard labor of creating our garden. He cuts the beds, mixes the soil, turns the compost and plants the seeds. My son and I get the easy jobs–weeding and picking. Sukkot gives us the chance to honor my husband’s hard work.
Beyond Sukkot, I see our garden as a way for us to practice tikkun olam, or repairing the world. We use sustainable growing practices, such as rotating crops, no chemicals, organic products and compost that is good for the earth. We also use a rain gauge to determine how much water we receive from Mother Nature so we conserve what we use from the tap. I recently learned that this too has a connection to Sukkot. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, a service was performed every morning throughout the holiday called the Water Drawing Ceremony. According to the Talmud, Sukkot is the time of year in which God judges the world for rainfall; this ceremony solicits God’s blessing for rain when it is needed.
Being able to link our larger environmental actions to Judaism in this way enables our family to find deeper meaning in the holiday. As you think about Sukkot, here are some ideas for going beyond the traditional celebration or to use as baby steps to something bigger in the coming years:
Don’t have your own garden? Visit your local farmers market to buy close-to-home produce or look for regionally grown fruits and vegetables at your grocery store.
Don’t have the space? Rent a plot at a community garden. Or start an herb garden in pots (indoors or out).
You can’t have a good harvest without good dirt. Composting is easy, doesn’t require fancy equipment and makes rich soil. Find a spot in your yard and start a pile or use a bin (handmade or commercial).
Most lawns and gardens need only about one inch of water a week. Using a gauge can help you conserve water by showing you when your yard has received enough. Then turn off the sprinklers.
Sukkot is the perfect reminder that not everyone is fortunate enough to have fresh food. While we celebrate, many go hungry. Find a local food bank that accepts produce and donate your excess fruit and vegetables, or purchase produce to donate.
Switch from conventional pesticides and fertilizers to natural ones. They are safer for you, your family and pets. Find them at your local home improvement or garden store.
Don’t have a traditional Sukkah? Improvise. We use a tent. Our friends use the trellis that hangs over their patio. Find a way to celebrate and have fun.
Chag Sameach (Happy Holidays)!