I remember the first time I saw an etrog. It sat in a box in a friend’s living room, surrounded with luxurious silky-soft paper. In the gray light of the early fall afternoon, it looked to me like a bright little sun emanating a joyful aura of summer. I’d never seen such a glorious lemon before, and I’d certainly never seen one treated with this much dignity. I asked the friend what it was. With patience and only slight amusement in his voice, he explained.
Like most Jews from the former Soviet Union, I grew up with a strong Jewish identity but virtually no exposure to Judaism as a religion and set of rituals. I had learned a lot in the year or so since I’d joined this friendly synagogue community in Chevy Chase, MD. But this was something new.
Unable to resist the pull of the fruit, I reached for it and picked it up from its setting. Its skin felt smooth, and I marveled at the perfection of its form. I wondered where in the world the Jewish communities of the Old Country would get such a thing. I knew for sure that no soil in the vast collection of territories in the Pale of Settlement could possibly produce it. And then I brought it up to my nose and inhaled.
Here I have to say that although my path to Judaism had taken nearly twenty years from the moment of my entry into America, I wasn’t new to spiritual exploration. I had spent years studying various spiritual disciplines, from meditation to yoga to traditional healing practices, before I finally found my home with this community. I learned to look closely at rituals in order to discern, to feel into their original spiritual intention. I was particularly interested in how the physical plane might be used as a bridge to the spiritual one, and I had already come to admire the wisdom with which Judaism weaved the physical gifts of the body (its five senses, its natural rhythms) together with the rhythms of the seasons to help us open up to a deeper connection.
The citrus fragrance burst into my nose and swept straight up, lodging somewhere deep in my brain and jolting me into bright awareness. Whatever the other holy qualities of this fruit were, I thought, its fragrance was certainly one of its most powerful attributes. And I knew the qualities of citrus fragrances. They wake you up to life. They brighten and elevate the mood. They purify. They can make even the dreariest room appear friendlier and more appealing. And that was precisely what this perfect little yellow sun of an etrog was doing to me now. How much easier it would be to get into the spirit of the season, with its commandment to be joyful, with this happy little fruit in hand!
My mind wandered back to my imaginary landscape of Jewish life in the Pale – the vastness of the Ukrainian steppe, the mountainous relief of the Carpathians, where Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov had once traveled from community to isolated community, raising divine sparks among the devout. If fall seemed to be fast approaching here in Maryland, back there late September or early October would already be portending winter. In some places, snow might fall as early as November and would stay on the ground until March. How incredibly wise it was to propose, just on the eve of the gloomiest time of the year when darkness seemed to expand and light diminish, that we engage in a ritual that involved this brightly colored fruit with its joyful, uplifting fragrance.
The Halacha appears to be of two minds as to whether or not we should be smelling the etrog during Sukkot. The original debates did not produce a clear-cut conclusion, and some Rabbinic authorities today feel strongly that the practice should be discouraged. It seems that there are issues related to the purpose of smelling the etrog and questions as to whether or not we should be saying blessings before we do.
But if your level of observance permits it, why not take a chance this Sukkot and go one step beyond the actions you would normally perform with it? Why not try to see if you can develop your own connection with the etrog? I know, it probably sounds silly. But why not suspend your disbelief. You can simply pick it up and let it settle comfortably into the palm of your hand. Feel its shape, its weight, the coolness of its skin. Smell it. Let its fragrance permeate you, mind, body and spirit. Look around to make sure you’re still alone in the room and inhale one more time. Let yourself be carried by the fragrant wave. And if the feeling is a good one, let the memory of it accompany you into the lengthening nights of the season – all the way until the lights of Hanukkah break the darkness and pave the way for spring’s speedy return.