Sunday, 4 October 2009

Sukkot - Unity Through Diversity - or All the Same?


The festival of Sukkot contains within it two completely contrasting Mitzvot. It is odd that a festival so geared up for the idea of unity be filled with such contrasts.

On the one hand we have the Mitzvah of the 4 species. On the other, we have the Mitzvah to dwell in Sukkot. What is the constant between these two Mitzvot, and how are they different? Hidden inside both of these Mitzvot are the keys to understanding the uniqueness of the Jewish people, the uniqueness of each Jew – and the greatness that lies at the core of a Jewish soul, irrespective of any apparent unique quality that every Jew has.

Our sages teach us that the four species – the Etrog (the citrus fruit), the Lulav (the palm branch), the Aravot (willows) and the Haddasim (myrtles) must be brought together as one unit and shaken in this way. Should one of the species be missing, the entire Lulav bundle is Pasul – it loses its status of being fitting to shake in order to fulfil the Mitzva of the Lulav bundle. There are many laws regarding the status of each of these species in order for them to be valid. To highlight just one – while the Etrog can cost $100 and even more and must fit certain exact requirements, the Aravot (willows) can cost as little as $1 and seems to have "lesser" requirements. Of course if you go to the Lulav-fair, you'll see people checking *all* the species, but you'll probably notice how careful most are with the tiniest speck that appears on an Etrog. It simply must be perfect! On the other hand, most will pick up the first Aravot that looks acceptable and get on with things. Sadly to say, the Aravot can wilt, with its leaves falling off in no time at all. Should this happen (within even the day or two) the Aravot are no longer Kosher. Should this be so, the entire bundle used in the Mitzvah – including the $500 Etrog has the status of being not Kosher! So much for a Lulav bundle worth $550, with the $1 Aravot which is not fit to be used! Indeed, every part of the Lulav bundle must be Kosher.

One could consider this similar to a Sefer Torah. Each letter must be written perfectly for the scroll to be kosher. Should one letter be missing, or an additional letter added, or a letter faded and impossible to read etc. the entire Sefer Torah – from Parshat Bereishit to Parshat VeZot HaBracha is Pasul and may not be read from in order to fulfil the biblical requirement of reading from a Sefer Torah. This is the wonder of the fullness of Torah – the fullness of the Jewish people and every single Jew. As there are some 600 000 letters in the Sefer Torah, there are also 600 000 Jewish souls. A lack of one Jew from the Jewish people (someone who distances himself from the Jewish people G-d forbid, or perhaps someone who has no real knowledge of Torah G-d forbid) means that the entire Jewish people are lacking and are in a state of Pasul – a state which renders them non-kosher. We need every single Jew to be doing his/her part in terms of the obligations upon the Jewish people – in order for the nation to be a strong and healthy one. So too, when it comes to the four species, the "lowly" Aravah branch is as important to the bundle – as is the "royal" Etrog.

What do these species represent?

In fact, the species have a number of levels to them. Briefly, just two will be discussed, as they both give an insight into understanding the importance of unity. Unity through diversity.

In the first instance, the four species are a reflection of a person. They represent essential parts of the body which aid a Jew in fulfilling Mitzvot correctly. Without these parts of the body being sanctified correctly, it becomes very difficult to observe Mitzvot properly.

The Etrog – in all its glory, represents the heart. For without a Jewish heart, there truly is no life for a Jew in this world.

The Lulav – straight and long as it is, represents the spine of a person. This of course is the most important part of the body which glues everything together. It must be strong, upright and connected! A healthy spine means that a person is able to hold himself high. It gives him honour and respect. Hidden within it is of course the spinal cord. Should anything happen to this – G-d forbid, the ramifications for life are not ones anyone of us wishes to think about. A healthy spine allows us to get around and to fulfil our obligations in this world – through the observance of Mitzvot.

