Shabbat Shalom: Sukkot (Second Days) 

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson creditEfrat, Israel“And everyone shall be united in following the will of our Father in Heaven.” (High Holy Day Liturgy) 

The second Mishnah in the fourth chapter of the Tractate Sukkah (45a) opens as follows: “How do we perform the commandment of the willow?” (one of the four species we are commanded to lift up and wave in all directions as we chant the Hallel praises).

The Mishnah goes on to describe how the willow branches were gathered in Motza (a town not far from Jerusalem), and how the branches would be placed at the sides of the altar. Each day of the festival, the altar was circled; but on the seventh day, Hoshannah Rabbah, the altar was circled seven times.

This practice is imitated to this very day inside our synagogues where we take the four species during morning services, hold them aloft in one united bond as we chant the Hallel, and then – on Hoshannah Rabbah – we complete seven circuits around the bima (altar substitute), as we once did in the Holy Temple.

But what’s striking about Hoshannah Rabbah is that after the seven circuits with all four species, we then separate the willow from the others and the final closing ritual of the festival involves the willow alone. Following my revered teacher and mentor, Rav J.B. Soloveitchik z’tl, I also have adopted the custom of waving these willow branches in six directions, just as we do during the week of Sukkot with all four species.

Given that the halacha (Jewish law) is especially adamant about the “united bond” of the Four Species, why on the seventh day of the festival do we focus on the act of separation, singling out the willow? 

This question is especially poignant when we remember the traditional symbolism of the Four Species: the etrog (citron) symbolizes the Jew who has both fragrance and taste, Torah learning and good deeds; the lulav (date palm branch) represents the Jew who has taste but no fragrance, good deeds without learning; the hadas (myrtle) represents the Jew who has fragrance but no taste, learning without good deeds; and the willow represents the Jew who has neither fragrance nor taste, neither learning nor good deeds.

The Jewish nation must be viewed as an aggregate whole, including all types of Jews and their unique contributions. Indeed, the very Hebrew term tzibbur (congregation) is interpreted in Hassidut as an acronym for zaddikim (righteous), benonim (in-between), and resha’im (wicked). A normal and normative Jewish community will be comprised of all three levels of human behavior. So why do we separate the willow branches, the one species devoid of any positive characteristics?  

What’s even more interesting is that the historical background of our High Holy Day period intensifies the allegorical interpretation of the Four Species. Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, is declared to be the day of forgiveness for all Jews because it was precisely on this day that the Almighty forgave Israel for the egregious sin of worshipping the golden calf; the sign of Divine forgiveness was the Second Tablets of the Decalogue which God instructed Moses to carve on that day replacing the First Tablets which he broke when he saw the dancing and debauchery surrounding the Golden Calf.  

The Talmud describes a crucial dialogue between God and Moses at the very moment of Israel’s transgression. Moses is atop Mt. Sinai – or perhaps within the supernal heavens. For the past 39 plus days he has been receiving – and transcribing – the Divine will in the form of the Torah on the Tablets. The panicked nation, disappointed and confused by Moses’ continued absence, begins worshipping the golden calf, reverting back to what they remembered from their Egyptian experience. 

God then says to Moses (B.T. Berakhot 32a): “Go down, because your nation is acting perversely. I only gave you greatness because of the nation Israel. Now that the nation is sinning, what need have I of you?” In effect, God tells Moses that His covenant is not only with the intellectually elite and piously observant, but with the entire nation, regardless of their levels of learning and religiosity. Moses must leave the ivory tower of Divine supernal spirituality and go down to his errant nation.

If so, why do we isolate the willow – particularly since the willow, symbolizing a Jewish life without good deeds or Torah learning – is the one species in need of as much proximity to the etrog as possible?

I believe that there are two possible reasons why our tradition discourages an elitist and exclusionist attitude concerning entrance into a Jewish community.

The first is that people are not always what they appear to be. The Talmud records a story about a sage who dreamt he was in Paradise: “It was a topsy-turvy world that I saw. Those who are on top in this world are on the bottom in that world, and those who are on the bottom in this world are on the top in that world.”  

God’s measure of goodness and greatness are often different to ours – and God sees much deeper and much further. Hence the individual who appears to us to be a ‘lulav’ may in truth be an ‘etrog’; his very modesty and humility may be the reason why he is generally overlooked by those who determine the ‘mizrach’ (Eastern Wall) seats in the Synagogue.

Hence, we isolate the willow to teach ourselves and our community that the Jew the willow represents may be the true gadol; not that he lacks both fragrance and taste – but rather, he may be above fragrance and taste! 

The second reason is because the wicked individual may have just the impudence and rebellious nature which – when utilized for good purpose – may be the secret ingredient most necessary for redemption. Rav A.Y. Kook boldly taught that the Talmud’s description of the days before the Messiah as a time when “…arrogance (hutzpah) will be prevalent,” may very well be a positive assessment. Sometimes the most religiously courageous act is a challenge to a misguided or corrupt religious establishment, which has lost sight of the universal God of love and compassion and substitutes an insular God of uniformity and religious one-upmanship. Hence the willow has the power and strength to beat down the corrupt forces of materialism, and to overcome the political self-interest which sometimes invades the most hallowed halls of religious institutions. Ironically, it is sometimes that willow that can lead us to the truly spiritual, simple and pristine Davidic sukkah of redemption. 

At the end of the service, we strike the willow leaves on the ground. Rav Kook explains that this symbolizes the idea that the ordinary, alongside the righteous and the scholars, it is the simple Jews who will be the strongest weapon of the Jewish people in the fight against evil and in the destruction of wickedness.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!


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