Ra’anana Community Kollel
from the book A Gift for Yom Tov
Rabbi Yisroel Miller
On Pesach we remember how Hashem took us out from Egypt, and set us free. Shavuot recalls G-d's gift of the holy Torah. And Succot is a reminder of Hashem’s gift of physical nourishment, that Hashem provides for our needs each and every day.
We celebrate Hashem’s caring by sitting in the succah symbolizing G-d's protection that surrounds us, just as it surrounded our ancestors during their forty years in the wilderness. But on Succot we also have the mitzvah of shaking the arba minim, the four species of lulav, etrog, hadassim and aravot. What is the connection between Divine protection and a citron, a palm branch, myrtle leaves and willow twigs?
You probably know the classic explanation of Chazal, our Sages. Etrogim are edible, and they also have a pleasant aroma. Lulavim have no aroma, but they do bear fruit. Hadassim bear no fruit, but they are often pleasantly aromatic. Aravot have neither fruit nor aroma.
So too, the Sages said, there are four types of Jews. The etrog symbolizes Jews who possess both Torah learning and good deeds, fruit and aroma. The lulav is like those possessing learning but no special good deeds. Hadasim are Jews with good deeds but no learning. And the aravot are like Jews who have neither. On Succot we take all four species together as a sign of the essential unity in the Jewish people, “Let these come and atone for those.”
Beautiful as the idea is, there are two problems, or questions, connected with it. Problem number one: What does Jewish unity have to do with Succot? The theme of Succot is Divine protection, not unity. If you will argue that we must have unity as a prerequisite to be worthy of protection, then on Shavuot too, we must have unity to be worthy of receiving the Torah; but we don’t shake a lulav on Shavuot.
A second problem, or question: From where did the Sages derive this explanation? Granted, it is perfectly understandable that the binding together of different species is a symbol of unity, but is it so clear that these four forms of plant life are to symbolize these four types of Jews? (Torah and good deeds, either/or, and neither?) Might they not be just as easily explained as symbols of four personality types, like the four sons on Pesach? Or might they represent the four directions or the essential unity of nature, the coming together of the entire cosmos?
It is entirely possible that our Sages’ explanation is a tradition they possessed that went back to Mount Sinai, and is not something we could discover on our own. Even so, we always have a right to search for meaning, to try and comprehend why a certain explanation was given, if we can. So what do lulav and Jewish unity have to do with Succot, and how do we see that the four species represent these four types of Jews?
As noted above, Succot is a time to remember how Hashem cared for our people in the wilderness, and how G-d continues to care for us today. It is therefore also a special time for us to count our blessings, and thank Hashem for life and health, friends and family and Torah and all good things, and to share these thoughts of gratitude with others. However, as the ethical classic Chovot Halevavot points out, a major obstacle to our appreciating good fortune is that every life also contains a certain amount of pain as well. Life’s unavoidable sorrows are always ready to cast a shadow of unhappiness, and even if our days are ninety-nine percent perfect, it is the remaining one percent that grabs our attention.
Along comes Succot to remind us that Hashem does care, truly. How much does G-d care? It is like a succah. Succah is a mitzvah that surrounds you, and even if you don’t do anything, just being there makes you encompassed by the mitzvah. In the same way, Hashem’s concern for us is total, fully encompassing each one of us. We may not always see this, just as if we sit in the succah with our eyes closed we will not see what surrounds us. But it’s there.
The mitzvot of Succot begin at night, when we enter the succah to recall the Divine love and caring, the ninety-nine percent of life which is joy. On the following morning, Hashem gives us the second mitzvah, arba minim, to take the four species to confront life’s other one percent.
An etrog is a multipurpose creation. Hashem gave it taste and fragrance, and it can even be turned into etrog jam or used in place of a lemon for a cup of tea, exactly the sort of product we would expect from the Master Producer. Then we look at the lulav. Palm trees produce dates, but they have no special fragrance. Why didn’t Hashem add a an aroma to make His creation perfect? Then we examine the hadassim, fragrant but with no food value at all; and aravot give us neither fragrance nor food. What a waste of Divine energy to create such things!
