Grateful for the challenge of the heart on Succoth
A well-known Midrash analogizes the four species of vegetation taken in hand on Succoth to four parts of the human anatomy.
“.......the spine of the lulav can be compared to the human spine, the hadas-the myrtle leaves are similar to the eyes, the aravah-the willow resembles the mouth and the shape of the etrog brings to mind the human heart.......”( Leviticus Rabah 30:14).
While each of the species is important and requires diligence in their selection, the etrog stands out as the plant most carefully considered on the holiday. Thus, one can suggest, that of all the human organs and their various functions, the heart as the seat of deepest feeling and spiritual receptiveness is viewed as the major artery for the journey to the divine.
I would add, by a slight readjustment of the Hebrew word Lulav-לולב-that this particular plant likewise highlights the centrality of the heart in the observance of Succoth and by extension in the quest for the spiritual life. If we divide the word lulav, we arrive at two words which read-lu-lev ,changing the vocalization slightly in the second word.Using Hebrew letters we have-לו-לב,which is translated as “if only heart!”
The succoth festival is a time of rejoicing-זמן שמחתינו; “simcha” in my way of thinking is the joy that flows out of a sense of gratitude for the gifts of life, in this case the bountiful harvest for which the ancient pilgrim would be grateful and rejoice in God’s Presence in the Sanctuary of Jerusalem. The seat of joyful gratitude is the heart. When our hearts are opened and we allow ourselves to experience the gratitude of life’s many gifts and blessings, then we discover the essential joy in being alive.
This joy is a source of great sweetness which brings me to a different interpretation of another of the four species of vegetation taken on Succoth, namely the willow, the ערבה.
Interestingly the word for willow-”aravah”-has the very same root for another word whose meaning is sweet, “arev”. For example, in the Song of Songs we read that the voice of the lover’s beloved is sweet- “כי קולך ערב”- “let me hear your voice for your voice is sweet.”(Chpt 2:14)
Thus the taking of the lulav and etrog and the aravah point to the heartfelt experience of sweetness in the celebration of Succoth and for that matter in the course of our reaching out to the spiritual dimension of our lives.
One species, the hadas, myrtle leaves, remains unaccounted for in the context of the above re-interpretation. The myrtle leaves are referred to in the Torah not as Hadas but as leaves of עץ עבות- a leafy tree.The word “Avot”-עבות-is related to two other Hebrew words-cloud and thickness. I would like to offer my understanding of this particular plant in the cluster of the four species as an item that challenges us to remove the thickness in our hearts, the feelings and sensations that becloud the clarity that one can arrive at by opening our hearts to the divine around us.
Curiously, the Hebrew word for etrog-אתרג, if its letters are somewhat rearranged,we construct the word-אתגר-meaning challenge. This I believe is the challenge of succoth.
The place of our deepest internal experiences is the heart; it is this part of our being that we invite to witness the beauty and joy of Succoth, and all of life.