The Hadassim – those beautifully shaped leaves with a wonderful fragrance – looking much like eyes, correspond to the eyes, which must be guarded from the frightening sights most people expose them to each and every day. Though the average sight seems perfectly healthy – most images we look at each day are filled with things the Torah tells us to stay clear away from! Examples are far too numerous to even begin to list. Our eyes should be guarded to view only Torah – much as our spines should be used to get around to fulfil Mitzvot and our hearts be directed to serving G-d – only!

The Aravot – those wide shaped leaves, looking much like the mouth of a person – represent just that. It's not only important what goes into it (kosher food), but also what comes out of it. Today, our "mouths" express themselves through the thousands of emails we send out to others as well (and all other writing we do.) We need to be careful how we express ourselves, and that the words we choose will be beneficial to others and help the world, not bringing it down. Our mouths should be sanctified to say only words of Torah, goodness and kindness. A tough task – by anyones standards!

The four species clearly hint to the person as a whole and his need to focus on channelling all his body's uses to a G-dly purpose.

But our sages teach us something deeper. They teach that though the species can refer to the individual, more importantly they teach about the entire Jewish people as a whole. The festival of Sukkot is not just an individual festival. It's a festival about unity – connecting with others and seeing the good things they can contribute to life. If so, if Sukkot is all about unity, then how do these species teach the different types of Jews?

Much like on Pesach – we read about the four sons who represent the four different Jews, so too, on Sukkot we have another four representations for the variety of Jewish people in the world.

Our sages teach:

The "royal" Etrog in all its glory, having both a terrific smell and a wonderful taste, represent those Jews engaged in both Torah study and Mitzvot. The fragrance of their Mitzvot reaches to all parts of the world, and the "taste" of their Torah study is felt by all.

The Haddasim – with beautiful fragrance, though lacking taste, refer to those Jews who are filled with Mitzvot – who love doing Mitzvot, though they still have much to do in terms of Torah learning itself. Perhaps they have simply never been taught how to learn properly. Or perhaps they don't have the time. Nevertheless, they contribute to the world with the glow of Mitzvot that they perform. Their smell reaches out affecting thousands upon thousands of people – daily!

The Lulav branch – standing tall and mighty, contains taste (the date fruit), though has no smell. The Lulav represents those Jews who spend much time engaged in Torah learning, though there is still much work for them to do in terms of Mitzvah observance. Of course, this does not mean that they do not do Mitzvot, it means that their focus is more centred on their learning with less focus given to spreading Mitzvot outwards.

Surely the "Haddas" Jew learns Torah too – how else could he perform the Mitzvot if he did not know what to do?! The "Lulav" Jew certainly performs Mitzvot too, after all, the Torah learning teaches him to do – and to do! But their focuses remain in a certain direction more so than another. We're all different and tend to express ourselves and our loves of life in different ways.

The "lowly" Aravot, cheap in price, simple in design, and short lived when not connected to their trees and roots, reflect the Jew who has neither Torah learning nor Mitzvot. Naturally every Jew is filled with Mitzvot as a pomegranate is filled with seeds. However, in comparison to the other three categories of Jews, this Jew does not seem to have any time to learn. He doesn't have time to do Mitzvot either… or perhaps, he is just lazy! But still, at his root, he is still a Jew.

Without the Jew who has neither Torah nor Mitzvot, the entire Lulav bundle is Pasul – not kosher! It doesn't matter that nobody takes notice of drooping Aravot that wilt and die off quickly, still if it receives no water and does die, the entire bundle is Pasul! More so, the Aravot MUST be joined to the entire bundle when the bundle is shaken. It is not sufficient to hold it at a distance while "the good things" get shaken up! Ashkenazi custom has it that the Aravot will be positioned on the left side of the Lulav, with the Etrog touching IT (first at least) as it rests on the entire bundle. It is the duty of the "Etrog" – the Jew filled with Torah and Mitzvot – to associate with the "Aravah" Jew, keeping him connected and being with him at the worst of times, in order to help him grow in whatever way he is able to. In addition, it is the duty of the Aravah Jew to connect with the "Etrog" Jew. He too must get out of his "comfort zone" and make sure he associates with those "in the know!"

