Welcome everyone to the annual Kneseth Israel Sukkot Holiday for our family and community celebration. During this period we wish one another the traditional "Happy Holiday" or Chag Samayach. This festival is about gathering and it gives us plenty of opportunities to "gather" ourselves together.
This is a sacred occasion dating back thousands of years as the Jews wandered for forty years starting with their exodus from Egypt until their arrival in Israel. In Leviticus 23:42-43, it states, "Ye shall dwell in booths seven days; all that are home born in Israel shall dwell in booths; that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt….." Additionally, in Exodus 13:20 it says, "And they took their journey from Sukkot and encamped in the wilderness."
Sukkot follows only a few days after Yom Kippur, the day of judgment. As we start living the new chapter—a time of rejoicing, a time of gladness and joy, let us hope the weather stays warm, filled with sunshine reflective of a bright future.
Thank you to everyone that helped to build and decorate our homey and haimish temporary Sukkah hut. It is covered with evergreen branches called in Hebrew schach and decorated with harvest related fruits and vegetables. There are pictures of cornstalks, pumpkins, gourds and berries are among the drawings and decorations on the walls. Everyone is cordially invited for Kiddush and delicious donuts in the Sukkah.
Today, we will explain the authenticity of the oral teachings as well as the meaning of the familiar etrog. In today’s Torah portion it is written, "You shall take for yourself the first day, the fruit from the tree." The etrog is a lemon-like fruit typically from Israel. It is also grown in countries such as Russia, Yemen, Italy, and America. The lulav is a bundle of three types of branches: the palm, willow and the myrtle. It is customary on Sukkot to take these items, place them together, and shake them left, right, front, back, up and down.
The famous Ramban, in his introduction to the Mishnah, "oral torah," poses a question. How do we know that the fruit from the tree means the etrog fruit? Suppose you are teaching a class. You give your students an assignment: "Go home and come back tomorrow with a fruit from a tree." What is going to happen? As you can imagine, the next day, you have a variety of fruits from apples, oranges, figs, apricots, and so on brought to your classroom. What does this indicate? As we know, Jews have been scattered around the globe for thousands of years. Yet, you see Jews from all corners of the world meet at synagogue and carry the same fruit. The same etrog that dates back to the divine oral tradition has been perpetuated since ancient biblical times. How is it possible after thousands of years of separation that a Jew from Yemen, ‘South America, Russian or Italy all carry at the festival of Sukkot the same etrog fruit? The Rambam answered that this ritual is evidence that the oral tradition was devotedly transmitted from one generation to the next. Isn’t that a great feeling when we look at the etrog? We can travel back in time and still feel connected today to our roots and heritage. The biblical narrative in a way is vague and only by interpretation of the oral teaching can we gain more clarity. By the way, the Rambam brought a few other examples that prove his view. For instance, the tefillin that Jews wear are black in color and square in shape. The mystery is why do four Jews from all different corners of the world have the same black box tefillin? Again, the biblical narrative did not specify the color or the shape. So why don’t we see anyone wearing red or green colored tefillin or one designed with a round shape? The answer consequently has to be that it was the oral teaching received and transmitted since the earlier biblical time right up through our time called the oral Torah, the Mishnah.
What about the other three parts of the four species? Many have asked why we use these particular items. Again, there are several explanations from our early sages. Some say that, just as the etrog has taste and smell, so too are there people in the world who are both wise and doers of good deeds. Just as the lulav, whose fruit has taste but no smell, so there are those who are wise but without doing good deeds. Just as the myrtle has a pleasant odor but is tasteless, so are there people of good deeds, but who possess no wisdom. And finally, just as the willow is neither edible nor has a smell, so there are those who are "neither learned nor doers of good deeds." (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12). Therefore, the lulav and the etrog represent all the types of people that live in this world. Symbolically, by holding them together, we value the importance of living together in harmony. Another explanation is that the etrog and lulav represent a person. The palm looks like a backbone, a spine. The myrtle leaves remind us of our eyes. The willow leaves appear like a mouth. And the etrog is shaped similar to a heart. A lesson is that we have G-d to thank for our whole body. The four parts of the human body in anatomy are crucial for survival.
Further use of the "four" theme includes the symbolic four corners of the world as well as the four characters of human personality, such as the four sons that we read about in Passover.
Four is also symbolic of many other things: water, dust, fire and wind representing the four elements of creation; or the four ordinal directions—north, south, east, and west. This reinforces that G-d exists in every direction. Still the essence and the core of all this interpretation is the notion of unity—the idea of a person’s yearning to combine the four elements into one. As the Rabbis say, one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the blessing of the four species if even one part is missing.
May G-d brighten our eyes to appreciate our great tradition and heritage, recognizing the value of each person and the inseparability of all types of human traits and personalities. The Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a Torah luminary of the 20th century, of blessed memory, said, "When the infinite has given you a large amount of possessions do not forget to be thankful for even the minor items…..given you." In other words, all parts count.
May our combined abilities and talents unite to serve the Almighty—Amen.