May 20, 2024
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Israel and Sukkot: A Festival of Unity and a Land of Unity

The experience of four minim is one of the most colorful and vivid mitzvah experiences. It combines multiple fruits and branches into one bouquet, marking the successful conclusion of the harvest season. Aiming to achieve hiddur mitzvah (adornment of religious experience), we decorate many mitzvot (such as a sefer Torah). However, only the lulav arrangement is actually labeled by the Torah as “attractive” or beautiful. The Torah refers to an etrog as “pri eitz hadar,” an exquisite fruit, and this quality applies equally to all four components of the lulav arrangement (at least according to the accepted position of the Rabanan—Sukkah 31a). The four minim are the quintessential mitzvah of splendor.

Part of the appeal of the lulav bouquet is its inclusion of a wide variety of articles. While the etrog fruit is tasty and striking, the arava branch is non-descript and barren of any taste or aroma. A well-known midrash comments specifically about this diversity and specifically the inclusion of less-exquisite components: “The etrog possess aroma and taste while the arava contains neither. The hadasim branches do not produce fruit but are quite fragrant, while the lulav represents a tree that produces edible fruit but doesn’t emit favorable odor.” Bundling these diverse elements of different grades and qualities into one bouquet symbolizes the formation of an inclusive community of vastly different members. To be sure, some members of our communities are conversant in Torah and also conduct themselves with pleasant mannerisms; they produce fruits and emit aroma. Just the same, there are some who are completely bereft of both Torah knowledge and appropriate behavior. Most people, however, try their best in each department—with limited success. Our community—as a lulav—must integrate a broad array of different individuals into one cohesive society. Interestingly, the midrash poses this objective not merely as a social agenda; by forging a fraternity of different “types” of people, Hashem’s presence on this earth is more deeply sensed. Unifying people of differing religious and personal accomplishments around a common interest in Hashem is a testament to the Divine sway within an otherwise fractured human assembly. Shaping these types of inclusive societies isn’t merely a moral or social goal but it also strengthens the coalescing presence of Hashem in our world.

This image provides a compelling but challenging mandate for modern Jewish communities. Often, the aim of inclusiveness clashes with a community’s ability to broadcast its core value system. Despite best intentions and not insignificant efforts, oftentimes the bouquet of inclusion must be surrendered for the clarity of our values. Sometimes the dilution of principles is too steep a price to pay for absolute or unconditional inclusiveness. Sadly, our inability to create full inclusion leads to communal splintering and the dissolution of the bouquet. In the absence of any larger “orienting” unifying factor, these fissures lead to splintered and fractured communities—isolated from one another and with little to no interaction.

Ironically, it is specifically life in Israel that provides unique “lulav-integration” opportunities. Indeed, in many ways, life in Israel feels very polarizing. The politics of voting create harsh and inescapable divisions. Furthermore, the “decision” whether or not to serve in Tzahal creates an unmistakable personal profile or presumed ideological identification, which sometimes creates segregation from those with differing positions. Though generally cities in Israel enable encounter of the other, smaller communities in rural areas and yishuvim tend to be more homogenous (with some rare exceptions). On the surface, life in Israel polarizes rather than unites and, indeed, many who don’t actually live in Israel are primarily exposed to this polarization.

However, the shared sense of enterprise in building a country—a larger shared ideal—creates an overarching sense of fraternity in the broader population. Despite the manifold differences, most Israelis feel compelled to the broader pioneering effort of reestablishing Jewish peoplehood in our ancient homeland. Without question, people articulate this enterprise very differently, but when reduced to its core, everyone’s experience feels very similar, and the grand partnership surpasses the smaller differences of ideology and politics.

This shared enterprise is particularly palpable in army life. The rigors of army life have a reductive effect in blurring ideological differences by imposing shared experiences at a very basic level. Dedicating energies to the lofty and common goal of protecting our nation unites otherwise different people. Many religious soldiers view this fraternal environment in Tzahal as the primary justification for enlistment. Fortunately, the Israeli army no longer requires additional manpower, and the enlistment of religious soldiers isn’t a numbers issue. Of course, from a moral standpoint, many assert that no one person’s blood is redder than another’s and every able person should shoulder equal mission. Beyond the moral equation, though, many embrace army service based on the opportunity to experience this “lulav” type unity and to present religion in a healthy and non-threatening fashion to their less-religious counterparts. Life in Israel provides both the context for fused experience as well as an overarching common enterprise to unite otherwise disparate “elements.” The lulav effect is woven into the fabric of life in Israel.

In addition to an overarching unifying ideal, life in Israel encourages fraternity for a very technical reason: Israel is a relatively small country, which discourages and disallows cantonization. We are forced to live in one common setting, sharing resources while tolerating inconveniences caused by different value systems and lifestyles. We must find a method to share areas of commonwealth such as the Kotel, burial grounds or even beaches. The smaller nature of our communities and cities creates interwoven lives and routines, which demand both ignoring divisions as well as concentrating upon the common ground that unites us. The attitude of one “bouquet” uniting various elements- in some ways- has deeper resonance and expression in Israel than elsewhere.

Interestingly, the holiday of Sukkot provides a second icon of unity—the actual shelter of the sukkah. The Torah articulates the mitzvah in inclusive terms, “Kol ha’ezrach b’Yisrael yeishvu basukkot (every member of the nation should sit in a sukkah),” insinuating that a sukkah should play an inclusive role. In the midst of a halachic conversation, the Gemara (Sukkah 27b) asserts that, in theory, one sukkah should be capable of housing the entire population. The two icons of Sukkot—four minim and a sukkah—each underscore the value of communal unity. However, the unifying effect of a sukkah is vastly different from the solidarity of the four-minim bouquet. A bouquet thrives on diversity—of color, fragrance and texture. Similarly, the lulav model of unity encourages the maintenance and even cultivation of diversity to achieve a greater aesthetic of Jewish peoplehood oriented around common loyalty to Hashem. By contrast, the sukkah houses people indiscriminately and in a manner that is both comprehensive and unattuned to any personal differences. The basic necessity of human shelter strikes at the core of human identity without accounting for, or even addressing, more nuanced or developed layers of human identity or ideological affinity. Humans are humans and all the more so when they mutually enjoy the basic experience of shelter and protection. Life in Israel provides this homogenizing experience as well. Facing a common enemy and exposed to threats that supersede ideology or politics, we all share the sense of being protected in a sukkah. Of course, religious-minded citizens are able to appreciate the Divine Providence protecting us from seemingly innumerable threats. Additionally, the entire population celebrates our defense forces for the significant efforts expended at ensuring our security. Sensing this protection from so many enemies, we are in touch with our shared vulnerability. Missiles and violence threaten everyone equally and in a manner that is independent of religious or ideological identity. When exposed to personal vulnerability, a person is more likely to ignore identity differences and sense his common shared humanity with others.

The icons of Sukkot encourage us to consider the challenge of inclusion. Inclusiveness is a delicate process that must sensitively calibrate many issues. Life in Israel offers distinct opportunities for both the lulav model of solidarity and the sukkah image of cohesion.

Chag samei’ach for all am Yisrael.

By Moshe Taragin


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.

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