In the Chabad custom of bundling the Lulav (according to the Arizal,) the Aravot must be hidden inside the Haddasim. In this way the Aravot literally touch all the species at the same time. On the one hand this Lulav bundle shouts out that we would prefer the Aravot to not be there (we don't want to see them!), yet on the other hand the Lulav bundle shouts out – "Every Jew has an obligation to connect with that Aravah Jew and help him to know what Yiddishkeit is all about!" Naturally, in addition, the Aravah Jew must realise – once again, that though he be "lowly" – though he be ready to wilt away (G-d forbid) – his duty is to get cracking and associate with those who understand Torah and Mitzvot and to learn from *all of them*. He must nestle in to every Shiur that he can in order to learn how things should be done. He gains much from this. He gains in that everybody else will crowd around him and support him – even if he appears to be wilting. He gains in that the water – the life giving liquid – that surrounds the other species, also drips off onto him so that he continue to have life! And he gains in that he need not have to feel any embarrassment. He's not pushed off to the side, but rather gathered in amongst the other Jews to become a part of them – not to give up, but to become a part. In return, every Jew must see to it – no matter how great they are – even if they are "royal" Etrogim – to surround and accompany this Jew through his journey in life, to make a success of him fulfilling his role in life that G-d wants from him.

So it seems clear. We're all different. Yet our diversity is what unites us. Without each of us realising our differences and appreciating them for what they are, we cannot unite. We cannot connect with each other. And if this is so, then our entire bundle is PASUL! The Jewish people remain in a state of Galut – of exile – with every Jew staying as far away from the next as possible. Sukkot comes onto the scene to teach us that this must not be! Our duty is to see the greatness of the other – whatever it is, and then to draw the other even closer so that they too will become a part of the nation. To feel a sense of pride at being Jewish, and to desire nothing more than to unite – study Torah, and fulfil Mitzvot.

Different? Or the same?!

With all this going on, we are sure to think that every Jew is different. And just at that time that we do, Sukkot reminds us of another Mitzva… sitting in the Sukka. Every Jew must sit in the Sukkah during the 7 days of Sukkot. As they sit inside, they fulfil their obligation of fulfilling a Mitzvah! Just two Mitzvot allow one to fulfil a Mitzvah every single second of the day being totally consumed in the Mitzvah with every part of the body – the Mitzvah of Sukka – and the Mitzvah to live in the Land of Israel. (The Mitzvah for women to immerse in a Mikvah also shares this common theme.)

Of course, the Sukka makes no differentiation of who is sitting in the Sukkah. Everyone is equal there! Whether an Aravah Jew, an Etrog Jew, a Haddas Jew or a Lulav Jew. Whether dressed in black and white garments, with hat and beard… whether sheitel or head scarf… every Jew is equal and every Jew fulfils the Mitzvah of Sukka by simply being under the Schach. Their entire body becomes surrounded by the splendorous light that envelops them as they sit inside it – though they may not see it. All are equal!

Which is it then? Are we different or are we the same?! Which is the higher level?! Which is greater, the Sukka or the four species?!

The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) – a Tzaddik of proportions that most of us could never begin to understand – came to this world to teach the most wondrous teachings of the Torah. Life-giving – life refreshing teachings that no Jewish soul should ever be without, even for a moment! One of his most beautiful teachings he brought to the world was that one should love even the simple Jew. At that time in history it seemed like only the greatest of the great (the Etrogim?) were respected in the Jewish world. Who cared about the street sweeper, though he be a simple Jew just trying to earn a living to feed himself and his family – just trying to get through life with the barest minimum?! The Baal Shem Tov revolutionised the Jewish spirit to the Jewish world. "Love even the simple Jew as much as the Tzaddik," said the Baal Shem Tov.

