To preserve or not to preserve…that is the question. Well, at least it’s the question for people who fulfill the mitzvah of “waving the Four Species” on Sukkot. In case you’re not familiar with the practice, the Torah instructs us to take four specific plants, group them together, and “wave” them once a day during the days of Sukkot. Here’s the relevant verse from the Torah: “And you shall take on the first day the fruit of the Hadar tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). It’s a truly fascinating ritual that has been practiced for thousands of years on this festival. People acquire a Lulav and Etrog set, which includes specimens of all four plants mentioned in the Torah (one of them, the Etrog, is a fruit, not a plant). Waving the Four Species not only is a way of connecting to nature, it has a rich and deep meaning as well.
For those who acquire a Lulav and Etrog set, the question is whether or not to preserve the plants during the week long holiday. The Lulav—the tall, skinny palm branch—doesn’t need to be preserved, nor does the Etrog fruit, for they decay very slowly. The myrtle branches, the ones with small, oval leaves, also decay fairly slowly. But the willow branches, the ones with the long, thin leaves, turn brown soon after the holiday begins. So people have to decide whether or not to preserve them. Some take them out of the holder that comes with the set and place them each night in a vase with water like flowers. Others put them in the refrigerator, and still others place them in a slightly damp towel. All of these efforts are for the purpose of keeping them fresh and green.
On the other hand, it’s possible to simply let the willow leaves wither and die. First, they will start to develop dark brown spots, which will grow larger. Then the weakest and most starved leaves will fall off the branch. By the last day of the holiday there might not be much to the willows. Anyone who uses the Four Species during Sukkot faces this same choice: To preserve the willow branches, or not to preserve them.
Personally, I choose not to preserve them. I am not bothered by watching them turn brown and fall off the branch. In fact, I see the deterioration as an important part of the Sukkot festival. For me, Sukkot symbolizes the fading of the earth as we move toward winter. Watching the willow leaves turn brown and fall of their branches is like watching the leaves turn and fall of the trees all around us. It’s a part of the fall season, a reminder that autumn will soon turn to winter and its cold desolation.
Why do I embrace the fading of the willows? Because I know that soon after winter we will welcome the spring with its new life, new growth and all the blessing it will bring. Sukkot is an expression of faith that while the earth may fade and grow dark for a while, light and the emergence of new life are not far off. I can embrace the night because I know that soon a new day will dawn. That expression of faith that the world God created is a place of order and not chaos, a place where life is continually reaffirmed and reborn, is fundamental to my faith as a Jew.
Preserve or not preserve? On Sukkot, I let my willows fade and die and I am stronger for doing so.