This past summer, Jewish activists and journalists touted the incredible sense of unity among the Jewish people. It was first seen in the desperate hope shared by so many that three young men would be found alive, and it endured through the tragic discovery of their terrible fate. Still in shock, the global nation held together as fighting erupted in Israel, the need for unity made even more prominent by the distorted reporting of the news media.
This week, the Jewish people celebrate the third holiday of the new year -- Sukkot. Following Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, which are devoted to intense prayer, Sukkot is an extremely active holiday and, as such, is one which, by its very nature, promotes unity.
One of the primary mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot is the waving of the lulav and etrog -- the four species. To fulfill this mitzvah, a person takes the frond of a palm branch (lulav), three myrtle stems (hadassim) and two willow branches (aravot) in his/her right hand and the citron (etrog) in his/her left hand [some say that lefties should reverse hands] and waves/shakes the species together forward, right, backward, left, upward and downward. Moving the lulav and etrog in these six directions reminds a person that the Divine presence is everywhere.
According to the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 30:12), the branches of the lulav and the etrog symbolize the importance of Jewish unity. Each species represents a different type of Jew: one who studies the Torah and does good deeds, one who just studies the Torah, one who just performs good deeds and one who does neither. In order for the Jewish people to properly celebrate, to fully rejoice, all four species must be brought together.
This is a beautiful idea that is often repeated by those who teach Torah. Within the mitzvah of lulav and etrog there is, perhaps, another beautiful lesson about unity. The mitzvah of lulav and etrog is done every single day of Sukkot (except on Shabbat). If, by chance, one does not perform the mitzvah of lulav and etrog on the first day, the mitzvah can be done the next. There is a full week of opportunities to complete the mitzvah at least once. In an era where Jewish unity is a constant struggle, this offers a beautiful lesson that one must never give up on opportunities to bring Jews together.
In another Midrashic explanation of the four species, the sages compare them to different parts of the body. The myrtle leaf is compared to the eye, the willow leaf to lips, the palm branch to the spine and the etrog to the heart. While metaphoric, these comparisons provide a beautiful insight into how each individual can help to unify the Jewish community. First, one must have an ayin tov, an eye for good. Judge others favorably, including Jews whose lifestyle is different from yours. Second, one should use one's lips to speak to others, and about others, in ways that are kind. Third, one must be strong (have a backbone, as they say) to stand up and walk away when the conversation turns to speaking ill of others. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the only way that Jewish unity can be achieved is if every Jew can open his/her heart to others.
While the lulav and etrog are symbolic representations of the importance of Jewish unity (and perhaps hints at how to achieve it), the other primary mitzvah of the holiday of Sukkot provides an opportunity for actually bringing people together. The name Sukkot refers to the temporary booths in which the Jewish people dwell during the week of the holiday. Not only does living in a sukkah remind one that God, and not oneself, is responsible for one's successes, but it also take a person out of their normal patterns and routines. To promote Jewish unity, Sukkot is a unique opportunity to share one's celebration with someone outside of one's community
The social nature of Sukkot is, perhaps, a reflection of the fact that it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals, when Jews would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday at the Holy Temple. This coming together from across the land enforced the Jewish people's sentiment of unity, even when they lived hundreds of miles apart. Today, we do not travel to the Temple, and the need for holidays that remind us that we are all one family is all the more important. This year, no matter how we celebrate the festival of Sukkot, let us all increase our efforts to become a more united people.
To learn more about Sukkot, download Jewish Treats Free Guide to Celebrating Sukkothttp://njop.org/resources/holidays/complete-guide-to-holidays/sukkot/jewish-treats-guide-to-celebrating-sukkot/, or visit jewishtreats.org. To attend a Sukkot Across America celebration taking place at over 80 locations, visit njop.org/SukkotAcrossAmerica.