Many of us are familiar with Rabbinic homily that associates each of the four species of the holiday of Succot with four archetypes of people. The Etrog (citron) which has both a fragrant smell and can be eaten represents those who have both Torah knowledge and perform good deeds. The palm branch which produces fruit but has no fragrance represents those who have Torah knowledge but do not perform good deeds.
The myrtle has fragrance but does not produce edible fruit, and is associated with those who perform good deeds but do not study Torah. Finally, the willow has neither fragrance nor fruit and represents those of us lacking both Torah and good deeds. The point of this allegorical interpretation of the mitzvah seems to be the importance of unity. Just as the four species are brought together for this ritual, so too all types of Jews should come together.
While at first glance this message is sweet, the interpretation raises some questions. First of all, why should this lesson be associated specifically with the holiday of Succot? Shouldn’t unity be relevant all year long? Secondly, what are we to make of the charge to unite with those who seem to have nothing to offer, neither knowledge nor actions?
Rabbi Shlomoh Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619), in his work Kli Yakar, provides an amazing answer to this question (comments to Leviticus 23:40). The Kli Yakar quotes the midrash that indicates that after Yom Kippur we are given a clean slate. In the four days of preparation for Succot that follow, there is no time to sin. Succot then introduces the post-Yom Kippur new year and its first day begins a fresh reckoning of our sins.
While on Yom Kippur we can all approach God individually to receive forgiveness, the Kli Yakar brings sources that indicate that outside of the High Holidays, the only path towards atonement is the communal one. Once Succot begins, if we want to make things right, we must do so as an entire community. So, it is on the first day of Succot that the four species must be brought together to inculcate the message that from here on out, we must come together. And if we must do this together, it must be every last one of us, from the best of us to the worst.
When I first came across this passage many years ago, I was attracted to its message and I thought of it as something nice to strive for. This year though, the message is urgent, pressing and vital in ways I never appreciated before. Corona has made it clear in an immediate and powerful way that there are problems that can only be solved if we find a way to work together. It will be exceedingly difficult to manage this crisis if we are working against each other. Only a united coordinated effort can really address this disease.
Moreover, the current political polarization here in Israel and the U.S. demonstrates the destructiveness of a fractured society. In many ways we are tearing each other apart. It seems to me that our mutual welfare is dependent upon figuring out a way to work together with those who do not share our politics. Of course, environmental concerns are similarly dependent upon national and even global participation.
On this score, it is so poignant that the Rabbis include the archetype of the willow – those with neither knowledge nor deeds. It is so easy to write off this category. Why should we, the good guys, include them? In fact, our survival depends on coming to a modus vivendi with everybody. There are circumstances where we cannot afford the luxury of excluding those who seem to be beyond the pale. We must find a way to reach out and cooperate.
Perhaps, appreciating that one man’s Etrog is another’s willow can help us to overcome our reflex to exclude and demonize those outside of our camp. In our hyper-complicated world, I for one find it hard to completely denounce any one side. Could it be that some who we automatically see as willows are at least myrtles or palms if not etrogs? Shouldn’t we reach out in a spirit of generosity to explore the potential truths on the other side.
It would be a gross oversimplification to imagine that the Rabbis unequivocally demanded unity. Rabbinic literature is filled with cases, stories, and directives that call for exclusion of individuals and even communities. The question is when to reach out and when to isolate. In our current situation when the default is to shun, exclude, and even cancel, it behooves us to think about the Kli Yakar’s reading of this mitzvah and its potential ramifications for our physical and societal survival.