His successor – Rabbi Dov Bear, the Maggid of Mezritch (? – 1772) explained further. He taught that one should love the biggest Rasha (the most evil Jew) as much as one loves the Tzaddik. Here he pointed out a novelty from the Baal Shem Tov's teaching. One must see the most evil Jew as being as special as the greatest Tzaddik. Yes, you know that feeling of visiting a Tzaddik? You know how you may feel humbled in his presence? You feel such honour towards him, glowing in his presence! You want to be attached to him. You just want to love him, for him to know you love him, and for him to love you back in return. Says the Maggid – love the most evil Jew… like this!

When the Alter Rebbe (1745-1812) took over the reigns of the Chassidic movement, founding the Chassidut of Chabad, he refined the Maggid's teaching. In just one statement he summed it all up. Though having written an entire work discussing the Tzaddik, the Beinoni (the middle-man) and the Rasha (the wicked) – he taught, "There is no such thing as a Rasha!" Before studying Pirkei Avot during the summer months, we read "And Your nation are all Tzaddikim". Indeed, this is so. It is by virtue of being Jewish that we are indeed all Tzaddikim and deserving of the world‑to‑come. With Torah study or not… with Mitzvah observance or not… every Jew is a Tzaddik.

When we attach ourselves to the four species, we see the greatness of every Jew. We see how every Jew is different. Yet we understand that each has something great to contribute – even when it seems like it's nothing more than the barest minimum simple thing.

When we attach ourselves to the Sukka, we elevate ourselves to levels beyond the norm. We elevate ourselves to the teachings of the holy Baal Shem Tov (for the Maggid and the Alter Rebbe would only have taught what the Baal Shem Tov had taught within his own teachings to them.) We elevate ourselves to a level, where we realise that every Jew is a part of G-d from Above. There is no difference. There is nothing that should demarcate us as being different. In our essence, we are all the same. Our greatness is that G-d created us as He chose to. And because we are His handiwork, we are automatically great.

Surely – we all need to work on ourselves constantly. We need more smell… more taste… and even with it all we need to give of all of this to others who don't have any – and they too should work on being prepared to accept it and grow from this too. But when it comes down to the final moment of life, of this world and the next, our greatest level of service to G-d is to be able to literally see each other as Divine sparks. Sparks of souls that connect together to make up the entire Shechina – the indwelling Divine Presence.

It's not an easy task – by any means. But we need to realise something. We need to realise that this is why we are in this world for 70-120 years. We are here to grow and perfect ourselves. Though we stumble, our goal must constantly be in front of us. And at those times when we feel we have forgotten it or cannot achieve it, we find that we are confronted again – with another Sukkot. It's not there as a means of repetition. It's there to once again focus us in the right direction. There is no such thing in Torah as repetition. There can be no two Pesach evenings that are the same as they were in previous years – with the same Haggadah. There can be no two Shofar sounds that are the same from year to year (though they sound exactly the same!) There can be no two Yom Kippur's that are simply mirror images of years gone by. There can be no boredom – ever, in Yiddishkeit. There can be no similarity in our observance of Sukkot from one year to the next.

Each is unique. Each is special. Each teaches us how to grow even further. Each brings us closer to G-d, to others and to ourselves. And each helps us to realise that we have a path ahead of us, a purpose to life. The world goes around. The seasons come and go. The festivals seem to repeat themselves. Yet the message is clear. With all our differences – we are the same. With all our similarities, we are different. With all our uniqueness – we sit in one Sukka, the same one wherever we go. And in it, we realise we are all G-dly souls, destined to work on ourselves, to grow and fulfil G-d's wishes. Next to G-d, however – next to Infinity, we are all exactly the same.

When Moshiach comes, we are taught that we will all be sitting and eating our "Yom Tov" meal in the Sukka made up G-d Himself. In this Sukka, we will all be dancing… in a circle – Tzaddikim and "Reshaim" alike. We will all be partaking of the special "wine" and "meat" G-d has prepared for us since the beginning of creation. This is because our essences will be revealed there. It is the Sukka which highlights our essence. It is the circular dance – which highlights our similarities with nobody leading the dance, and nobody following. Engulfed inside G-d's own presence, we all fuse into One. There, inside the Sukka and surrounding light of G-d, we see that we are exactly the same.

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