Mordechai Soskil

The Debate and the Esrog

It feels like it’s been erev yom tov in my house for like the last three weeks. Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was truly uplifting. I walked away from the day feeling cleansed and new. But it’s been a long road and we’re only half way there. And here we are again – erev yom tov. At least we have Shabbos where we can’t shop and cook and build and buy. Boruch Hashem for that.

It is likely that the story of the week will end up being the UN’s anti-Semitic and idiotic vote that the Jewish people have no connection to Jerusalem, but it’s such an insane situation I can’t get my head around it. It’s not really an attack just against the Jews. It seems like an attack against all of Western civilization. I mean, if the Jews were never in Jerusalem then that sort of undermines all of Christianity too. I mean, what were the Crusades about? Where did Jesus preach? Years ago I realized that if you think the sky is blue and you’re arguing with someone who says the sky is gray, you can have a conversation and work it out. But it you say the sky is blue and the other guy says there is no sky, all you can do is walk away. At the moment that’s how I feel. It’s just ridiculous.

I would much rather talk about Karl Becker. The presidential debate this past Sunday really did make me rethink my vote. I may have switched my vote from Third Party Candidate I Don’t Want to Say Here So As to Avoid a Fight to Karl Becker. (Or maybe Ken Bone, also a reasonable choice. You can Google him, but suffice it to say that Twitter decided he was the human embodiment of a hug.) Karl Becker was the gentlemen that closed down the debate by forcing some aspect of civility back into the night by asking each candidate to say something nice about the other. It was like a cool breeze on a stiflingly hot night. I think the whole country went, “Ahhh, what a relief.” He Who Must Not Be Named described his opponent as being a tenacious fighter who doesn’t give up. She Who Was Not Technically Indicted But Still Did Plenty Of Questionable And Maybe Corrupt Things praised her opponent’s children and their close relationship with their dad. It was like watching a Hallmark card come to life. Karl Becker gave us a chance to both truly marvel at how bad things have gotten and to appreciate the power of just one man.

I don’t think that’s the message of Yom Kippur. In the days of the holy temple (in JERUSALEM, you hear that UN, you hive of scum and villainy!) the Kohen Gadol bore the brunt of the service of the day. It was a glorious and exquisite service filled with pomp and miracle, but it was all done by the religious leader. A message of Yom Kippur is that the leader is the embodiment of the people and what happens to him happens to us and vice versa. It’s not the holiday of the “everyman.”

Sukkot on the other hand might be that holiday. Among the stranger things that we Jews do is the mitzvah of lulav and esrog. We literally walk around shul and wave a fruit and twigs. It’s insane. Beautiful and holy, but if I weren’t an Orthodox Rabbi, I would think it was insane. According to the initial biblical law, the mitzvah of lulav and esrog was only one day of sukkot. The law to take it all week only applied in the Temple (according to the Rambam in the whole of JERUSALEM, UN, you miserable vomitus mass, gaaa I can’t take it.) But after the destruction of the Temple the Rabbis decreed that we all take the lulav and esrog each day in order to remember the way the service was done. While that is the declared intent of the decree it seems to me that the law not only saved the memory of how this mitzvah was done in the Temple, it may have saved the mitzvah all together. We are happy to spend between $50 and $200 for a pristine citrus fruit and perfect twigs and branches to use all week. But can you imagine if we only needed it for a few moments of one day’s davening? Would we still have the same fervor? I’m not sure.

Many will remember the symbolism of the Daled Minim (the four species) as referencing different types of Jews. The esrog which has a smell and a taste represents a Jew with Torah learning and good deeds, the hadassim which have a fragrance but no taste represent a Jew with good deeds but no Torah learning, and so forth. As this goes on we learn that the aravah, the willow, with no taste and no smell is symbolic of a Jew with no Torah and no good deeds. This is well known. A few years ago it occurred to me that when we take these four species, with the three bound branches in our right hands and the esrog in our left, the aravah, in its humdrum fragrance free, tastelessness rubs against the aromatic esrog. After a week of being neighbors, you know what happens to the aravah? It gets some of that esrog’s smell! To me the symbolism is perfect. The deeds of the tzadik become reflected in his neighbor when they are bound together in the service of Hashem. Maybe that poor aravah of a Jew had no good deeds and no Torah learning when he came in, but by the time he is on his way out, he picked something up. All he needed was some time with that esrog Jew.

That’s why I say that on some level Sukkot is the celebration of the “everyman.” It’s a chance to see that each of the Jewish people is critical in the service of Hashem. If we exclude, if we reject, if we make uncomfortable to the point where they don’t come (shelo k’din) then our service is pasul (invalid.) Maybe I can’t be a perfect esrog Jew. Maybe the best I can be is a lulav with a few leaves starting to turn, or maybe all I can be is a hadas. But I know that I have a place and I’m needed.

I don’t know Karl Becker at all but I bet he’s a guy with great middos. He asked a question that made the candidates (oy vey!) stop and say something nice. I suppose it’s too much to hope that the change will be lasting, but perhaps some of it will rub off.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.