Creating a Local Lulav
This essay first appeared in the The Sacred Earth: Jewish Perspectives on Our Planet (CCAR Press, 2023).
Thank you to CCAR Press for permission to post it here.
I was blessed to study Torah in the company of trees. At the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College poring over mishnayot and midrashim, my study partners and I would regularly lift our eyes from the text to look out the giant wall of windows at the small woodland outside the beit midrash. We marked each passing semester by green summer foliage in Elul, Red maples’ crimson on Sukkot, the Black birch leaves blanketing the ground in yellow by Hannukah. At Tu Bishvat, the branches were still bare, but little tufts of baby leaves would begin to bud after Purim, opening into a new riot of green as we prepared for our season of liberation, and the giving of the Torah.
Every year as a rabbinical student, I looked forward to Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of Sukkot when Jews march seven hakafot around the Torah, crying out Hoshana! Save Us! Sukkot marks the beginning of the rainy season in the land of Israel, and before modern irrigation the right rain in the right season meant the difference between abundance and famine. The refrain of the day gives voice to what was a time of intense communal vulnerability for the ancient Israelites.
Photo courtesy of Hebrew College
I loved Hoshana Rabba at Hebrew College. I loved the stunning aesthetic of a community wearing white (a Hoshana Raba custom), holding green palm fronds and yellow citrons. I loved the long loud shofar blast that signaled the final, lingering end of the High Holiday season. I loved kneeling after the service to whack my willow branches on the ground in total abandon alongside my teachers and friends, a custom that certainly proves to any cynics that Judaism is an earth-based religion, with its own healing plants, its own rain dances, its own sun-and-moon festivals.
Yet as the years ticked on toward my ordination, droughts and storms increased around the world and I learned the haunting truth that most of us will feel the first effects of climate change as too much or too little water. As much as I loved the ancient rain dance of Hoshana Rabba and how it connected me to the biblical land of Israel and my ancestors, I needed a rain dance that would speak to the peril of climate disruption.
The mitzvah to wave what we now call the lulav and etrog comes from the Torah. In describing the festival of Sukkot, Leviticus 23:40 stipulates: “On the first day, you shall take for yourselves the fruit of a hadar tree, branches from kapot t’marim, boughs of avot trees, and arvei nachal, and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God for seven days.”
While the biblical Hebrew is somewhat vague, about two thousand years ago, Jews settled on which plants the Torah meant, and we have been sacredly waving them ever since: A palm frond, two willow branches, three myrtle branches and one etrog (citron) fruit. Put together, they are known as the lulav and etrog (literally “branch and citron fruit”), or the arba minim (literally “the four species”). The tangy smells of etrog and myrtle leaves have always told me it is Sukkot.
But most lulav and etrog sets are grown in pesticide-laden monoculture and shipped to the USA across the ocean. As much as we may intend them to symbolize tradition and joy, they also inherently signal business-as-usual in the overseas travel and agricultural practices that are directly causing climate disruption in Israel and around the world. Mishna Sukkot 3:5 famously teaches that we may not perform a mitzvah with a stolen etrog. Large scale monoculture steals from the land. The carbon emissions of overseas shipping steals from the future. How could I walk around the Torah in Boston with a sacred intention for rain in the right season in the land of Israel – or anywhere else – waving four perishable, fragile parts of plants shipped to me from across the Atlantic?
Traditions bind communities together. They signal stability and group cohesion. They ground us in social connection. But as the climate changes around us, Judaism – along with human civilization – faces another major paradigm shift. Like everything, our rituals will have to adapt.
For a few years I simply did not buy a lulav and etrog set. Then my husband and I moved to a new home with a shaded garden in the back and as we unpacked our boxes, I couldn’t take my eyes off the trees. Basic tree identification had been on my bucket list for years, and here was a perfect challenge. There were a dozen species of trees and large shrubs on our property alone. I decided to learn not just their names, but how to learn their names. In learning how to identify them, I would learn their natural history. And in studying their bodies and stories, I would be able make a meaningful local alternative to a traditional lulav and etrog.
I dove into studying trees with the zeal of a ba’alat t’shuvah (someone becoming Orthodox for the first time). I learned how to use a dichotomous key, using a series of yes/no questions to identify a tree based on leaves or bark. I invested in a variety of guidebooks, and spent the evenings learning my way around them, reading up on tree natural histories on the side. Going on walks with me became rather frustrating for my husband, as I stopped to identify every tree I did not yet know. But the practice worked. That first fall, as my toddler gained confidence in walking, I learned the common and scientific names and habits of the trees in my neighborhood.
And I fell in love with them. I loved the shockingly straight-limbed Arrowood viburnum (so called because indigenous tribes used the branches for arrows) whose branch became the middle spine of my Four Species, standing in for the palm. I loved the American elm in front of our house (blessedly untouched by the blight of Dutch Elm disease that killed the beloved elms of American streets) whose eye-shaped leaves stood in for my first myrtle. I loved the Weeping Willow hybrid who towered in a field just a ten-minute walk from my home, and whose branches were indistinguishable from those in a traditional lulav. And I loved the golden apple I’d picked up at our farm stand. Just as the etrog is not native to Israel, the apple is not native to New England, but like the etrog it has become a symbol of abundance and delight.
