Sukkot matters (2): Finding meaning in the Four Species

We are told in the Torah: “On the first day you shall take the product of the beautiful tree, branches of palm trees, thick branches of leafy trees, and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Lev. 23:40) This has developed into the tradition of arba’a minim, the Four Species. Some people bind these together and wave them in a specific ritual with prayers, others use them to decorate the sukkah, and some do both. In order for this not to become meaningless for our own time, or appear cultish and pagan, it is helpful to look at what meanings Jews have given to this over the centuries, and what it could mean now.

Four types of person

There is a midrash (storied interpretation) in Vayikra Rabah 30:12 that says that the Four Species taken together represent the unity of the Jewish people, and that irrespective of our differences, or degrees of goodness or badness, we are all part of one family. This is helpful for me as I think of my worldwide Jewish ‘tribe’, and also to extend it to the family of humanity of which I am part.

  • The etrog, a citrus fruit similar to a lemon, has both flavour and scent. It is like a person who is both knowledgeable, and observes the mitzvot (ie does what is right).
  • myrtle doesn’t have a good flavour, but has a nice scent. It is like a person who has little learning, but does their best to do what is right.
  • The lulav is the long, straight frond of a date palm; it has a flavour but no scent.  It is like a person who is learned, but doesn’t follow this through into action.
  • The willow is said to have no flavour, and no scent. It is like a person who does not bother to try and learn anything, and does not make any particular effort to do what is right or best.

What relevance does this have for me? First of all, whatever the mix of attributes I find in others, I am reminded that each person is in my family, part of me, and to be respected under the sukkah of my consciousness.

Second, at different times, I am each of these people. I would love to be the etrog all the time, but I know that I am not, and that I find this the most elusive. As a myrtle, at times when I am clueless, or uninformed, I would like to be able to do what is right, either by instinct, good luck, or good guidance from others; but am not content to trust to just those, and would like to learn all I can. I am embarrassed to know that I am too often a lulav, knowing what I should do, but choosing not to do it; this requires me to straighten up my spine (to which the palm frond is compared), and step forward more often to do the right thing.

Am I a willow? Yes, sometimes. And just after all the hard work of teshuvah, turning back to God, at Yom Kippur, it’s too easy and convenient to forget that uncomfortable truth. Rabbi Israel Salanter, the leading light of the 19th century mussar movement for ethical and character improvement said “one should begin to repent immediately after Yom Kippur”. Some traditions continue blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) during Sukkot. For me, it is a useful call to ‘stay awake’ to the messages of the High Holy Days, and that I need to continue ‘cleaning up my act’.

Four aspects of the self

In midrash Vayikra Rabah 30:14, a verse of a psalm is quoted: “All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You?’” (Ps. 35:10). The Rabbis linked this specifically to the Four Species of Sukkot, suggesting that they represent different parts of the body, and, taken together, represent the whole person.

  • The etrog is shaped like a heart which in ancient times was also considered the location of the mind.
  • The myrtle leaves look like eyes.
  • The lulav is long and straight like a spine.
  • The leaves of the willow are shaped like lips.

We are made b’tzelem elohim ‘in the image of God’ (Gen. 1:26-28). Using the metaphor of the four species paralleled by the metaphor of the four organs, we can aspire to make ourselves more, or less, like God. I am aware that we can be unmindful / heartless, have blind spots, be spineless, and careless in speech (thank you to Rabbi Michael Standfield for these insights). What is the antidote?

May we be blessed with the understanding that comes from a heart and mind filled with love.
May we look with the eyes of love at all we meet.
May we speak with lips of love.
May we feel the straight-spined joy that comes from embodying all that is best in Judaism.
And may we be a force for only good in the world.

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