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When the 4 species of Sukkot create a symphony

Given the value of diversity and unity within Judaism, how do we transcend our tendency to exclude those who are different from ourselves?

There’s an idea we’ve likely all heard so many times that it almost seems cliché. The midrash (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana #28) compares each of the arba minim – the four species taken together in blessing on Sto a different type of Jew. Each year we pick up our lulav (palm branch), etrog  (citron), hadasim  (myrtle), and aravot (willow), and we are reminded that each represent a different type of Jew and we bring them all together in a sign of unity.

So beautiful, but isn’t this obvious? Why did we need the midrash to make this point, and what is the psychology behind the struggle?

We have a tendency to exclude some Jews from our arba minim. Of course, we would never be guilty of sinat chinam — baseless hated — the Jews we hate deserve it! All kidding aside… In the abstract, we are comfortable with, and even supportive of, the notion of achdut, unity. Practically, however, those we dislike are always excluded, somehow.

There is an apocryphal story about a Jew standing on line to buy tickets at an amusement park. He looks to the front of the line and sees an ultra-Orthodox Jew there with his family. The man looks like he is trying to get some kind of special deal. Anger starts to well up inside of the Jew on line. He thinks to himself: “Look at that guy — his kids are noisy, everyone dressed shabbily, he has his meek wife just sitting there, and he is trying to negotiate some kind of special deal. What an embarrassment to the Jewish people!” He decides to say something, and, as the man finishes his purchase and turns to go into the amusement park with his family, the Jew looks him in the eye and says “You know, you are supposedly so Godly, but the way you act is a hilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.” The ultra-Orthodox man looks stunned and responds, “Sir, I don’t know what you are upset about. I and my family are Amish and we are just here to enjoy the amusement park.” The Jew starts stammering and apologizes profusely for his mistake. “The Amish are a remarkable people and it is really honorable that you live such a humble life and choose to separate yourselves from so much of the world.”

Freud refers to disagreements with those who are close to us as “the narcissism of small differences.” It is the tendency to dig in even deeper in our positions when those we are dealing with are connected to us.

Without the midrash, we might exclude some folks from the “Arba Minim”:

  • Some would look with disdain towards Jews who embrace Tikun Olam and ignore ritual.
  • Some look with contempt at those who embrace Torah and halakha and ignore a larger vision of Tikun Olam or egalitarianism.
  • Some would look at those who do neither — but instead embrace the rich cultural history of Judaism — as less than or incomplete.

The belief on the part of individuals and groups that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth is a very natural feeling. But to create an “us,” we must then create a “them” and that excludes. This is not surprising in some ways. Religious beliefs are not held lightly – they are at the very core of my identity and speak to my belief about the Ultimate truth in the world. It would seem to follow that if I am right, then you must be wrong. Our tendency to exclude those who are different seems to get stronger as we get closer to members

Back to the message of the midrash – what is the value of diversity and unity within Judaism? How do we transcend our natural tendency to leave people out of our arba minim?

Allow me to share a hava amina — an idea that I have. In the Talmud, not all hava aminas are accepted but all are considered seriously and maybe this hava amina can help us appreciate and understand the larger role of hava aminas in general.

Rabbi Menachem ben Solomon Meiri, author of the Beit HaBechira, famously presented a radical notion of dignity regarding other faiths. He calls Christians, and people of all religions, “”גדורים בדרכי הדת” — those who follow a life of morality and ethics as directed by their faith, and says quite forcefully that they are not idolators. In the world of the Meiri, just as Jews must be true to their faith, non-Jews who serve their God righteously are not to be condemned – rather, Christianity is right for Christians, Islam is right for Muslims, etcetera.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks similarly argued in his work, “The Dignity of Difference,” that Judaism believes in the notion and validity of paths other than our own. He writes:

“In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims.” And continues later on in the book “Can I, a Jew, hear the echoes of God’s voice in that of a Hindu or Sikh or Christian or Muslim or in the words of an Eskimo from Greenland speaking about a melting glacier? Can I do so and feel not diminished but enlarged?”

Perhaps we now have a blueprint for considering other viewpoints within the Jewish community.

Perhaps the midrash teaches us that each of these groups are a part of our arba minim because they are each an integral component to our Jewish existence.

  • You might disagree deeply with the ultra-Orthodox, but their passion, devotion, and willingness to sacrifice is inspiring.
  • You might hate that there are Jews who only focus on Tikkun Olam and seem to treat halacha with less than reverence, but we must appreciate that the rabbis and congregations that do so make a “kiddush Hashem” (reflect well on the Jewish people) with so many non-Jews and Jews alike who see Godliness through repairing the world, progressive politics, and universalism.
  • The same can be said for those who identify as cultural Jews. Consider Einstein, Herzl, Freud, Trostky and more. They were cultural Jews, and their contributions to the world at large undeniably serve as a massive kiddush Hashem.

Moreover, this phenomenon of differences among people is not a bug in the code of creation, but an essential feature. As we are told in the Mishna in the fourth chapter of Sanhedrin, this is part of God’s transcendent greatness: “to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another.”

As Rabbi Sacks beautifully puts it: “Difference is the source of value, and indeed of society itself. It is precisely because we are not the same as individuals, nations or civilizations that our exchanges are non-zero-sum encounters. Because each of us has something someone else lacks, and we each lack something someone else has, we gain by interaction.”

Not only must we recognize that we ourselves are not in the sole possession of all truth, as we are taught in Pirkei Avot – “who is wise? He who learns from others” – we must also recognize that we need all types of Jews to fulfill our mandate to be a light unto the nations.

And we need all types of Judaism to allow all types of Jews to find the voice of Hashem in their own way – and to share the beauty and wisdom of our people and our story with the world.

Which leads me back to “hava aminas,” those initial ideas we have and share.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, in the introduction to his Aruch HaShulchan on Choshen Mishpat, explains that the Torah is compared to a song. The Torah is a shira, he explains, because like a song, it is improved when you have different voices, instruments, harmonies and melodies. We preserve the hava amina, we include all of the voices, all of the initial thoughts, all of the unfounded conclusions, because each of them they are the harmonies and melodies in the corpus of Torah. Each of us — our own etrog and whomever you envision as the hadasim, aravot and lulav — are the symphony of Jewish life.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Segal is Head of School at Shalhevet High School, in California.
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