Thursday, October 13, 2022

Bimkom Lulav: Substituting Locally Grown Plants for the Lulav and Etrog

by Rabbi Katy Allen

Last year I forgot, and ordered a lulav and etrog.

This year, I remembered and didn’t order them. This year I knew I was going to try substituting locally grown plants in place of the etrog, palm, myrtle, and willow that I normally order from the local Judaica shop, coming straight from Israel.

I didn’t know what plants I would use. But I was aware that I would miss holding those traditional plants in my hand as I stood in the sukkah and waved them in every direction, acknowledging the presence of something greater than myself all around me. I knew my forgetfulness last year was a measure of my ambivalence. I’m not a halachic Jew by any means, not feeling compelled to observe the letter of the law, but I have always found meaning and comfort in the lulav and etrog. And I absolutely love the holiday of Sukkot. I love building the sukkah, sharing it with family and friends, and eating outdoors no matter how cold it is in New England in October, driven indoors only by the rain.

So here I was, with Sukkot approaching. The question of what plant leaves and fruit to use was on my mind. I read up a bit on what others have done. But I hadn’t decided what I was going to use in place of the traditional tropical plants that Jewish law and tradition direct us to use.

Then Sukkot was upon us. Having been busy - always a convenient excuse - I hadn’t taken the time to give the question enough thought to settle on any particular plants.

I was busy hosting my children and grandchildren as the holiday began, and then suddenly it was Sukkot morning, and I didn’t have a lulav and etrog and I still hadn’t collected anything to take their place.

My wrestling with the question was abruptly interrupted by family issues, some of them emotionally charged. (I’m assuming you have experience with this and understand.) I became caught up in dealing with all of it, and as it progressed, I found myself losing my equanimity and getting upset in ways that I didn’t want to.

Finally I paused to take a deep breath, and I realized it was past time to find my replacement lulav and etrog. Slowing down, I wandered our yard considering my options. I returned with a fruit from a kousa dogwood tree, not native, but a volunteer, probably from fruit from our neighbor’s tree; a long yucca leaf, also definitely not native, but having come from separating my aunt’s (z”l) yucca plant some twenty years ago; and an arching stem of giant Solomon’s seal, a native plant that came from separating someone else’s patch 15-20 years ago; and a stem of monarda, also a native plant, one that I had purchased a few years ago as part of my efforts to enrich my native pollinator garden.


Various metaphors from rabbinic literature regarding what the lulav and etrog represent flitted through my mind - the parts of the body or the types of people who make up a community, as well as the understanding that they come from different ecosystems. But when I finally held these plant parts in my hand and sat with them in the sukkah, suddenly all the angst in my heart and my mind, some of it painful, dissolved. Beneath everything I had thought was bothering me, I felt a deeper pain, a deeper grief, from a source far more difficult to heal – my grief and pain over what we have done to the Earth over the centuries, and in particular, in recent decades.

I sat with that unexpected pain, and realized how minor the family concerns were by comparison, even the most difficult aspects of them. I realized, too, that this deeper pain related to the Earth was coloring my responses about the family situation. The family issues could be resolved with love and respect, patience and caring. The global environmental issues are far more complicated. As I understood what was happening to me and honored the difficult feelings, relief washed over me, despite the pain. Clarity matters.

The time had come to shake my “lulav and etrog.” But what blessing could I say? I couldn’t recite a blessing for shaking a lulav - a palm - since I wasn’t holding one. With my procrastination, I hadn’t researched what others say. After a bit of reflection, I decided that I could say bimkom lulav, meaning “in place of the lulav”.

But what about the shehecheyanu blessing? How and why should I express gratitude for reaching this time? This time when we have already entered an unprecedented global environmental crisis? This time when it is apparent that any extra and unnecessary energy and carbon output is critical to avoid? 

And then, unexpectedly, I felt gratitude for feelings of connection to the natural world around me resulting from substituting locally grown plants in my sukkah rising within me. As some measure of my pain was released, I gave thanks for reaching this season, this day, this understanding. I knew that this was just the beginning of honoring the pain I was feeling, and that these difficult feelings would fuel my determination to share the reality of such emotions with others, and also to provide venues for other people to honor and process their own pain and grief in the face of the massive existential crisis of climate change.

On Sukkot we are commanded to be happy. It is only by honoring, naming, feeling, and letting go of a layer of our pain and grief that we can honestly be happy.


Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long and has a growing children’s outdoor learning program, Y’ladim BaTeva. She is the founder of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA, a board certified chaplain, and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in  Yonkers, NY, in 2005. She is the author of A Tree of Life: A Story in Word, Image, and Text and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the.singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.

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