On Sukkot we take up the four species: the Etrog (citron) and the lulav (palm), which is accompanied by the hadas (myrtle) and the arava (willow). Prescribed Biblically (Leviticus 23:40) and explicated rabbinically, what do these symbols mean?
One interpretation is from Vayikra Rabbah, a collection of midrash based on the book of Leviticus. This text (30:9) points out verses in which each of these words refer to God and thus these species represent dimensions of the divine:
- The Etrog, based on Pslams 104:1: הוד והדר לבשת
- The palm, based on Psalms 92:13: צדיק כתמר יפרח
- The myrtle, based on Zecharia 1:8: והוא עומד בין ההדסים
- And the willow, based on Psalms 68:5: סולו לרוכב בערבות ביה שמו
But Vayikra Rabbah goes on to offer other possibilities. In section 14 of the same chapter, it connects each of the species to a different part of the body, with the lulav representing the spine, the myrtle the eye, the willow the mouth, and the Etrog the heart.
And in one more interpretation (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12), the four species represent four types of Jews:
The lulav, which has taste but no smell, symbolizes those who study Torah but do not do good deeds.
The myrtle has a good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who do good deeds but do not study Torah.
The willow, which has neither taste nor smell, symbolizes those who lack both Torah and good deeds.
And lastly, the etrog has both a good taste and a good smell, symbolizing those who have both Torah and do good deeds.
These are quite varied ways to interpret a set of four plants. The similarity among these interpretations is the diversity and yet the interrelationship. Maimonides teaches in his laws of Sukkot (Hilchot Lulav 7:5) that the four species is a single mitzvah, and the absence of any of them renders the whole mitzvah undone (מעכב). If you just had a spine, but no heart, you wouldn’t have a working body. And if you just had one kind of person in the Jewish community, but not another, our variety would not be complete. We need all diverse kinds—bound together—to have a compelling understanding of the divine, to have healthy body, and most importantly, to have a healthy community. Each person contributes something and without any one—not despite their differences, but because of their differences—the mitzvah is not fulfilled.
As the midrash puts it, the lulav is Israel. And the myrtle is Israel. And the willow is Israel. And the Etrog is Israel. What does God do? Ties them all together into a single bunch and they atone for each other.
Wishing the whole community chag sameach as we enter this time of happiness (זמן שמחתנו) together.