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A Jewish Rain Dance

On Sukkot we shake the lulav. We take branches of a date palm, willow and myrtle, hold them together with an etrog (basically, an oversized, bumpy lemon) and wave them in six directions: east, south, west, north, up and down. This is in fulfillment of the Torah’s command: “You shall take the product of hadar trees (etrog), branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees (myrtle) and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23)

Waving the lulav reminds us that God is everywhere and anywhere. To be honest it looks like a rain dance. This makes sense because Sukkot begins the rainy season in the land of Israel. We continue this tradition even though we live outside of the land. We even add the prayer for rain as we welcome the changing colors of fall. Many of our customs are tied to Israel. Even the holidays follow that land’s patterns rather than our own.

Still the Rabbis did not abandon these traditions. Instead they found meaning for their own lands and their own times. Rather than bringing rain, they taught that the lulav and etrog are metaphors. The four species represent four different types of people.

The etrog has good taste (good is a debatable point) and fragrance (it does smell wonderful). The etrog represents a person who is wise and does good deeds. The myrtle has good fragrance, but no taste. It symbolizes a person who does good deeds but lacks wisdom. The date palm has good taste but no smell. This represents a person who has wisdom but does no good deeds. And the willow has no taste and no smell. This symbolizes a person who lacks wisdom and does no good deeds.

I wonder why the rabbis associated taste with wisdom and smell with good deeds. To acquire wisdom you must sink your teeth into the learning. You must acquire the taste. Learning is akin to sitting down to a good meal. A good deed, on the other hand, can be carried on the winds like a beautiful fragrance. It can even reach beyond the person who stands before us and is begging for our assistance. The smell, and reach, of a good deed can travel from one end of the world to another.

And yet most important of all, a community is comprised of all kinds of people. Some are wise. Some do good deeds. Some do everything. And some do nothing. But what makes a community a community, or for that matter, a country a country, is that everyone must be held together.

You can only come to a recognition that God is everywhere and anywhere when everyone stands together and you hold everyone tight.

Can this bring the rains that nourish the earth? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But it certainly can provide us with much needed nourishment.