Yesterday, we noted the Gemara’s discussion in Masekhet Sukka (11b) regarding the view of Rabbi Yehuda that one does not fulfill the mitzva of arba minim on Sukkot unless the lulav, hadasim and aravot are bound together. The Gemara explains that Rabbi Yehuda derived his position based on the word “u-lkachtem” (“you shall take”) with which the Torah formulates the command of arba minim (Vayikra 23:40). This same word was used by God in instructing Benei Yisrael before the Exodus to take a bundle of hyssop branches with which to apply the blood of the pesach sacrifice on their doorposts in preparation for the plague of the firstborn. Rabbi Yehuda understood that just as in Egypt, Benei Yisrael were commanded to take “agudat eizov” – a wrapped bundle of hyssop branches, similarly, the mitzva of arba minim requires taking the three branches (the lulav, hadasim and aravot) as a bound bundle.
How might we understand the symbolic meaning of this association drawn by Rabbi Yehuda between the bundle of hyssop branches used on the night of the Exodus, and the four species on Sukkot?
Hyssop – a common, inexpensive plant – is often regarded as a symbol of simplicity and lowliness. When Benei Yisrael left Egypt, they all were, in a sense, lowly. They had all suffered oppression and degradation at the hands of the Egyptians. The binding of the hyssop branches at the time of the Exodus points to the unity that needed to be forged among the people, all of whom had been downtrodden and afflicted, and now prepared to rise together to a position of distinction, becoming members of God’s treasured nation. In direct contract, the four species drastically differ from one another. A celebrated passage in the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 30:12) famously views the four species as representing different types of Jews – the fragrant, luscious etrog symbolizing those who excel in both scholarship and good deeds, the scentless, flavorless aravot symbolizing those who excel in neither area, and the lulav and hadasim representing those who excel in one but not the other. Whereas Benei Yisrael in Egypt came together when they were all comparable to “hyssop,” Sukkot celebrates our nation’s success and prosperity in the Land of Israel, when numerous drastically different groups exist. On Sukkot we are challenged with the requirement of “egged” – to join together in unity, despite our differences. Whereas in Egypt we bonded while standing all together on the lowest socioeconomic rungs, on Sukkot we must strive to come together despite some being an “etrog” and others being an “arava.” As our nation grows and flourishes, it is only natural that many distinct groups and subgroups will form. The mitzva of four species calls upon us to work towards bringing all these groups together in peace, harmony and mutual devotion.
Later (27b), in discussing the laws of sukka, the Gemara notes that the Torah spells the word “sukkot” (Vayikra 23:42) without the letter vav, such that it may be read in the singular form (as “sukat”). The Gemara points to this spelling as the source of the accepted view among the Tanna’im that one may fulfill the mitzva of sukka in somebody else’s sukka (as long as he has permission to be there). The allusion to the singular form, the Gemara explains, indicates that all Benei Yisrael could, in theory, fulfill the mitzva with just a single sukka, thus showing that one does not have to use his own sukka for the fulfillment of the mitzva. The sukka serves to remind us of our ancestors’ miraculous sojourn through the wilderness, where they lived under the loving, supernatural care of the Almighty. During this period, everyone was sustained by their daily portion of manna. There was no competition and no tensions between different classes. The entire nation lived in a single “sukka,” so-to-speak, together cared for by God. On Sukkot, we are to relive this experience by living in our fragile, temporary sukkot, but also by feeling a sense of bonding with the rest of the nation. We are to see ourselves as a single “bundle” of equal members seeking to serve God and living under His direct, loving care. As we leave our homes and try to recreate our ancestors’ experience in the desert, we reaffirm our faith in God’s protection as well as our inextricable link to all our fellow Jews, despite the many important differences that exist between us.