By Rabbi Daniel Bortz
Recently, our youth organization JTEEN – together with Adopt a Family Foundation, brought 6 teenage soccer players and their coach from the Israeli border town of Sderot to San Diego, to impact our community and enjoy a week of vacation from the tragic reality of trying to avoid being hit by the 1,000’s of rockets raining down on their city from Gaza over the past decade. Two things over the week struck me most, both connected to the central themes of Sukkot.
On the holiday of Sukkot (October 16-23), there’s a mitzvah to take four species of plants together: A palm branch (lulav), two willows (aravot), three myrtles (hadassim) and one citron (etrog). We also dwell as often as we can in an outdoor hut, called a Sukkah.
The Sages describe the inner meaning behind these specific plants. The Etrog has a good taste and a good fragrance, which represents a person with both Torah wisdom and good deeds. The hadas has a good fragrance, but lacks a good taste. This represents one who has good deeds but lacks wisdom.
The Lulav is edible, but has no smell. This represents one who has wisdom, but without good deeds. The Aravah has neither taste nor smell, symbolizing a person who lacks both good deeds and wisdom.
And yet we shake all of them together; each is essential for the mitzvah to be complete. Any one left out invalidates them all, even one who lacks the qualities we admire.
There are Jews who are Sephardi and others Ashkenazi or Yemenite. Some are religiously observant and others not so much, some American or Israeli. But the Jewish community – and all of humankind, is enriched by a diversity of backgrounds and cultures. Instead of coercing all to conform to a particular mold, the four species of Sukkot teach us that in order to achieve true unity, we needn’t ignore our differences, but rather embrace and even celebrate them.
Kabbalah teaches us that the middle path of the human spirit is known as Tiferet – beauty, a combination of kindness on the right and severity/discipline on the left. True beauty results from the harmonizing of opposites. A painting that’s one color, or a song with one note, lacks complexity and a deep beauty.
The moment our Israeli “family” arrived in San Diego, the unity and brotherhood we all felt together was clear and heartfelt. The Jewish people are all one family. We know the frustration of working hard on a big puzzle, only to find that one piece is missing. No matter how different we are from each other, the language we speak and the way of life we’re used to, we must remember that each piece in G-d’s world is essential to humankind and serves a purpose. We are all interconnected; if one person on a boat digs a hole under their seat, the whole boat will sink.
The outdoor Sukkah we all sit under also symbolizes this unity. But there’s something more. The Sukkah also symbolizes a trust in a higher power. Outside of our sturdy homes, we sit under the night sky under our makeshift hut, trusting that we will be protected. Our visitors expressed their unwavering trust in G-d, even after witnessing incessant rocket fire and danger. They exuded hope, determination, and trust, all traits that are at the core of the fabric of the Jewish soul, especially felt in Israel.
May we work on feeling a true sense of unity amongst one another, and place trust in a positive outcome, no matter how dark our surroundings seem. Chag Sameach!