The four minim of Sukkot are fundamentally different from the typical items used for the performance of a mitzvah. Objects which are generally employed for mitzvot, known as cheftzei mitzvah, come in two varieties. Some of these mitzvah objects, such as a sefer Torah, contain the written word of Hashem. While a sefer Torah contains the entirety of Hashem’s word, tefillin and mezuzah parchments contain excerpted “highlights” of the Torah.
Other mitzvah objects, while not containing Torah texts, possess historical symbolism. These mitzvah objects recall important historical milestones, moments in history when the very same items were utilized. For example, eating matzah recalls our exodus from Egypt when we ate the very same matzah, amidst the chaos of our speedy departure. Likewise, our modern sukkot are replicas of the actual huts which sheltered us from the harsh desert conditions during our journey to Israel. Consuming matzah or residing in a sukkah reconstruct foundational moments of Jewish history. These two brands of mitzvah objects represent the two primary avenues of religious experience: Hashem’s word and Jewish history.
The arba minim of Sukkot are different. Vacant of any preexisting religious symbolism, they don’t bear words of Torah, nor do they directly recall any historical precedent. There was no historically momentous event in Jewish history which featured the four minim. The four minim of Sukkot are completely bereft of any classic historical or divine symbolism.
Divine Beauty in Nature
They do, however, conjure a third avenue of religious meaning- the beauty and diversity of Hashem’s natural world. The bouquet of four species incorporates a variety of natural elements. The tall lulav is harvested from a towering date tree, while the aromatic hadassim branches are gathered from a lowly bush. While the lulav grows on a tree which produces delicious and nutritious fruit, the hadassim branches stem from a bush which is barren of fruit, but imbued with sweet fragrance. The etrog is a fruit, with both pleasant odor and proven medicinal benefits, due to its high concentration of vitamin C. The sinuous aravot are harvested from whispering reeds which rise alongside murmuring brooks. Together, these four assorted components encapsulate nature’s beauty, variety and functionality. Together, they showcase the divine masterpiece of nature. Clutching these four icons of nature’s beauty, affirms that Hashem can be discovered not only in His word or in His historical intervention, but through nature.
Obviously, the most direct way to serve Hashem and to discover religious meaning is to study His written word and to apply His divine will to our daily lives. Hashem Himself lies beyond the reach of human comprehension and expression, and for this reason, Judaism always prioritized Torah study over philosophical inquiry. Alongside Torah, remembering historical milestones and recalling divine miracles, also provides us access to Hashem and to religious meaning.
The four minim provide a third route to discovering Him, independent of His word and unrelated to any historical context. We can identify Hashem in the magnificence of His natural world.
Nature of Man
If we can discover Him in the beauty of the world which surrounds us, we can, likewise, trace Him in the grandeur of the world within us. Just as the beauty of nature speaks divine glory, similarly, the magnificence of man reflects divine wisdom. Nature signals God through her beauty while man reflects God through his innate human virtue.
For this reason, Chazal associated the four minim of nature with four major human organs. Establishing this correlation between elegant articles of nature and human organs underscores that both nature’s splendor as well as the magnificence of man each reflect Hashem.
An etrog corresponds to a human heart, the seat of our emotions and our consciousness, each of which is exclusive to human beings. The aravot symbolize human lips and the capacity for cognitive communication, a trait which we alone possess. The haddasim leaves evoke human eyes. Though many animals can see, and some have better sight than humans, we are the only creatures gifted with vision, allowing us to imagine realties which don’t yet exist. Our eyes work differently. Finally, the lulav corresponds to a human spine which is structured as a double curve, aligning our heads and torso into a vertical line above our feet, allowing us to walk upright. We don’t face the ground, scraping by on our knuckles, but stand upright and noble before Hashem.
The four minim remind us that, as Hashem’s masterpiece, we are delicately crafted and, additionally, are endowed with innate purity and intrinsic virtue. The four minim invite us to trace Hashem both through nature’s beauty as well as through the grandeur of human potential and the glory of human virtue. Human kindness and “natural” morality are expressions of Hashem’s will and should inspire religious meaning.
As religious people we strive for a more elaborate religious experience which incorporates commandments, Torah study, prayer and historical consciousness. However, we also accredit the intrinsic moral values of a pure human heart. Virtue and nobility were downloaded into our hearts by God and they must also provide religious inspiration.
Respecting Good Human Beings
This concept has particular resonance on Sukkot and special urgency for this coming Sukkot. Sukkot is a chag of unity, one of the three times a year during which the entire population pilgrimaged to Yerushalayim for aliyah laregel. Additionally, once every seven years, on this chag, the seminal moment of Sinai, when we all stood united before Hashem, was reenacted through the Hakhel assembly.
After a year of social strife and intense and even violent disagreements, we are in desperate need of recipes for national unity. There are many varieties of unity, but the most superior and durable unity must be built upon mutual respect and acknowledging the merits of people with different lifestyles. Appreciating that differing values enhance our own experience fosters greater unity and enables a more profound feeling of solidarity. Appreciating and respecting the “other” is crucial to genuine unity.
However, respecting others who are different doesn’t always come easy for religious Jews. Torah and religion are so primary to our identity that we legitimately struggle to respect those who operate outside the boundaries of classic religious observance. The first step to mending our ruptured social fabric in Israel is learning to respect other members of our struggling democracy, especially secular Jews. Many secular Israelis, though not classically religious, lead deeply meaningful lives of values, moral spirit and patriotic commitment to our people, this land, and our joint history. There is something magical about the encounter between a Jewish heart and the soil of our homeland. When the two meet something deeply spiritual emerges, even if that spirituality isn’t framed in classical religious terms. If we respect their values and lifestyle, even without completely validating a non-religious lifestyle, we must also accommodate their wants and interests. If Orthodox Jews are unable to identify any value in secular Israel, genuine unity built upon mutual respect will remain elusive.
The “natural” symbolism of the four minim illustrates that natural human goodness is a divine expression, even when it isn’t accompanied by full religious commitment. We should admire every “good” human, but certainly the people with whom we share both this land as well as a common destiny.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.