But our mitzvah is to take them all together, to proclaim that this negative outlook is in error. There is no waste in the Divine plan, and everything has its purpose. Just as we need all four species to fulfill the mitzvah, so too the world needs all kinds of different people, animals, plants, natural phenomena and accidents of good fortune and otherwise. The way the world is arranged is the way that Hashem arranged, and as the Torah tells us, “Behold, it is very good.”
In the famous Midrash, King David asked why Hashem created spiders. The Creator could have given him a scientific answer, but instead, when David was fleeing for his life and he hid in a cave, along came a spider and spun its web across the entrance. Enemy soldiers searching for David found the cave, but the unbroken spider web over its entrance convinced them that David could not have entered the cave, and they left. David thanked Hashem for answering his question; but he did not say, “Hashem, now I know why You made spiders, but what about grasshoppers?” He had learned the lesson that everything in the world has a purpose, and it takes time to discover what the purpose is. It may take years of study, or we may have to learn the answers in Olam Habah, the world to come; but whether or not we know them today, the answers are there.
As the Alter from Slabodka said: When the classical codes of Jewish law fail to record halachot that according to our understanding of the Gemara should have been included, we must know that there is certainly a reason for this omission, and we must expend much time and effort seeking to understand the reason. If so, then how much more so, when Hashem omits something from our own lives, anything which we, based upon our own limited understanding, expected to find; is it not clear that there must be a reason, and we must spend time and effort to discover what the reason might be?
You may recall the dismay in the 1980s when Yuri Andropov, director of the Soviet KGB, became head of the Soviet Union. With the KGB chief running the country, won’t the situation for Soviet Jews, and world peace, become much worse? It was only with the passage of time that we realized that Hashem had put Andropov in charge in order to advance the career of Andropov’s protégé, a man named Gorbachev. Once the plan was in motion, Hashem quickly removed Andropov from the scene, bringing Gorbachev to power to enable him o cause the Soviet Union to implode.
The anti-Gorbachev Soviet coup in 1991 made people momentarily believe that advanced in the Soviet freedom had been abruptly cancelled. Three days later, Hashem showed us that the coup attempt was merely G-d's way of bringing about the speedy death of communism, the coup de grace. The Creator always has a reason, and sometimes we are even privileged to see what it is.
And therefore, we could suggest that when the Sages said that the four species symbolize for different types of Jews, they meant it as an example of the broader principle that Hashem has a place for all types of diverse elements in His world plan, and four types of Jews are one of the many examples illustrating this principle. Lulav and etrog must have hadassim and aravot, all human beings are interconnected, and certainly all Jews need one another to complete the plan. The lesson of Sukkot is that Hashem takes care, and the lesson includes viewing the world in its totality to comprehend what G-d is caring for, a larger perspective encompassing unity with all Israel, and with the entire world.
Each one of us needs all of us. In a place of tefillah or Torah learning, it is easy to see how each person adds to the atmosphere. But even other people, including those who make life more difficult, have their purpose. Sometimes the purpose is to challenge us, or to toughen us up, or to indirectly benefit us in ways we cannot perceive at present. But on Succot we take the four species, and we can fulfill this mitzvah in two different ways.
The simple way is merely to hold them. Picking up the four species is already a mitzvah (if done with intent to fulfill the Divine command), because just holding them together symbolizes that all the different parts of life have their place, they all fit in. But the more complete mitzvah is to wave the four species in every direction, like a signal flag. Waving is a public proclamation, signaling that the whole world should know Hashem’s creation has a plan, and all of it is needed; every Jew, every person, every atom, all of it is meant to be.
Shaking a lulav will not create instant joy in one’s heart, especially to people focused on the one percent of sorrow, or to those individuals who are burdened with extreme misfortune. But the lulav, along with the succah, are annual reminders that the world is indeed a good place; it is Hashem’s place and each and every one of us has his or her place therein.
Perhaps this is why the Torah concludes its description of this mitzvah by telling us to take the four species “u’smachtem lifnei Hashem, rejoice before Hashem.” Because when we know that everything has its purpose, and that we too are a part of the plan, that you and I truly belong here and are needed; that is what enables us to stand up with pride, knowing that all of us have the right and the honor to stand and rejoice, in the presence of Hashem.