The tale is told of a group of 19th-century yeshiva students who got into a physical interaction with some maskilim (students of the Enlightenment). Their rosh yeshiva demanded to see them in his study to explain their actions.
The leader said: “Rebbe, did our Sages not say that the Four Species of Sukkot mirror the Jewish people? The etrog, which has a pleasing taste and smell, reflects those who have both Torah and good deeds, while the odorless, tasteless aravot represent those who have neither Torah nor good deeds. Well, don’t we beat the aravot on the ground on the last day of Sukkot? That is what we were doing to the maskilim!”
The rebbe frowned and replied: “Since you have twisted words of Torah to justify bad acts, it appears to me that you lot are the aravot!”
That may be my favorite traditional tale, possibly because I made it up yesterday. However, I think the moral still applies. The Midrash Rabba on Leviticus 23:40 does say the aravot represent those Jews who have neither the wisdom of Torah nor the compassion of good deeds, but it also says they could represent our Matriarch Rachel. Or her son, Joseph. Or the stenographers who record the rulings of the Sanhedrin. Or God Himself.
Still, the most popular interpretation is undoubtedly the one in which taste represents Torah and smell represents good deeds. The lulav has the former, hadasim the latter, the etrog both and aravot neither. God binds them all together so that each may atone for the other.
It is a stirring message of ahdut, unity. But as often happens with ahdut, the underlying assumption has a certain undercurrent of condescension. We may paraphrase the Talmudic phrase “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh be-zeh” as: Kol Yisrael aravim zeh be-zeh. Each group considers the other to be deficient, but in the name of unity, the aravot/ aravim are tolerated. (Aravot is the plural in Mishnaic Hebrew, aravim in Biblical Hebrew.) Is that really ahdut? If we view others as less, as inferior, as here only by our sufferance, how much is that vision of unity worth?
In Temple times, everyone would approach and dance around the altar with aravot. No one would be so brazen as to consider themselves an etrog, or even lulav or hadasim. Everyone took humble aravot, every day of Sukkot, to come before God. Because if God is found in the aravot too, we can at least aspire to that level.
Yes, we do beat them at the end of Sukkot, not out of anger or contempt at the other, but to realize our own failures, the times we lack wisdom or compassion, with the hope that we will grow over the course of the next year. And yet, we never quite get there, as we always need a Yom Kippur to purify us before rejoicing before God on Sukkot.
Sometimes we’re the etrog, sometimes we’re the aravot. True ahdut means that we embrace Godliness, in ourselves and in others, even on the worst of days.