Each Sukkot morning, many of us stand momentarily with God’s name across our chests, facing away from us, like so many tour guides awaiting the same unfamiliar customer.
To wave the lulav, one brings together the etrog (YUD) in the left hand with the myrtle (HEH), palm (VAV), and willow (HEH) in the right. This unites the four species, symbolically spelling YHVH, left to right:
It is spelled in the right order only for someone facing you. God? Your friends and comrades? Those who are not yet conscious of the Unity, since Sukkot is the moment when God’s Name will become One to all who live on earth?
— Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy (Boston: Beacon, 1982), p.59
(See Shalom Center for more of R. Waskow’s teachings)
But the same symbols “spelling” God’s name are also understood to represent aspects of the individual:
- Etrog represents the heart, seat of thought in biblical literature
- Hadas (myrtle) has leaves shaped like an eye, for our senses.
- Lulav (date palm) represents the spine, center of action.
- Aravah (willow) represents the lips/speech.
So, perhaps we also anticipate the arrival of our own complete selves before the season of return/repentance leaves with the close of Sukkot.
Moreover, the four species, with their physical attributes, are said to represent individuals with four kinds of relationship to learning and action:
- Etrog represents those with the “taste” of mitzvah, Judaism in action, and the “smell” of Torah study, a practice of seeking understanding
- Hadas, those with only the “smell” of Torah
- Lulav, those with just the “taste” of mitzvot
- Aravah, no particular connection to either
In joining the four species, we symbolically unite the community as well. (More on ancient and contemporary ritual and this interpretation). The holiday encourages us to engage in hospitality in- and outside our individual shelters to further inclusiveness within and beyond the Jewish community.
Returning to the sign metaphor, above, then, the image might now be vaguely reminiscent of the Merry Pranksters erecting welcome banners — “The Merry Pranksters welcome the Beatles,” e.g. — as a kind of invocation/public invitation.
May these final days of the fall holidays
welcome and unite
all that is holy in ourselves, in our communities, and
across the huge, fragile shelter that is our collective home.
Four Species at Sukkot, Hoshana Raba
In many Jewish communities, Sukkot mornings retain a remnant of ancient Temple rites, incorporating lulav and etrog during Hallel [praise] and using the four species during a special Hoshana [“save us”] procession with lulav and etrog. On Hoshana Raba, the seventh day, the ritual changes to one praying for rain and involving only willow branches, the desert plant. These rituals are not part of Reform tradition, but their study can be fruitful for all.
Commentary from The Koren Mesorat HaRav Siddur elaborates:
The Jewish people can be built and survive only with the participation of all Jews. This sense of inclusiveness is highlighted on Hoshana Raba with the arava ceremony, at which time the arava takes center stage….
It is significant that while the other three species are used in conjunction with only one mitzva, the lowly arava participates in two mitzvot on Sukkot: it is one of the four species and it is also used in the arava ceremony in the Temple. The entire ritual on Hoshana Raba revolves around the arava. On Sukkot, all Jews must be brought into the Temple. Those represented by the etrog, the lulav and the hadasim were already there from Yom Kippur; only the arava was missing. Sukkot is dedicated to the inclusion of the arava as well into the Temple service.
— p.904, 905 in the name of “The Rav,” R. Joseph Soloveitchik