Thursday, September 27, 2007

Beauty is in the Etrog...

Yoav Liberman is a studio artist who combines the old and new, using found objects and discarded wood as a source and inspiration for the pieces that he builds. This Etrog box is constructed of Heart-pine, wenge, ash, walnut, ipe, mahogany, found brass railing and brass claw feet. The quilted linen padding; by fabric artist Leslie Hartwell.

From Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig at the Shema Network
The festival of Sukkot is referred to in our prayers as "Z'man Simchataynu" (the time of our rejoicing). After the solemnity of the High Holidays, Sukkot is a welcome respite from the intensity of the previous two weeks.

Other than eating and sleeping in the Sukkah, the main ritual of Sukkot is the use of the four species; the Torah in Vayikra (Leviticus) 23:40 commands us to,
"take for yourselves...Pri Eitz Hadar (the beautiful fruit of a tree), Kapot T'marim (branches of a date palm), V'anaf Eitz Avot (twigs of a plaited tree - myrtle branches) V'arvei Nachal (and branches of brook willows)".
The Etrog (a citron), Lulav (the central branches of a date-palm), Hadassim (3 myrtle twigs) and Aravot (2 willow twigs) - the four species - are blessed every day (except Shabbat), they are waved in all directions during the daily Hallel service and they are carried in a procession around the synagogue after the Musaf prayers. This holiday has so many beautiful rituals and symbols, it is a shame that so few Jews even try to appreciate the great joy and values clarification that these Mitzvot bring to those who celebrate and observe them properly.
Each of the four species is clearly defined in the Torah. Actually, that is not exactly true. Our Oral tradition provides us with the proper descriptions and quantities of each item necessary to perform the Mitzvah properly. The Etrog or citron however, is vague in its biblical description. "Take for yourselves... Pri Eitz Hadar (the beautiful fruit of a tree)" is the command. But which beautiful fruit? How do we define what is beautiful?

One way to determine beauty is to find which fruit is pleasing to the eye. The Oral Tradition tells us what to look for in a superior Etrog. The Etrog should have vertical lines covering its body; its surface should also be bumpy; the fruit should be on one hand shaped like a heart, and on the other hand, have a waist, shaping the fruit almost like the body of a woman.

I don't know about you, but if I were asked to describe a beautiful fruit, the above sketch would not be my description. Yet, these are the requirements and characteristics our tradition instructs us to look for when choosing our Etrog.

The Ramban (Nachmanides), questions the Hebrew word Hadar (beautiful). He teaches us that what makes this fruit so special is that it grows not just for a season, but actually grows all year long, which is very unusual for a fruit tree. Secondly, the leaves and the bark have the same flavor and fragrance as the fruit.

There is a Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 30) that compares the four species to four different types of Jews. The Etrog has a unique flavor and fragrance, just as there are beautiful people who have Torah knowledge (flavor) and who do good deeds (fragrance). The Lulav has a distinct flavor but no fragrance. Similarly, there are Jews who have Torah knowledge but who do not perform good deeds. The Hadassim have no flavor but do have a distinct fragrance. They are compared to those of us who have no Torah knowledge, but do perform good deeds. And the Aravot have neither flavor nor fragrance, just as those people who have neither knowledge nor good deeds.

Ultimately, the objective of learning Torah is to change us into good people. Most of us even consider ourselves as one of the "good guys." But again, we must not measure ourselves using our own criteria for goodness. We might not steal or tell lies, but we may speak Lashon Hara (gossip/slander). Others may study Torah, even in depth, but never apply it fully to their own lives. Some may even see themselves as good people but have never defined "good" thereby missing the whole point.

The Etrog is described as Hadar (beautiful), and in fact, the word Etrog is Aramaic for “beauty.” Yet when searching for the perfect Etrog, we are required to mold our sense of beauty to the Torah's definition.

This is a very important concept to internalize after the High Holidays. During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we looked within ourselves and recognized our personal imperfections. Now is the time to do something about them. We should not wait until we go back to our bad habits. Remember, an important aspect of the Etrog is that it does not grow seasonally, and like the Etrog, self-improvement is not restricted to the High Holidays, and it is a constant evaluation of one's behavior and motives.

By choosing the best of the four species that we can find, clasping them in both of our hands, blessing them, waving them in all six directions and by encircling the assembly of our peers with them, we bring to our consciousness the different types of Jews that comprise a community. We must change the criteria used to define our values, and must understand and put into practice what we learn, so that we can constantly strive to acquire both a beautiful flavor and fragrance.

Sukkot is a joyous and beautiful holiday, much deeper than just an agricultural celebration of nature and its cycles. Sukkot places emphasis on who we are and what we want to become, so that we may fulfill the verses in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:14-16: And you shall rejoice in your festival and experience only joy. Chag Samayach!

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