Few Torah commandments have the same double-take effect as the mitzvah of shaking the lulav and etrog. On all the seven days of Sukkot, save Shabbos, we hold one citron (etrog) fruit in our left hand and combination of a single lulav (branch of a date palm), two aravas (willow branches) and three hadasim (myrtle branches) in our right; we bring our two hands together; make a blessing and shake the coalition of all four species in six directions – straight ahead, to the right, left, behind us, up and down. Seems bizarre indeed. Uninitiated onlookers will certainly do a double-take.
The Torah does not ask for our complete attention needlessly. When it gives us a double-take mitzvah, it’s clearly trying to convey an important message. What lesson can possibly be taken from this perplexing commandment?
As you might expect, our Sages present us with multiple explanations for this ritual. According to the Midrash, the four species are representative of the four kinds of Jews, and the uniting of the four is indicative of the imperative of Jewish harmony, unity and peace. The etrog has both a pleasant smell and taste, and symbolizes Jews who are both Torah scholars and people of impeccable character. The inedible and fragrance-free aravah represents Jews who have neither quality – are ignorant in matters of wisdom and display unremarkable character. The lulav branch of a date tree and the myrtle hadas branch each have one of the qualities and not the other, and they represent Jews who demonstrate either great scholarship or great character, but not the entire package. These four species corresponding to four very different Jews are united as one in the lulav shaking ceremony.
This imparts a critical lesson. We do not live in a world where all Jews maintain the same level of observance or dedication to Jewish living and learning. Irrespective of practice, we are, regrettably, not even united on philosophical or ideological principles. The unfortunate reality is that there have been major schisms that fractured the Jewish people. The mitzvah of lulav reminds us that despite the bitter infighting, partisanship and disunity that plague our people, we are still a single indivisible unit. Shaking one of the species without the others is meaningless. For better or for worse, the Jewish people are viewed as a single entity. The lulav procedure is thus a sign of Jewish unity.
Alternatively, lulav can viewed as a symbol of the miracle of Jewish continuity. Statistically, we should have disappeared a long time ago. A small itinerant nation bereft of a homeland and not bound by common language or culture should never have survived 2000 years of relentless economic, physical and spiritual marginalization. We should have retired to the annals of history like the many great civilization of the past. The fact that we are still here is nothing short of a miracle.
In Jewish philosophy, we attribute our survival to the annual personal and communal atonement we undergo on Yom Kippur. Every year we are granted a total spiritual cleansing and our sins are forgiven and never accumulate enough in quantity or severity to justify our extinction. During the holiday of Sukkot, on the heels of Yom Kippur, we shake the lulav high, like a victorious warrior returning from battle triumphantly brandishing his sword. We have, once again, survived Judgment unscathed. Accordingly, the lulav ceremony is demonstrative of Jewish continuity.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the ritual of lulav and etrog can be linked to both Jewish unity and Jewish survival. Perhaps we can also learn a synthesis of these two ideas: Jewish survival hinges on Jewish unity. The survival and success of the Jewish national mission depends on us being able to unite as one man with one purpose. If history is of any indication, our greatest national contributions occurred when we were united, mobilized as one to achieve our destiny; and our collective failures and downfalls are conversely marked by internal conflict and strife. If we truly want to fulfill our national destiny of tikkun olam – of being the world’s spiritual guides and moral guardians – we must rid ourselves of any traces of sectarianism, factionalism, division or discord.
This Sukkot, when we do our lulav double-take, let’s remember and internalize the messages of the four species. Contemplate the importance of Jewish unity and the miracle of Jewish survival, and remember that they are interlocked: We will survive and thrive if we are united.