The Kotzker rebbe was asked once if he had the power to revive the dead. He answered: “Reviving the dead isn’t the problem; reviving the living is far more difficult.”

On Sukkot we are told to build temporary dwellings in which to reside for 7 days to remind us of life’s frailty and our dependence on God for physical and spiritual sustenance. As we build these flimsy dwellings, the festival reminds us of our duty to take action, rebuild our lives and not default to passivity nor fail to work to heal a shattered world. In this sense Sukkot is a messianic holiday, and the four species of plants in the lulav-etrog bundle present a messianic ideal.

The tradition of the Lulav and Etrog is based on a verse from Leviticus (23:40); “On the first day you shall take the product of Hadar trees (the etrog), branches of palm trees (lulav), boughs of leafy trees (myrtle – hadas), and the willows of the brook (aravah) and you shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.”

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 30:12-13) to Leviticus compares each plant to a different kind of Jew:

“THE FRUIT OF THE HADAR TREE symbolizes Israel; just as the etrog has taste as well as fragrance, so Israel have among them those with learning and good deeds. BRANCHES OF PALM TREES, too applies to Israel; as the palm-tree (lulav) has taste [i.e. the dates of the palm] but no fragrance, so Israel has among them such as possess learning but not good deeds. AND BOUGHS OF THICK TREES I likewise apply to Israel; just as the myrtle (hadas) has fragrance but no taste, so Israel have among them such as possess good deeds but not learning. AND WILLOWS OF THE BROOK also applies to Israel; just as the willow (aravah) has no taste and no fragrance, so Israel have among them people who possess neither learning nor good deeds. What then does the Holy One, blessed be God, do to them? … says God, let them all be tied together in one band … If you have done so [says God], then at that instant I am exalted…”

The Jewish messianic ideal requires that the Jewish community as a whole be united. The four species bundled together symbolize a unity not yet achieved, but inclusive of every kind of Jew, regardless of knowledge, ethical and ritual behavior.

The four species represent Jews from the most learned and diligent in the performance of the mitzvot to the most unlettered and negligent. The lesson of the lulav and etrog lies in the fact that as long as all four are part of the whole, even Jews with little knowledge of Judaism and little observance of the mitzvot, have a role to play in our community. When we exclude anyone from the fabric of Jewish society, we are essentially incomplete. The message is clear. We need everyone, and though we are so often at odds with each other, Sukkot reminds us that enmity and alienation from one another cannot be allowed to stand.

At the same time, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama (15th century Spain) teaches that Sukkot is far more than a holyday only for Jews. It is also universal in scope and vision embracing all of humankind. When we look at the “four species,” he taught, we are reminded of the four types of existence in the universe:

[1] The etrog is held apart from the other three and is not bound up with it. We hold it in the left hand opposite the heart. The etrog represents the highest form of existence, that which is perfect in all its aspects – namely, God;

[2] The lulav/palm branch represents purely spiritual creatures, the angels (mal’a-chim), and is the most honored of the remaining three species of plants and the tallest;

[3] The hadas/myrtle represents the stars and planets, luminary bodies of an enduring nature;

[4] The aravah/willow represents the world of humankind replete with all our inadequacies and imperfections.

The prophet Zechariah, which is read on the first day of Sukkot, tells of the nations coming to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot, for it is more universally messianic than any other holiday in the Jewish calendar year uniting the Jewish people, humankind, nature, the heavenly bodies, the angels, and God.

We call this festival of Sukkot – Z’man Sim’cha-tei-nu – the Season of our Joy – and when considering the universal and messianic nature of the chag is it any wonder why? This kind of joy is our response to the vision of a perfected world in the image of the dominion of God.

May that vision be our hope and our blessing. Chag Sukkot Sameach!