Finally, there is a holiday observance that all Jews can get behind.
Attending a seder remains pretty popular, but there is that chametz rule
that gets in the way for the non-observant. Apples and honey on Rosh
Hashanah has a shot at the distinction, but would the committed Jew really
consider it a major observance? Yom Kippur and its fasting? No chance. Too
much of an association with sin and guilt, concepts which, to the
non-Orthodox, are so…retro. Shavuos doesn’t have a chance. Outside of the
Orthodox world, no one even heard of it.
Sukkos, however, provides a bona fide mitzvah that can bring a smile to the
most liberal Jew. Taking the four species of plants, the four minim, works
for everyone. Celebrating Nature is PC. It sounds like it should be good for
With the four minim, Jews rejoice in the grandeur of Nature. We thank Hashem
for the beauty of His world in general, and for His generosity to us in
granting us a bountiful harvest.
It would be nice, were it not for the fact that it is patently untrue. Wrong
plants; wrong message. The Torah elsewhere specifies the trademark products
of the Land. If we need symbols of the fullness of the produce of Israel, we
turn to the verse that lists them: wheat, barley, grapes, figs,
pomegranates, olives and dates. Besides, the four minim are no cause for a
grower’s celebration. How many farmers are overjoyed to learn that their
toil has been richly rewarded by a bumper crop of willows and myrtles?
These are no symbols of a successful harvest season.
We need to find a better way to understand the symbolism of the minim.
We stand with the four minim divided asymmetrically between our two hands.
With one hand, we take three of them; the esrog finds prominence in a solo
performance in the other. According to Chazal, the esrog deserves the
accolades. It combines the admirable features of all the other three. In
fact, its very description – פרי עץ הדר, “the fruit of a beautiful tree” –
points to its concentration of gifts. Those gifts are all found distributed
throughout the other three.
Like the esrog, the lulav is associated with luscious fruit – the dates that
grow at the top of the tree. As we hold it in hand, however, we plainly see
that it is no competition for the esrog. The esrog tree distinguishes itself
in containing in its woody substance the same fragrant material as gives
scent to the fruit. This is what makes it a “beautiful tree, according to
the Gemara :” its attractive aroma is dispersed through all of it. The
lulav may come with a lovely fruit, but it is no “beautiful tree.”
The myrtle is the mirror image of the lulav. Its braided formation of
fragrant leaves surrounds a fragrant stem. It bears, however, no fruit. It
is “beautiful tree” without the “fruit.”
The simple willow has nothing, really, to put on its brag sheet – no fruit,
and no fragrance. It is woody stuff, tree, unaccompanied by fruit or beauty.
The four minim, therefore, can be seen as points on a continuum of desirable
traits. At the end of the continuum we find beauty throughout the esrog
plant, and in all its aspects. At points along the way, we find the other
gifts. Despite the unequal distribution of assets among the four minim,
halachah mandates some commonality. To fulfill the mitzvah, each specimen
must be תם, and must possess some aspect of הדר. None of the four may be
damaged to the point of lacking some of their expected substance. Each one
in its own way is a תם, an integrated whole. Each one is also perfect and
beautiful in its own right.
The Torah instructs us to “rejoice before Hashem” with the minim. We can
stand in His presence without self-consciousness only when we are not
tainted by transgression. The taking of the minim must be “for yourselves,”
which means that they must fully belong to us, rather than be acquired
through theft. The same phrase according to the Gemara also implies that we
are to make them entirely ours, not simply borrowed from another person.
Putting all these halachic requirements together, we can see what is taking
shape. The minim represent the continuum of berachos that Hashem’s
providence provides us. From our standpoint as mortals, we do not see all
these berachos as equal. Yet the Torah tells us to take the lot of them, and
make each and every one a part of ourselves. Each situation, strength and
talent that He grants us can be used constructively to build our
personalities. We are to cherish each one, and utilize it to better stand
before Him in joy. Whatever Providence offers us, we are instructed to find
beauty in it, and to take it and make it fully ours.
Sometimes we recognize the gifts we receive as splendid fruit from a
splendid tree, like the esrog. Sometimes, they enable us to stand strong,
straight and resolute, like the lulav. That is a good thing, even if it is
not accompanied by the glory of producing visible fruit.
At other times, we shine with an inner beauty, like that of the fragrant,
plaited leaves of the myrtle. Other times leave us feeling like the willow,
which has no beauty, no strength, nothing that endears itself to others. Yet
the aravos-moments of our lives are not times of failure. A Mishnah
informs us that the lowly willow was put to good use. Its branches were
woven together to form inexpensive baskets. With no special feature to
recommend its desirability, even this simplest, seemingly least attractive
gift from G-d allows us to hold, carry, and preserve.
Whatever kind of day – or life – Hashem orchestrates for us, the lesson of
this mitzvah is that we can and must find joy in it. Moreover, we are not
simply to react to it, to deal with it, to learn to live with it. Each day,
each new kind of experience, offers us nothing less than the stuff with
which we build more uplifted and elevated souls.
1.Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 23:40