Chana Chava Ford
There is much to say regarding the symbolism of the arbah minim, the four species that we take and shake over the seven days of Sukkot. The usual trope offers metaphors for our bodies and nation; The etrog is a heart and the lulav a spine. These symbols, it is usually told and quoted from rabbinic sources, reflect Jewish peoplehood.
There’s something more to be said, though. To my mind, the arbah minim provide a roadmap for change. In the mid-twentieth century, Eliyahu Kitov cited four characteristics which would render all of the species unfit for use, regardless if the min is a lulav, hadas, etrog, or aravah. When examined, these flaws turn into guides that can help us reach our potential as we enter into a new year.
None of the minim can be grafted. At first blush, this rule is counterintuitive, given the pervasive theme of unity found in Judaism. Wouldn’t it, in light of the constant call for hadus, make sense to join two plants to make a greater one?
However, that is not what unity is about. Unity is standing together while remaining unique. Homogeneity does not a stronger nation make. If we graft, we may have made something new, perhaps even something that is empirically stronger—but we have not made something better.
There is a tradition that each of the species represents a different kind of Jew (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12). By bringing them together, we send a message that all Jews—regardless of knowledge and deeds—belong with one another. But we do not chop up the minim and put them in a blender before shaking; we keep them whole and singular, stating publicly that each individual brings something important and special to our national table.
You are important. You are valuable. You are necessary. But you are only these things when you are yourself. When you allow yourself to be lost in a crowd, when you give up individuality for conformity, there may be some gains, but the loss is incalculable, both to yourself and to that same crowd.
One might be tempted to argue, however, that while individuality is all well and good, not everyone is blessed with traits that will make them stand out and be special. “I’m not as talented/intelligent/righteous as other people,” they might say. “I need to latch onto another; because they have the traits I need to succeed.” The minim have something to say on that as well: none of the species can be stolen.
The root of robbery is a lack of bitahon (Shaarei Kedushah 2:4). A person who robs believes that God messed up; they were meant to have something and God is unable to provide it for them. If a person believed truly that Hashem provides them with all the tools they need—be those tools money, intellect, family connections, etc.—they would not steal. After all, if they were meant to have it, they would get it. In order to fulfill our life missions, we must recognize our own strengths and merits, believing that we already are a complete package—all that’s left is for us is to assemble ourselves.
The next defect is a broken or cut off head/tip. This disqualifies all four, not just the etrog. What message can we glean from here?
Often, when it comes to development, the mantra is follow your heart. While emotions are important—after all, it is hard to love and fear Hashem without feelings—it is crucial that we do not forget our heads as well. Sermons and shiurim regularly speak of the eleventh commandment given at Sinai, “And Thou shalt use common sense.” When we are dealing with the change that growth can bring, our hearts are especially vulnerable to confusion. We get caught in the swirling grey areas, and can become paralyzed by conflicting emotions. It is at these crossroads when our heads, used cooly, can lead us out of the desert into the promised land.
Physiologically, we need our heads. Though science has found ways to temporarily keep a body going without a heart, it has yet to do the same for our heads. The brain, and it’s connection to every part of our bodies, is vital, and as long as it is sound we can continue to live and grow. Our minds have great power, provided we use them. As evidenced by Jean-Dominique Bauby in his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, even if the rest of the body has shut down, if the head is active, a person still has the ability to advance to new levels of understanding and appreciation.
The final quality that can negate all four species is the most fundamental: they need to be alive. If any of them are too dried out, then they are unfit for use. We, too, must be alive—physically and spiritually—in order to grow. The minim that lack water are pasul; Bava Kama (82a) states that water is a metaphor for Torah: eyn mayim ela Torah. Just as plants need moisture to grow, people require ways to connect with spirituality in order to thrive. Spirituality is what feeds creative energy.
Additionally, we need to be active. No arm-chair-philosophy for us: one of the distinctive traits of living creatures is the ability to move in some way. Whether it be a fern reaching towards the sun or a fox pawing at the dirt, life demands motion.
In the language of the four species, how do we prove we are alive?
We shake left, we shake right, we shake forward and even back. We dance around in chaotic movement. It is messy: so is change. Growth will always include setbacks, and rarely is it clear all at once. But there’s one last thing that will invalidate our shaking the lulav. The Rama ruled (Or Ha-Hayyim 651:9) that it is incorrect to shake with the point downwards. The minim must aim toward the sky. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re all over the place right now; if you’re heading upward, bent on making progress, you will get there eventually.