July 18, 2024
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Sukkot: Just Walk In and Take a Seat

There are few mitzvot as colorful or as diverse as the lovely bouquet of the lulav. All four natural minim in the lulav arrangement are aesthetically pleasing, but also highly iconic. For centuries, Jews living in northern climates struggled to acquire these tropical products. Now that we have returned home, much of the drama of securing the four minim has faded, as these four natural elements are indigenous to Israeli agriculture.

As each of these natural elements are very different, the Gemara envisions this lulav combination as a symbol of Jewish unity. The Gemara lists the respective traits of the various components of the lulav bouquet: an etrog is both tasty and aromatic, the lulav palm tree produces nutritious dates but emits no aroma, the hadassim branches discharge a perfumed odor but come from a barren bush, while the “bare” arava tree is both barren and odorless.

Despite the obvious hierarchy between the four elements, they are all included in one arrangement, thereby modeling the ideal of an inclusive society. Some members of society are more pious, while others are less devout. Some study Torah and observe commandments while others do not. An ideal Jewish society should be patterned after the lulav model, and should include many stripes and many levels of religious commitment.

The Gemara’s scheme of “inclusion” is predicated upon a clear hierarchy between the respective elements. The etrog sits atop this pyramid, while the fruitless and bland arava occupies the bottom tier. Though the arava contributes little to the lulav complex, it is still incorporated. A compassionate society includes many members who don’t “fit in” and who contribute little. In a city of chesed and kindness, no one is left behind.

Modern Inclusion

This model of inclusion was perfectly suited for Jewish communities in earlier times. The Jewish world was overwhelmingly religiously observant. Isolated renegades who opted out of observance, religious belief or both, were the minority and were commonly viewed as apostates and outcasts. Though exclusion of these “reshayim” may have been justified, the lulav model encouraged a more tolerant policy of inclusion. All Jews should be included within a “lulav society” — even the sinners who have actively defected from Jewish society.

The modern Jewish world is far more complex and doesn’t invite this approach. Though observant Jews view full Torah observance as the ideal, a large secular Jewish society doesn’t concur with us. Additionally, non-Orthodox Jewish denominations do not view classic Orthodoxy as their ideal. Assigning inferior arava-like status to non-observant Jews or to non-Orthodox branches of Judaism — even while encouraging inclusion — comes across as demeaning and patronizing. How can the lulav provide a model for modern Jewish inclusion in our vastly different social reality?

An Interdependent Ecosystem

The lulav bouquet isn’t just a collection of disparate elements. It is harvested from different parts of nature — hadassim are picked from a bush, aravot are cut from riverside trees, a lulav is cropped from a towering palm tree and an etrog is reaped from a citrus tree. In nature, all life needs another source of life to survive, as no one species can live alone. Every component in nature is bound to every other component in an intricate and delicate web of codependency. Extinction of even a minute element, can have a devastating domino effect upon the entire ecosystem. Some elements of nature may seem more important while others seem marginal, but, ultimately, each and every element contributes to the magnificent bio-network we call nature.

Aravot branches may seem bland, but without trees and reeds lining a river, it would overflow and flood cities into inhabitable marshlands. Instead, rivers flow downstream providing waterways for transportation and a steady stream of fresh water for populations who live downriver. Likewise, hadassim bushes may seem useless, but all shrubs and bushes absorb pollutants and filter our air.

A healthy ecosystem is vital for the growth of palm trees and for the growth of their mineral and vitamin-rich dates. Similarly, a balanced ecosystem enables the development of an elegant etrog tree with its medically beneficial fruit. Nature is a ring of interconnected elements, and by combining branches, bushes and fruits in our lulav arrangement, we create a different template for inclusion. Every element of the lulav arrangement possesses function in nature and every sector of the Jewish people provides value. If only we could learn to better appreciate that value.

Admittedly, it is often easier for non-observant Jews to appreciate religious Jews and to include them in their “lulav society.” Secular Jews often respect the commitment of a religious lifestyle and appreciate religious Jews, who preserve our common heritage. Understandably, it is often more challenging for observant Jews to appreciate the values and lifestyles of non-observant Jews. Observant Jews live with the abiding conviction that, one day, every Jew will adopt a religiously committed lifestyle. Anything less than full commitment does not represent an ideal. However, authentic inclusion requires mutual respect and mutual admiration. Appreciating every role and every society in the ecosystem of Judaism, is a vital step toward simulating lulav inclusion. It is easier said than done, but is a precondition toward simulating lulav unity.

Just Walk In

The “other” mitzvah of Sukkot models a very different form of inclusion. The Torah describes the mitzvah of residing in the sukkah: “every Jewish citizen should sit in the sukkah.” By referring to each Jew as a citizen or as an ezrach, the Torah essentially ignores different religious levels. The term “citizen” addresses national identity — equalizing every Jew regardless of religious commitment. The lulav bouquet is enhanced by its diversity and by its inclusion of seemingly “lesser” components. By contrast, a sukkah shelters all its inhabitants equally, regardless of their level of observance. The inhabitants of a sukkah sit side-by-side — under one roof — regardless of religious tiers. One roof, one people.

Sukkah unity is more palpable in Israel than in most overseas Jewish communities. Despite our many religious differences, Israelis share daily “mundane” routines such as shopping, transportation, business, medical care and, of course, our common government. Beyond these shared experiences, army service is a powerful equalizer, as the army culture is founded upon the premise of equality between all its soldiers. Additionally, and in a very literal sense, every Israeli lives under the same protective sukkah. We all face a common hostile enemy, which doesn’t discriminate between religious and secular in the hatred and violence it directs toward us. We all live under one divinely protected sukkah, and God has blessed us with the ability to defend ourselves and our homeland.

Religious differences in Israel often flare, but beneath the surface, most Israelis sense — or should sense — our common heritage and our mutual commitment to the great project of resettling our homeland and rebuilding our nation. One people, one sukkah. Just walk in and take a seat… For the meantime, check your religious differences as you enter.

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha 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.

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