Sukkot is observed in two primary ways. We build sukkot, temporary booths, and spend as much time as possible in them, eating in them and even sleeping in them. These sukkot must capture the temporary quality of our ancient dwelling places. No home was viewed as permanent. All were way stations on our millennial journey of return to the land of Israel. We must be able to view the stars and especially the bright, fall harvest moon through the roof’s lattice. This suggested the impermanence of our lives. Nothing is forever. The wind and rain can sometimes sting our faces. Life sometimes brings tears.
Second we take the lulav and etrog in our hands and wave them in six directions: east, south, west, north, up and down. We do so in remembrance of the Torah’s command: “…You shall take the product of hadar trees (etrog), branches of palm trees, boughs of myrtle trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Leviticus 23:40) It is entirely possible that this ritual was an ancient Jewish rain dance given that the rainy season begins in Israel at this time. Nonetheless we reinterpret its meaning and import. We celebrate that God is everywhere, a protecting shelter all around us. We affirm this by shaking these four species in six directions.
The lulav is constructed of one palm frond, two willow branches, and three myrtle twigs. It is taken together with the etrog, an oversized and sweet smelling lemon. The ancient rabbis offer this interpretation of these four species. The etrog has both taste and smell. It symbolizes people in our community who do both good deeds and study Torah. The palm has taste but no smell. It symbolizes people who perform good deeds but do not study Torah. The myrtle has smell but no taste. It represents people who study Torah but do not perform good deeds. And the willow has no smell and no taste. It represents people who do not study Torah and do not perform good deeds.
A community has all kinds of people. We hold all four species together in our hands. We are bound together. We can’t say, “I only want to be with people who take Torah seriously. I only want to be a part of group that does good deeds.” We can’t say as well, “I only want to be with people who are like me. I only want a group that looks and acts like me.”
A community has all kinds of people. Some are the closest of friends. Some feel distant. But we are only strong when we hold each other tight. We are only one when we are bound together like the disparate species of the lulav and etrog.
A community has all kinds of people. We need each other more than we care to admit.