Sukkot Day 2
By Stevie Green
When I was in college, a visiting rabbi gave a lecture about the problems with external displays of over-piety. For example, with disdain, he talked about the “chumra of the week” website – which still exists by the way – which every week sends its subscribers an obscure chumra – an obscure religious stringency that goes beyond the requirements of halacha. For an extra fee, you can get a different chumra than anyone else gets, so you can one-up your friends even if they also subscribe. Anyways, in the talk, he explained his strategy for purchasing a lulav. He would go to a vendor and watch as “frummies” would pick up a lulav, examine it, and put it down. Pick up another, examine it, and put it down. Invariably, he would eventually see one pick up a lulav, examine it, then take out a magnifying glass and further examine it, and then set it down. “That’s the one you want.” He said. “If it passed the 1st inspection, then it’s good enough.” This story was designed in part to make fun of the so-called “frummies”, but I intend to defend them – at least a little.
My freshman year of college I was away from home during my parents’ 25th anniversary party. Some of you were there, but I missed it. As a very sentimental anniversary gift, my grandmother flew me home for thanksgiving. Because thanksgiving is such a crazy time to fly, my Thursday morning flight from DC to LA involved switching planes in Florida. Not only that, but I somehow wound-up switching terminals and was thus outside in Florida for a few quick minutes. The reason I remember this is that I saw something extraordinary. Something which for an instant made me feel like I had already flown across the country instead of about to do so. Palm Trees. I was not geographically substantially any closer to Los Angeles than before, but when I saw palm trees while on my way home for the 1st time since starting college, it felt like I had already made it. To be clear, I hadn’t been feeling homesick or anxious, and had no specific personal attachment to palm trees aside from being a reminder of home.
So what does this have to do with sukkot? It’s true that the palm frond is used for a Lulav, and in Los Angeles, palm branches are used for schach as well. It’s also true that there are any number of ways that thanksgiving can be connected to sukkot. But that isn’t it.
Just a few years ago, a guest of R. Elliot Dorff was with us at Beth Am for sukkot davening. After services, R. Dorff introduced him as an employee of the cardinal and joked that he now has the difficult job of reporting to the cardinal that Jews are not in fact pagan.
So how do we explain the Lulav and Esrog? How do we understand it ourselves? Often we give answers that connect the four species with various body parts or with various kinds of people that we are symbolically bringing together. Sometimes we explain that for one week we march around the Sefer Torah to show that it is our center, and then on Simchas Torah we take out all of the Sifre Torah and carry them around with us, to show our ownership of and responsibility for the Torah. Sometimes we take a historical/anthropological approach and compare this ritual to ancient rain dances.
Rambam has a much more direct explanation. One that, in my opinion, gets to the heart of the matter rather than merely explaining some of the details. Near the end of the “Guide to the Perplexed” Maimonides goes about explaining the holidays. To explain the “arbeh meenim” – the four species, he quotes a verse that does not come from any biblical description of festivals, of harvest laws, nor of the city named Sukkot that the Israelites passed thru while leaving Egypt. The verse comes from the Israelites complaining in the dessert:
Num: 20: 4-5: Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place without grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” After a long rant against taking midrash too literally, says the Rambam in full:
It appears to me that the four species are a symbolical expression of our rejoicing that the Israelites left (exodus’ed) from the wilderness, “a place without grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates, or water to drink” (Num. 20:5), to a place of trees that bear fruit and rivers. We take as a memorial the fruit which is the most pleasant of the fruit of the land, branches which smell best, most beautiful leaves, and also the best of herbs, i.e., the willows of the brook. These four kinds also have those three purposes: First, they were plentiful in those days in Palestine, so that everyone could easily get them. Secondly, they have a good appearance, they are green; some of them, viz., the citron and the myrtle, are also excellent as regards their smell, the branches of the palm-tree and the willow having neither good nor bad smell. Thirdly, they keep fresh and green for seven days, which is not the case with peaches, pomegranates, asparagus, nuts, and the like.
So that’s the image. Desert sojourners getting their first glimpse of fertile plant-life. An exodus from the dessert into the land of Israel. And why these four specifically? Well, they are pleasant enough for several days, and, most importantly, plentiful, common, and easy to get in the land of Israel. Now there is some pragmatism in using plentiful crops as we need to harvest a lot of them and would like to keep costs down. But if that was the motivating factor, then we would all use local plants wherever we live, just as the vegetables used for Karpas and Marror have changed as Jews moved over time and space. Rather, there is something deeper. These plants are ubiquitous. They aren’t special or prized. Except once a year, we take the most ignorable of plants and remember the moment when they were stunning. When the sight of them triggered celebration. “There is green, There is life, There is hope, Halleluyah!” …So we continued to take them to the temple for the biggest celebration of the year. And when we didn’t have the temple, and no longer lived in the land of Israel, they took on even greater meaning. When seeing these plants wasn’t a normal occurrence anymore, it became a special occurrence, a reminder of home. Not unlike palm trees outside a Florida airport.
My first time in Israel was over sukkot. It was the 1st or 2nd ever Shalhevet 10th grade Israel trip. It was led by our own Paul Nisenbaum, was at the height of the 2nd intifada in 2002, and was almost completely funded by the Jewish Federation. We left LA the day after Yom Kippur and spent 19 days in Israel – thus including all of sukkot. I was being housed by a family with a 10th grader in Shalhevet’s sister school in Tel Aviv. [I don’t remember the name of the school, anyone here know?] This family didn’t purchase a lulav from a shul fundraiser or from a teenager on Pico Blvd. or Dizengoff St. Instead, we drove out to some undeveloped land by a stream and collected what we needed for arbeh minim as well as for schach. My memory isn’t totally clear, it may be that the lulav itself and the estrog were pre-cut for us, and/or there may have been some kind of fee. I’m not sure. But I do remember that the myrtle tree was at the top of an incline and the willow was down by the stream. So I believe it – that these plants were accessible, forgettable, and familiar – save the esrog which only arrived in Israel in the middle of the 2nd temple period and used to be an olive branch. After all, living in Egypt, Maimonides had accurate information about Israel, unlike most European rabbis of the time.
Consider again the image of trees and fruit to a population that had been born in and only ever lived in the barren dessert. Maybe they were eager to study and to scrutinize each new plant. Maybe, this one week a year, when we remember to treat these ordinary plants as extraordinary, we should personalize our selections, examine them – even under magnification, and protect them with plastic, bamboo, and Styrofoam.
One theme of sukkot is home. We build and dwell in new symbolic homes and we celebrate with physical reminders of home. But even more so, sukkot is about fragility. We live in temporary structures. We read Kohelet – the book of Ecclesiastes – which is about living in the present and letting go of the need to try to control the future. And we celebrate our past together with our present by taking those things that we are accustomed to taking for granted and we remember how truly special they have been all along.