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The Willow Tree

Here we are, nearing the end of Sukkot. It feels like the holidays have gone by so quickly. It was just early September, wandering through apple orchards and preparing for Rosh HaShana, but here we are, nearing the middle of October, and the end of this month of craziness. The Chaggim are intense, but just like that they’re almost over, and after Simchat Torah on Sunday, there are no major festivals until Pesach comes in the spring.

The weather this Sukkot has been better than usual - only light rain, and gently cool temperatures. But it’s definitely changing. The nights come early, and the leaves are turning orange. There’s a chill in the air. A few days after Sukkot, I’ll be departing on an eight-day hike from Glasgow up to Fort William, 96 miles along the West Highland Way, Scotland’s first long-distance hiking trail. In the summer it’s thronged with hikers from around the world who come to walk through the hills and glens of the West Highlands, but October is the end of the season. Many of the campsites and hostels I’ll be staying at will be closing up within a few days of my visit. The forests sheltering Loch Lomond will be tinged with gold, and the hillsides of Glen Coe will be beginning to fade in the morning frost.

Communing with a willow tree while cycling along the River Clyde in Glasgow

Autumn is one of my favourite seasons in Scotland. The lush greens of high summer can feel overwhelming in their intensity, but the barrenness of Autumn is haunting. We often see the colder months as a time to head inside, to coorie in with a blanket and a cup of tea. But it’s an incredible time to be outside - the world looks different in the winter months. The trees are bare, but different life is growing. It’s been one of the greatest pleasures of my time here in Scotland to watch the months flowing past, to learn to expect the subtle changes. To look out for the red pop of rowan berries in late Autumn, or the first golden flush of gorse in the early early Spring. Rooting through the leaf mulch to find the first tips of wild garlic poking through, plucking them straight from the ground and into my mouth.

Spring is still a few months away, but before that, we have the changing seasons to look forward to. So I’ll be lacing up my boots, layering on the waterproofs, and heading out into the outdoors. Which is exactly what many Jews are doing this time of year, as we head out of our homes and into the Sukkah.

The Pop-Up Sukkah I take to schools in Glasgow to teach students about Sukkot

Sukkot is one of Judaism’s three harvest festivals - Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. It marks the end of the harvest season, when farmers would have gathered their fruits and brought them to the Temple in Jerusalem. I have vague memories of Sukkot growing up - colourful paper chains hanging in the sukkah way back in primary school, youth group events and the like. We never had a Sukkah at our house. In Calgary, there’s often snow on Sukkot.

Attempting to sleep in a rainy Scottish Sukkah

The first Sukkot I really remember was in Israel, when I was on my gap year. My aunt took me up to visit my cousin on her religious Kibbutz in the North of Israel. It was my first real experience with proper Orthodox Jews, and I remember how foreign it seemed, men with beards sitting around a table in a strange hut. I remember eating ice cream with her children. Every Sukkot since then I’ve had the pleasure of celebrating in different Sukkahs around the world.

My very first day in India, gathering in the Sukkah at Tipheret Israel Synagogue

I moved to India during Sukkot. I was waiting impatiently for my visa to come through, which it did just after Yom Kippur. There was no time to fly before Sukkot, so I booked a ticket for just after the first days of the festival, during the intermediary period called Chol HaMoed. I spent one night in my flat, before getting an Uber down to Chabad of Mumbai to spend the latter days of Sukkot - Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah - with the community there.

The overwhelming plate of Sukkah snacks I was given at the Indian gathering

I remember the shock of it all as I ran after the Rabbi, making our way across the hectic roads on the way to synagogue. He had a massive triple baby carriage which he navigated across lanes of packed moving traffic, amidst the heat, sights and smells of Colaba. I clung to his heels, totally overwhelmed by my new city, and sort of wishing I had stayed back at the Chabad House with the Rebbetzin.

Back at Chabad, we climbed the five flights of marble stairs (no Shabbat elevator), to emerge onto their rooftop Sukkah. In the darkness I could see the lights of the city spreading out beneath me in all directions. I could see the Gateway of India to one side, and the twinkling lights of Marine Drive the other way. Up there the sounds and smells and city faded away and it was just us, in the Sukkah, in the midst of all the craziness.

