By Shlomo Riskin
The joyous festival of Sukkot comes at the heels of Yom Kippur, the Day of Forgiveness and Purity. Now that, hopefully, we have been forgiven for our transgressions, we begin afresh with a clean slate. We celebrate, by eating our meals in colorfully decorated booths (sukkot) which remind us of God’s protection in the desert. And our prayers in the synagogue are punctuated by the waving of the Four Species through which we thank God for His agricultural bounty.
From this description, it would seem that the emphasis is on religious ritual connecting God and Israel. However, the great legalist-philosopher Maimonides makes the following comment in his Laws of Festivals (6: 18): When a person eats and drinks in celebration of a holiday, he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard (or sukkah) and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not indulging in rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut.
With regard to such a person the verse, (Hoshea 9:4) is applied: “Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners, all that partake thereof shall become impure, for they kept their bread for themselves alone.” This happiness is a disgrace for them, as implied by the verse (Malachi 2:3): “I will spread dung on your faces, the dung of your festival celebrations.”
The Four Species are symbolically described by the Sages of the Midrash as representing four types of Jews: the “Etrog Jew” is both learned and filled with good deeds; the “Lulav Jew” has learning but no good deeds; the “Myrtle Jew” has good deeds but no learning and the “Willow-branch Jew” has neither learning nor good deeds. We are commanded to bind these four together, in order to remind us that a Jewish community consists of many types of Jews all of whom must be accepted and lovingly included within our Jewish community. Hence, a festival which superficially seems to be oriented solely in the direction of religious ritual actually expresses important lessons in human relationships.
To this end, I would like to relate a story. 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 five minutes. The crowd, disappointed, dispersed.
One person decided to follow Reb Aryeh to see where he was going. What could be more important than choosing an etrog the day before Sukkot? he 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 asking the question: The great commandment of Sukkot include the waving of a beautiful etrog. I am certain that visiting the elderly 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 smiled lovingly. “My dear friend,” he said, “there are two mitzvot 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 – (vehadarta pnei zaken) (Leviticus 19:32). However, the etrog is an object and the aged individual is a human being, 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.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, and founding rabbi of Efrat.