Sukkos is the holiday of Jewish unity, as our Sages state: “Kol Yisrael re’oim laishaiv b’sukkah achas” or “All Israel is fit to dwell in one sukkah” (Sukkah 27b). Yet what does that mean? How does it relate to us, with our individual opinions? Is it even possible to find common ground?
To address the issue, let’s explore the various mitzvos of the holiday. The Torah declares, in Vayikra 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day [of Sukkos] the fruit of the hadar tree (esrog), date palm fronds (lulav), branches of a braided tree (hadassim) and willows of the brook (arovos.)” Each species represents a different quality.
The esrog, with its taste and smell, corresponds to the Jew who excels in learning Torah and performing mitzvos.
The lulav, which has a taste and no smell, represents the scholar who spends most of his/her time learning Torah.
Hadassim, which have a fragrant smell but no taste, is linked to the Jew who spends most of his/her time performing mitzvos.
Arovos have neither a taste nor a fragrance. Yet the Torah commands us to include them in the mix.
Each group is different. Yet when they are bound on Sukkos, they express a unity that reflects the will of G-d, as the midrash
states, “G-d declares, ‘Let them all bond together in one bundle and atone for each other.’” As beautiful (and expensive) as an esrog is, one cannot fulfill the mitzvah without the other three species! This represents one type of unity, in which the whole is incomparably holier than the level of its various parts.
Yet there is a higher level of unity. It is expressed not by the beautiful esrog, the fragrant hadas, or the succulent lulav. Rather it finds its expression in the lowly arava, the willow. In fact, it is the only species that has a special day dedicated to it, Hoshana Rabba.
Hoshana Rabba occurs on the last day of Sukkos. During the times of the Holy Temple, the Kohanim (priests) would surround the altar with willow branches. Today, the congregation carries willow branches and performs seven hakafos (circular processions) around the sanctuary, while praying for the welfare of the Jewish people.
Interestingly, there are several differences between the arovos used with the lulav and esrog and those used on Hoshana Rabba.
For the lulav and esrog to be kosher, two arova branches are needed, each containing three leaves. To qualify for Hoshana Rabba, all that is required is one branch with one leaf.
There is another difference. Including the lulav and esrog is a biblical commandment. Yet the Rabbis declared that if the first day of Sukkos occurred on Shabbos, the four species are not taken. However, they also declared that Hoshana Rabba should never fall on Shabbos, even though it is only a custom and not a biblical commandment.
The concept underlying the lowly arova (willow) is peshitus, simplicity and purity rolled into one. It emphasizes the essential bond between Creator and Creation. This bond exists beyond Torah and mitzvos, which are the wisdom and will of Hashem. It indicates unity unaffected by time, space and any qualitive and quantitative differences. At this level, there is only one.
To return to our opening statement, Sukkos is the holiday of Jewish unity, as our Sages state: “Kol Yisrael re’oim laishaiv b’sukkah achat” or “All Israel is fit to dwell in one sukkah.” On one level, there is the unity reflected in the way Jews serve to complement and complete each other. This is the unity represented by the four species. Being aware of this unity within diversity allows us to join with those who may have different opinions.
Yet there is a higher level of unity, a unity of essence — who the Jewish people are by virtue of their being. On this level, barriers, whether intellectual or emotional, simply do not exist. It is a bond that is fundamental to all who share the breath of life.
Highest of all is the unity expressed by the sukkah itself — a structure that surrounds and encompasses all, regardless of differences or similarities.
This ultimate sukkah is called the sukkos shlomecha, the “sukkah of peace.” It reflects the era of Mashiach, in which humans will exist as souls in bodies, enveloped and embraced by G-d’s infinite being within this finite world. May we merit to see and feel G-d’s transcendent presence immediately. PJC
Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum is CEO of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and rabbi of Congregation Kesser Torah. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.