An Environmental Journey
One of my sweetest memories as a rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary relates to the holiday we welcome this week, Sukkot. I fondly recall my first year at JTS, when I joined a devoted Women’s League for Conservative Judaism group lovingly decorating one of the sukkot that stand gloriously at the heart of JTS. What stands out most in my mind’s eye is the lush greenery composing the skhakh (roof of the sukkah)—fruits and decorative leaves hanging from the latticework. This vivid image speaks volumes about the agricultural roots of this pilgrimage festival. Leviticus 23:39–40 declares,
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you will keep the feast of the Lord for seven days; the first day will mark solemn rest, as well as the eighth day. And you will take on the first day the fruit of a goodly tree, date palm fronds, the bough of a leafy tree and the willows of the brook; and you will rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.
While dwelling in booths characterizes Sukkot observance, so too is binding together and “shaking” the four species a quintessential aspect of the holiday. What is symbolized by gathering lulav (palm), etrog (citron), hadassim (myrtles), and aravot (willows)?
Though two of the most often heard explanations describe these species as symbolizing the human being and the nation of Israel (see Leviticus Rabbah 30), Nogah Hareuveni (z”l), founder of Neot Kedumim, the biblical landscape reserve in Israel, offers a different and refreshing interpretation based on the commentary of Rambam (Moses Maimonides).
It seems to me that the four species are symbols of rejoicing at leaving the desert (where neither fig, grape nor pomegranate could grow, and where there is no water to drink) and arriving at a place of fruit bearing trees and streams of water. To memorialize this, one takes the choicest fruit of the earth [fruit of a goodly tree] and the best of the fragrances [bough of a leafy tree] and the most beautiful of leaves [date palm fronds] and the best among plants, that is to say, willows of the brook. (Guide to the Perplexed, III:43)
Accordingly, Rambam understands the four species as representing the transition from desert wandering to settlement in the Land of Israel. Hareuveni takes this notion a step further, describing each of the species in their natural setting:
[D]ate palm fronds . . . shaded the Israelites during their encampment in desert oases . . . willows of the brook are the trees that grow along the banks of the Jordan River . . . at the border of Moav and on the rivers of Babylon . . . and the leafy tree . . . is a tree with dense foliage [like those] found covering the hill country of Israel when they entered the land in the days of Joshua. (Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, 77–78)
Though not directly addressing the fruit of the goodly tree, it is clear that this specimen suggests permanent and peaceful rooting of the nation in the Land of Israel as represented by sweet produce.
Creatively, Nogah Hareuveni describes the arba’ah minim (four species) as the environmental narrative parallel to the decidedly historical declaration of the first fruits (Deuteronomy 26:5–10, recited by the pilgrim recounting the Exodus and subsequent journey). Bringing these species together then reminds of the long, arduous, and blessed route to Israel: wandering; liminality; possession; and, finally, rootedness.
May we all have the privilege of dwelling in the sukkah, gathering the four species, and undertaking a blessed (albeit less arduous) journey to Israel in the coming year.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.