Hosha Na: The Aravos, COVID-19, and the Essence of Jewish Prayer

Which of the four species plays the most central role in the Sukkos experience?

Is it the lulav (palm branch), tallest of all the species? Maybe it’s the beautiful esrog (citron), or the pleasant smelling hadasim (myrtle branch)?  But could it be the aravos, the humble branch of the willow tree?

The end of the Sukkos holiday is marked with Hoshana Rabbah. The Chazan dons his white kittel and leads the prayers with the traditional High Holidays melody. As the congregation repeatedly cries out, “Hosha Na (Save us),” the joy and ecstasy of Sukkos – zman simchaseinu – is momentarily forgotten as the congregation is transported back to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur,  enveloped by the solemnity of Hoshana Rabbah.

At the culmination of the Hoshana Rabbah service the four species – the traditional symbols of Sukkos – are set aside, replaced with a bundle of aravos. At face value, this is a most peculiar thing to do. The aravos are the least precious of all the species. Jewish tradition teaches that each of the species represent a different type of Jew. The esrog, which has taste and a fine fragrance, represents a fully committed Jew, one who has Torah knowledge and performs the mitzvos. The lulav has taste but no fragrance. It represents the Jew who has acquired Torah knowledge but neglects proper mitzvah observance. The hadasim have fragrance but no taste. They represent the Jew that is ignorant in Torah knowledge but performs the mitzvos. Unlike the first three species, the aravos have no redeeming qualities, no taste and no fragrance. They represent the struggling inadequate Jew, one who completely lacks Torah knowledge and fails to perform the mitzvos.

Why would we set aside our esroglulav, and hadasim and beseech God with a bundle of aravos?

Perhaps, on Hoshana Rabbah, we are all that struggling inadequate Jew. We set aside the towering lulav, the unblemished esrog, and the pleasant hadasim – symbols of piety and commitment, for we realize that despite the uplifting days of the High Holidays, we are not as lofty, pure, and becoming as we might have thought. Like the aravos, we are deficient, bereft of merits. We cling to the humble aravah for we identify with it, as we stand powerless and vulnerable before our Creator.

A midrash teaches that each of the species corresponds to a different part of the human body. The thin and straight lulav is the spine, the spherical esrog is the heart, the ocular-shaped hadasim are the eyes, and the long and smooth aravos are the lips of the mouth. In this last moment of salvation, in the twilight of the High Holiday season, we turn to God with the only thing we have, our lips, and we do the only thing we can do, express a heartfelt plea for mercy.

In truth, the desperate plea for divine salvation uttered by the “aravos-Jew” is the essence of Jewish prayer. It is the acute sense of utter dependency on God’s mercy and the existential awareness of human vulnerability that constitute true prayer. As the Hoshana Rabbah prayer reaches its climax, man stands before God unarmed – he has no four species, no fasting, and no shofar. Desperate and inadequate, all he can do is plead with his Maker, “Hosha Na – Please save me.”

As COVID-19 ravages our planet, the human race of 2020 – with all of its medical and technological advances – appears a bit weaker, a bit more vulnerable than it was in 2019. Those that are suffering with the disease are fortunate if their only symptom is the lose of taste and smell. Many suffer much more severely. Sadly, many have lost their lives. As we collectively stand – powerless and vulnerable – before this microscopic pathogen, we are reminded of the humble willow branch and the desperate, yet heartfelt plea of Hoshana Rabbah, Hosha Na!

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Leibowitz teaches Talmud, Jewish History, and Philosophy at Yeshivat Sha’alvim and is the author of a number of books and articles in English and Hebrew, including Hashgachah Pratis: An Exploration of Divine Providence and Free Will (2009), The Early Rishonim: A Talmud Student’s Guide (2015), The Neshamah: A Study of the Human Soul (2018), and The Later Rishonim: A Talmud Student's Guide (2020).
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