Succot: Age and beauty

'Ye shall keep the feast of the Lord seven days; on the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest’ (Leviticus).

field 521 (photo credit: Israel Weiss
field 521
(photo credit: Israel Weiss
The joyous and ritually rich festival of Succot comes on the heels of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, forgiveness and purity.
Now that we have hopefully been forgiven for our transgressions, we begin afresh with a clean slate.
It’s certainly a wonderful feeling to start off the new year with festive days of familial and communal togetherness.
We celebrate by eating our meals in colorfully decorated succot which remind us of God’s protection in the desert. Our prayers in the synagogue are punctuated by the waving of the Four Species, by which we thank God for His agricultural bounty.
From this description, it might seem that the emphasis during Succot is on religious rituals connecting God and Israel. However, the great legalist-philosopher Maimonides makes the following comment in his Laws of Festivals: “During the days of our Festival, it is incumbent upon every individual to rejoice and to be glad of heart, parents, children and extended family. However, when one eats and drinks in a festival meal, we are commanded to offer hospitality to the stranger, the orphan and the widow together with other poor and needy individuals.
“He who closes the doors of his home or succa booth and only shares his meals with his personal family – without including around his table the poor and bitter of soul – is not rejoicing in a commandment, but is rejoicing in his stomach. About such individuals it is said, ‘Their sacrificial offerings are like the bread of the dead and those who eat in such an environment become defiled....’” The Four Species are symbolically described by the Sages of the Midrash as representing four types of Jews: The “etrog [citron] Jew” is both learned and filled with good deeds; the “lulav [palm branches] Jew” has learning but no good deeds; the “hadas [myrtle] Jew” has good deeds but no learning and the “arava [willow-branch] Jew” has neither learning nor good deeds. We are commanded to bind these four together, in order to remind us that a Jewish community consists of many types of Jews all of whom must be accepted and lovingly included within our Jewish community.
From examples like these, we see that a festival which superficially seems to be oriented solely toward religious ritual actually expresses important lessons in human relationships.
To this end, I would like to relate a story. Reb Aryeh Levin of blessed memory was renowned as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem.” He was known for his punctilious observance of each of the ritual commandments and his overwhelming compassion for every human being.
Two days before the advent of Succot, he went to the Geula district of Jerusalem to choose his Four Species.
Immediately, word spread and a large crowd gathered around him. After all, the etrog is referred to in the Bible as a beautiful fruit (etz hadar), and since we are enjoined to “beautify the commandments,” observant Jews are especially careful in purchasing a most beautiful and outstanding etrog.
Everyone was interested in observing which criteria the great tzaddik would use in choosing his etrog. To the amazement of the crowd, however, Reb Aryeh looked at one etrog and put it down, picked up a second, examined it, and then went back to the first and purchased it together with his three other species. The entire transaction took less than five minutes. The crowd, rather disappointed, rapidly dispersed, imagining that perhaps the great rabbi had a very pressing appointment.
One person decided to follow Reb Aryeh to see exactly where he was going. What could be more important than choosing an etrog the day before Succot, the Jerusalemite wondered? Reb Aryeh walked into an old age home. The individual following him waited outside and 90 minutes later the great sage exited. The Jerusalemite approached him, and said, “Revered rabbi, please don’t think me impudent, but I’m anxious to learn a point of Torah, and therefore I’m asking the question. The great mitzvot of Succot include the waving of a beautiful etrog. I am certain that visiting the elderly individual or individuals in the old age home is also an important mitzva, but they will be in the old-age home during Succot as well as after it. The purchase of the etrog is a once-a-year opportunity. I would have expected the revered rabbi to have spent a little more time in choosing the etrog.”
Reb Aryeh took the man’s hand in his and smiled lovingly.
“My dear friend,” he said, “There are two mitzvot [regarding] which the Torah employs the term hidur [beautification]; one is the mitzva of a beautiful etrog [pri etz hadar, Leviticus 23:40] and the second is beautifully honoring the face of the aged [vehadarta pnei zaken, Leviticus 19:32]. However, the etrog is an object and the aged individual is a subject, a human being and not a fruit.
Hence, I believe one must spend much more time in beautifying the commandment relating to the human being than beautifying the commandment relating to a fruit.”
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.