As I do every year before the Sukkot holiday, this morning I purchased my Arba Minim (four species, also knows as “lulav & etrog” set) in order to fulfill the biblical commandment found in Leviticus 23:40:
“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees (פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר), branches of palm trees (כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים) and boughs of leafy trees (וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת) and willows of the brook (וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל), and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days.”
In Talmudic tradition, the four plants are identified as: etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree, lulav (לולב) – a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree, hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree, and aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree.
Several explanations are offered as to why these particular species were chosen for the mitzvah (commandment). One of the more famous ones, which I was taught as a child, comes from the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12) which says that the binding of the four species symbolizes our desire to unite the four “types” of Jews in service of God.
So far, so good. I am all for Jewish unity. But I always had a problem with this specific Midrash, which makes an allusion to whether or not the species (or their fruits) have taste and/or smell, which correspond to Torah and good deeds. The symbolism is as follows:
- The lulav has taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not possess good deeds.
- The hadass has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who possess good deeds but do not study Torah.
- The aravah has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both Torah and good deeds.
- The etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and good deeds.
What troubles me about this Midrash (and the fact that it has been taught to Jewish children around the globe for as long as I can remember) is that my parents always taught me that all Jews (well, at least the ones that I have encountered) have good deeds (some more than others, but all have good deeds). Some may call me naive, but I really believe that.
True, not all Jews have Torah knowledge, but in Israel, where I live, I believe most Israeli Jews have some Torah knowledge (some more than others, but they still have it).
So, I have a difficult time wrapping my head around this Midrash. Yet, I still take hold of my four species on each day of Sukkot (except Shabbat) and say the blessing and wave them in the same directions and manner my father, of blessed memory used to, as is our tradition.
But this year I will be thinking of something else when I take hold of my four species on the first day of the Sukkot holiday. On January 1st of this year, I began working at World WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) as the Head of English Content in the Publicity & Communications Division. In fact, I have blogged and written about my eye-opening experiences at WIZO on several occasions, including what it’s like to be one of the few males working in a women’s organization.
But taking our famous Midrash about the four species in a different direction, I have learned that at WIZO we also focus (mainly) on four different kinds of people: children, youth, women, and seniors.
- Children – Nearly a century ago, WIZO began by providing mothers with the means to feed their children. WIZO has since grown to become Israel’s leading organization for early childhood care and education. WIZO remains dedicated to Israel’s next generation and their parents by providing excellent childcare and top education to babies and toddlers with a special emphasis on changing the difficult circumstances of children at risk. WIZO nurtures the child and gives mothers peace of mind and the freedom to work, knowing that their toddlers are receiving the very best start in life.
Every time I visit one of WIZO’s hundreds of day care centers, I see the power of WIZO. I see the love and care given to each child first-hand.
2. Youth – Whenever I pay a visit to one of WIZO’s schools and youth villages I see how WIZO provides not just the very best education, but perhaps even more importantly individual attention and full support for every student. One of their main goals is to close the educational gap between disadvantaged children and youth at risk and those from stable homes, and ensure that no child falls between the cracks.
WIZO’s schools and youth villages nurture the natural talents of each youth and guide them in using these talents to build a career and a more promising future. What I talk to WIZO students and WIZO graduates I can see how WIZO instills a strong sense of personal and national pride in each youth and creates generations of responsible, giving citizens of Israel.
3. Women – WIZO is of course a women’s organization (hence the “W” in WIZO). Since its inception, the women of WIZO have stood for women’s rights and helped women in all echelons of society. Adapting to emergent needs, WIZO’s social efforts today specifically target women living with violence, single mothers and teenage girls at risk all while developing young vibrant social women leaders.
In this sphere, WIZO’s main goals are: to empower women across Israel, to raise the numbers of women in positions of power and influence, to promote policies and legislation that aim to achieve gender equality, and to reduce violence in Israeli society.
4. Seniors– Next door to our World WIZO headquarters in Tel Aviv is WIZO’s Parent’s Home. I have visited it on a number of occasions, most memorably on Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Memorial Day) when I heard residents share their personal survival stories.
But make no mistake, thanks to WIZO, the Parent’s Home is full of life. They have many activities going on there constantly (from art to music to lectures to dance). When I talk to the residents there, they always share how much WIZO means to them. I also got to witness them sharing their life stories to young Israeli soliders who visited them on Yom Hashoa. It was quite emotional.
Speaking of seniors and Sukkot, there is a lovely story shared by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat that connects the two.
Reb Aryeh Levin, of sacred memory, was renowned as a righteous person of Jerusalem. He was known for his punctilious observance of each of the ritual commandments and his overwhelming compassion for every human being. Two days before the advent of the Festival of Sukkot, he went to the Geula district of Jerusalem to choose his Four Species.
Immediately, word spread that the great tzaddik Reb Aryeh was standing in front of a long table in the street selecting his species. A large crowd gathered around him, after all, the etrog (citron) is referred to in the Bible as a beautiful fruit (eitz hadar), and since we are enjoined to “beautify the commandments”, observant Jews are especially careful in purchasing a most beautiful and outstanding etrog.
Everyone was interested in observing which criteria the great tzaddik would use in choosing his etrog. To the amazement of the crowd, however, Reb Aryeh looked at one etrog and put it down, picked up a second, examined it, and then went back to the first and purchased it together with his three other species. The entire transaction took less than 5 minutes. The crowd, rather disappointed, rapidly dispersed imagining that the great rabbi had a very pressing appointment.
One person decided to follow Reb Aryeh to see exactly where he was going. What could be more important than choosing an etrog the day before Sukkot? this Jerusalemite thought to himself. Rav Levin walked into an old age home.
The individual following him, waited outside and 90 minutes later the great Sage exited. The Jerusalemite approached him “Revered Rabbi”, he said. “Please don’t think me impudent, but I am anxious to learn a point of Torah, and therefore, I am asking the question. The great commandment of Sukkot include the waving of a beautiful etrog. I am certain that visiting the elderly individual or individuals in the Old Age home is also an important mitzvah, but they will be in the Old Age Home during the Festival of Sukkot as well as after it. The purchase of the etrog is a once a year opportunity. I would have expected the revered rabbi to have spent a little more time in choosing the etrog.”
Rav Levin took the questioner’s hand in his and smiled lovingly “My dear friend”, he said. “There are two mitzvoth which the Torah employs the term hidur, (beautification), one is: the mitzvah of a beautiful etrog (pri etz hadar), (Leviticus 23: 40) and the second is beautifully honoring the face of the aged –” (ve’hadarta pnei zaken) (Leviticus 19:32).
“However, the etrog is an object and the aged individual is a subject, a human being and not a fruit. Hence, I believe one must spend much more time in beautifying the commandment relating to the human being than beautifying the commandment relating to a fruit.”
So, this Sukkot when I take my four species in my hands, I will also keep in my mind – and in my heart- WIZO’s “Core Four”: children, youth, women, and seniors.
Because at WIZO, the wonderful volunteers and staff beautify the children, youth, women and seniors not just on Sukkot, but every day of the year.