Since we cannot do a mitzvah with stolen property, I asked the trees’ blessing before I cut their branches.
As I twined my four species together, I missed the sound of waving palm branches and the smell of etrog. Then I realized that this too is the power of the local lulav: It may cause discomfort, embarrassment and, for those familiar with traditional sets, a sense of loss. Yet climate change is only going to disrupt our way of life more as the years go by. As we wave our local Four Species, we are signaling the need to end what Joanna Macy calls a business-as-usual economy. And as we bless and dance with them, we are are also practicing the emotional skill of moving through grief and loss into the joy that is at the heart of Sukkot.
When I carried my four species to synagogue with me that first year, I felt shy and a little proud, like I was introducing four new friends to my community. As I recited the blessing and waved my unusual bundle in the six directions, I sent out prayers of gratitude to all the trees I’d come to know and love, to the soil they grew in, to the air we both breathe. I prayed with a strong, clear intention for rain in the right amount, at the right time – where I lived, in Israel, and around the world.
During the morning blessing before the Shema, we ask God to “Gather us in from the four corners of the Earth and lead us upright to our land.” The composers of the liturgy yearned for Jews to come out of exile, back to the land of Israel. Many communities today even sing this paragraph to Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Yet in true rabbinic fashion I like to play with the meaning of the words. The blessing, I like to note, does not say lead us upright to the Promised Land or to the land of Israel. It says simply, “Lead us upright to our land.”
When I daven Lead us upright to our land, I have a practice of stomping my feet on the ground, reminding myself that I am asking God to bring me home here, now, to this soil underneath the foundation of this building, to the proud foliage of New England, to our edible and medicinal plants, to the Charles River watershed, to the changing seasons, changing ever more as the earth warms. To be led upright to our land means to rise before her as we rise before an elder or a revered teacher. It means to learn about her – her wildlife, plants, topography, water, stones, growing seasons. It means to see the neighborhoods built around us as one snapshot on a geologic journey, designed by blips of human choice on a planet who will most definitely have the final word.
As Jews we have lived with a narrative of exile for two thousand years. When we wave a traditional lulav and etrog, we are enacting an ancient communal connection to and longing for the land of Israel. But the Jewish diaspora is not the only form of exile. Most of us alive now, in the age of the industrialized global economy, are twice exiled, once from the lands of our ancestors, and once again from the lands where we live. We spend our days in the physical exile of indoors, and in the spiritual exile of an extractive economy that views the earth – and other human beings – as resources to colonize and extract, instead of as teachers, elders, and beloveds.
When I wave a local lulav, I am enacting my connection to and longing for the land on which I live. In this age of climate change and ecological collapse, I am called to root myself passionately and proactively on the actual land upon whom I live, day after day. For me that is the land now known Massachusetts, and specifically the land of the Massachusett and Pawtucket peoples on whose soil I breathed my first breath and took my first steps. I will never be descended from people native to this land. But I am striving to, as Robin Wall Kimmerer puts it, become indigenous (see end note), to have a relationship of mutual love and belonging here, to know the ecosystem as intimately as I possibly can, and to treat the land and her animals, plants, and fungi as my elders and teachers.
The homecoming that I long for is not informational. It is not platonic, or casual. It is at the core of my devotional life. It is a passionate lunge toward aliveness, toward the specific aliveness that could be mine in this specific place. It is a longing for God’s love as manifest through the earth, a stance that the ancient Israelites with their agrarian, place-based covenant would certainly have understood.
Years ago, I ran into a rabbi and teacher of mine on a public bus. As I was trying to avoid motion sickness, he was bent reverently over a book of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings. I said something about being impressed, and he responded in his characteristically gentle way: “I carry a sefer (holy book) with me wherever I go. I don’t want to waste a moment when I could be studying Torah.”
On my journey to become indigenous to the land where I live, I keep thinking of that moment on the bus. When our sacred places and practices were destroyed, rabbinic Judaism arose as an answer. We grieve and survive by studying what was lost. And in studying, we came to honor, to intimately know, to love with the passion of black fire on white fire. The sacred places are being lost again, but we need not retreat into written text alone this time. When we study the more-than-human natural world, like when we study of Torah, we unfold into that which we learn, and it unfolds into us. As our rabbinic ancestors discovered, by studying we can retain intimacy with that which is lost.
The spiritual work of returning from ecological exile is not the same as activism. To have a chance at a livable future, we have to put strategic money, time, effort and political capital behind what I like to call the Movement to Sustain Life – the decentralized movement for ecological health and social justice. But as we organize, march, sit-in, lobby and put our bodies in the way of the business-as-usual that is destroying our world, we can sustain our souls by growing an intimacy with the land where we live.