Lulav lessons

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Rabbi David L. Abramson | Special to WJW

One of the central observances of Sukkot — beyond dwelling in sukkot, temporary dwellings — is the ritual of the arba‘ah minim, the four species.

The four species are the lulav, a palm branch; hadasim, myrtle branches; aravot, willow branches; and the etrog, a yellow citron. Since the three species of branches are tied together, the four species are colloquially referred to as lulav and etrog.

We use these agricultural products in our Sukkot observances, since Sukkot is our fall harvest festival. But beyond this broad symbolism, the Rabbis suggest more specific symbolisms of the four species.

For example, one source suggests that each of the species represents part of the human body: the palm branch symbolizes the spine, the shape of the myrtle leaves represents the eye, the shape of the willow leaves symbolizes the mouth and the citron represents the heart. Thus, the four species represent each of us — bringing to mind the phrase in Psalm 35:10: “Kol atzmotai tomarnah adonai mi khamokha — All my bones shall say: [Adonai, who is like You].”

Perhaps the lesson of this symbolism is the challenge to bring our whole selves — the intellectual, emotional, experiential and spiritual parts of ourselves — to our relationship with God.

Another Rabbinic text explains that the four species represent our four Matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah), while yet another source suggests that they represent the three Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), plus Joseph.

To me, this explanation helps us to bring our cherished ancestors into our Sukkot experience.

My favorite symbolic explanation of the arba‘ah minnim suggests that each species symbolizes a different kind of Jew: Since the etrog has both taste and fragrance, it symbolizes Jews who have both learning and good deeds. Since the palm tree produces tasty fruit but no fragrance, it symbolizes Jews who possess learning but not good deeds. The myrtle, producing fragrance but no taste, represents Jews who possess good deeds but not learning. And since the willow produces neither taste nor fragrance, it symbolizes Jews who possess neither learning nor good deeds.

To this explanation, the Rabbis add a question: What will God do with these different kinds of Jews? The Rabbis’ answer: “Yuksh’ru kulam agudah aḥat [let them all be bound together in one group,] v’hein m’khap’rim eilu al eilu [and they will atone one for another].”

In previous generations, this Rabbinic explanation might have meant one thing: in a united Jewish community, the “good Jews” — the ones with both learning and good deeds — will balance the “bad Jews,” and everyone will benefit from this Jewish unity.
But in the pluralistic Jewish world in which we live today (well, we’ve always lived in a somewhat pluralistic Jewish world, but that’s the topic of another column entirely), an additional lesson occurs to me:

There are different ways to be Jewish. There are different ways to connect with the Jewish people, with Judaism and with God. For some of us, our primary Jewish connections can be found in our homes and our synagogues. For others, Jewish connection comes primarily from the world of Jewish learning. For still others, Jewish philanthropy is their primary area of Jewish involvement. For yet others, Jewish music or Jewish dance is their primary locus
of Jewish connection.

Different kinds of Jews; different ways of finding Jewish connection and Jewish involvement. “Yuksh’ru kulam agudah aḥat,” as long as we strive for Jewish unity, respecting one another’s sincere approaches to Judaism, “v’hein m’khap’rim eilu al eilu,” we balance and complement
one another.

Rabbi David L. Abramson is an adjunct rabbi at Congregation Beth El, a chaplain at JSSA and a freelance teacher/tutor.

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