Rabbi David Walk
There is a story about Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, the father of the more famous Rabbi Joseph D. Solveitchik, the Rav, during Rosh Hashanah while he was still the rabbi in Khaslavitch. The man preparing to blow the shofar like the majority of Jews in the town was a Chabad chasid. Here is how the Rav remembers the incident, "When my father was standing on the bimah on Rosh Hashanah and prepared for the order of the sounding of the shofar, a Chabad chasid who was to blow the shofar trembled and began to weep. Rabbi Moshe said to him, 'Why are you weeping? Do you weep when you take hold of a lulav? Why is the shofar different? Are they not both commandments of God?'" The Rav is, of course, sensitive to such remarks, and he wondered why his father contrasted the shofar and the lulav. He went on to explain that the shofar cries and moans and is associated with sin and guilt and the desire to escape from this world. According to the outlook of Chabad leader Rav Shneur Zalman of Lyadi, the shofar expresses a yearning to transcend this world and to rise to the realm of the hidden infinite deus absconditus, the hidden God. That mystic attitude resonates with the "ontological pessimism of mysticism." However, the lulav is the fruit of goodly trees. It speaks of an immanent God who dwells in the midst of reality. The lulav symbolizes this world – eating, drinking, smelling, touching, seeing, and this is the world in which halachah operates. The shofar takes us to realms far above this world; the lulav anchors us in this world.
That reference to the 'goodly trees' comes from the Torah's description of the etrog as pri etz hadar or fruit from a beautiful tree (Leviticus 23:40). Rashi explains that the beauty of the etrog manifests itself in two ways. First its fruit tastes like its tree. I don't recommend eating trees, but if you boil the bark of the etrog tree the resulting tea does tastes like the fruit. Secondly, the etrog fruit remains and grows on the tree from year to year. This last phenomenon is apparently unique, and results in huge etrogim. They can grow to the size of footballs or even small watermelons if left on the tree for more seasons.
So, we see that certain mitzvoth allude to spiritual, heavenly realities and other mitzvoth remind us of the Godliness in this world. The shofar falls into the former category and the lulav into the latter. What, therefore, can we learn from the earth oriented mitzvoth? I think that the primary lesson is that nature and earthly wonders are also from God. This idea is especially poignant during Sukkot, because it is a harvest festival, and it would be very easy for a hard working farmer to give himself a pat on the back and to assume all the credit for the bounty bursting the confines of his barn. However, we Jews commemorate this joyous celebration to acknowledge God's part in our successful harvest. Many of the hoshanot poems recited on Hoshana Raba recognize God's role in agricultural success. Even the Pilgrim Fathers referenced verses about Sukkot when they establish the Thanksgiving feast.
There is another important lesson to be learned from the beautiful fruit we wave during this Time of Our Joy. I must acknowledge an article by Rabbi Yair Kahn on the Yeshivat Har Etziyon Virtual Beit Midrash web site for inspiring this part of my article. He begins his exposition by quoting a revealing statement made by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (1075-1140) in his great philosophic work the Kuzari, 'Be not seduced by Greek wisdom which yields only flowers but no fruit.' This is a great way to begin a discussion of Jewish aesthetics. We definitely are expected to observe and appreciate beauty, but we see beauty from a certain perspective. This point of view was first propounded in the Garden of Eden. The verse states: Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). Here is a theory of beauty which encompasses the practical as well as the beautiful.
Now we can understand why we shake leaves and fruit, but not flowers. The flower is beautiful, but we wave its product, which is the fruit. The flower is gorgeous and produces the fruit. However, we want to celebrate the fruit which is so amazing, because it insures the propagation of its species through its seeds and provides sustenance to the surrounding animals, including us. We appreciate the beauty which is enhanced by its contribution to the world. Beauty in a vacuum is viewed as dangerous. What is the danger? We go back to Reb Yehuda Halevy. We're concerned with the passion which obsession over beauty can engender when there is no clear contribution to the common weal. Remember, it was beauty that killed the beast.
Beauty can augment a religious experience and that's wonderful. But when there is no discernible purpose or objective we are concerned. God announced the beautiful plants in the Garden were marvelous because of their beauty and their purpose. Eve, on the other hand, reversed the order and praised the fruit for their edibility first and then proclaimed the ultimate goal to be 'a delight to the eye.' She reversed the proper order.
Sukkot is about the astounding beauty of this world in the context of how it enables our greater love and devotion to God. We wave these items because they remind us of the relationship of beauty and nature to our gratitude to God for our world and its bounty. During this season when nature produces the most beautiful display of foliage, it's so appropriate to sit outside and connect our world to our God. Chag Sameach!