It’s precisely in the Autumn that we’re commanded to go outside into the Sukkah, because it seems counter-intuitive. We want to head inside, away from the cold, but we’re told to go outside, to eat and spend time (and potentially sleep) in the Sukkah. The Sukkah represents protection. It reminds us of the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, and the temporary shelters that protected them there.

Shaking the lulav at Maccabi in Glasgow

We have the mitzvah to shake the Lulav every day of Sukkot. The Lulav is the name given to a collection of four plants - the Lulav לוּלָב (palm branch), Hadas הֲדַס (myrtle), Etrog אֶתרוֹג (citron), and Arava עֲרָבָה (willow). Together they represent many different things - four different types of people, four different types of landscapes, four different parts of the body. They represent the need for diversity, and how we’re stronger together.

The Rabbi cutting me a willow branch from his tree in Glasgow

Three of the four parts of the Lulav must be imported, usually from Israel or Morocco. But one of them, the humble willow plant, grows all over Scotland. In fact, I often go to the Rabbi’s house before Sukkot, to get a willow for my Lulav, cut directly from the tree in his backyard. Willow trees grow well in damp soil, especially on riverbanks and by streams. In fact, when the Jewish people lament ‘by the rivers of Babylon’ during their exile, it’s written that they’re sitting beneath willow trees (Tehillim 137:1-3).

Each part of the Lulav has different characteristics. The Etrog (citron) both smells and tastes good. This represents people who are both learned, and who do good deeds. The Lulav (date palm) has good taste (via the dates) but no smell, representing people who are learned, but don’t do good deeds. The Hadas (myrtle) has smell but no taste, representing people who do good deeds but don’t have the knowledge to back it up. And the humble willow has neither good taste nor good smell, representing the simple people. The symbolism of the Lulav as a package is that we need all four components in our communities, all different types of Jews, and together we make a whole. Together we strengthen each other.

But the willow isn’t one to cast aside. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, in its connection to G-d and the festival, even without all of the extra pieces. And despite the fact that it doesn’t have taste or smell, it has many useful purposes. Willow has been used as a pain reliever for many years. Its bark and leaves can be used as both a pink and a yellow dye. In the times of the Temple, it was used to weave the baskets in which people brought their offerings. In Scotland, willow weaving is having somewhat of a revival, with many people returning to natural materials and hand processes.

Last year I took a four-week willow weaving course, where we learnt a number of techniques to make all sorts of items, including bird feeders, platters, baskets and willow stars. Just before Sukkot, I invited the instructor to lead a workshop for the community, where participants could get ready for Sukkot by gaining insight into our local Scottish element of the Lulav. We gathered in the courtyard of Garnethill Synagogue, as the children wove branches in and out and created handmade willow platters.

Shaking the Lulav is such a beautiful tradition, but there’s so much more to all of these traditions - the history, the shared experiences, the raw materials that give us these ritual objects. By immersing so deeply into the traditions of the willow this Sukkot, I’ve come to gain a deeper appreciation for the mitzvah of Lulav.

We started off the High Holiday celebrations at the beginning of September with an Apple Orchard Celebration. But tucked behind the apple trees were a grove of living willow huts. Willow is not only an incredible weaving material when harvested. It is also very flexible when it’s living, and if formed into a sculpture, will continue to grow like that. Just past the orchard, willow trees had been planted in circles, and woven into hut-like sculptures. The new spring growth was growing in shape, thickening the walls. In a way it’s like the ultimate Sukkah - willow all around, open to the elements, yet sheltered and full of life.

It’s such a gift to be able to adapt these beautiful festivals and traditions to where we are. Whether it’s a rooftop Sukkah in the heat of Mumbai, the blustery cold of a Canadian October, or celebrating in living willow huts in Glasgow. As the weather changes, and as the intensity of the holiday season piles up, it’s an important reminder to tap into the gifts and beauty that surround us. May we all feel the protection and renewal of nature and tradition this season.

Chag Sameach!


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