By Rabbi Stefan Weinberg
“Nature is man’s greatest teacher.” Throughout Jewish history the natural world has served as an ideal teaching agent for our rabbis. Sukkot, premised upon our engagement with the natural world, directs our attention to God’s creations.
Among the best-known midrashim associated with Sukkot is that which compares the arba minim, the “four species,” to different body parts. Permit me to offer a modern interpretation of a very old idea.
The lulav, the palm branch, is the dominant item when “bentching lulav” (saying the blessing on the four species). It is the largest of the four species and immediately captures our attention. Tradition teaches us it represents our spine. We are to stand tall and proud, sure of our conduct and honored to defend our Jewish people. The Talmud refines our thought when it teaches, “One should always be as flexible as a reed and not as unyielding as a cedar” (Taanit 20b). This distinction is needed so very much in our world today. If only we were able to learn how to stand tall while remaining flexible like the reed!
Hadas, the sprig of myrtle, represents the eye (its leaf is similar in shape to one’s eye). For most of us, the eye introduces us to the world. The eye helps us appreciate beauty and supports our curiosity. The eye also causes consternation when it exposes that which we don’t want to see. The eye can be our equalizer but too often we see only that which we want to see. May we learn to trust our eyes, shedding light on a reality we sometimes prefer to obscure.
The willow branch is referred to as the arava. A leaf of the willow tree is like the profile of one’s mouth. Words gush from our mouths. Far too often today the words we share cause so much hurt. Where has our civility gone? Why can we not speak with respect for one another when we share different perspectives? The arava reminds us that the use of words is God’s greatest gift to us. No other member of God’s world can communicate with such precision and wisdom as human beings. Let us reflect the wonder of our gift with the quality of the words we choose to utter.
The fourth and final member of our four species is the etrog, known as the citron. It symbolizes the heart. The other three items — the lulav, hadas and arava — are placed in one hand during the bracha while the etrog is cradled alone, in the other hand. It is as if the heart encompasses all three. Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh teaches us in Pirkei Avot (2:13), a good heart is the most important characteristic we human beings can aspire to.
May we use the arba minim of Sukkot to remind ourselves of the qualities that define an outstanding human being. Having challenged ourselves during the Aseret Yimei Teshuvah (10 Days of Repentance), may we use these four symbols to inspire us as we seek to become Shutafe Elohim — partners with God.
Rabbi Stefan J. Weinberg
Rabbi Stefan J. Weinberg serves Congregation Anshai Torah.