The Symbolism of the Lulav and Esrog: The Power of Potential

BS”D

In the Torah we are instructed to celebrate the seven-day festival of Sukkos by taking the four species, collectively known as the lulav and esrog, into our hands:

לְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָֽרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַֽעֲנַ֥ף עֵֽץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל

וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים

And you shall take for yourselves on the first day,

the fruit of the hadar tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree,

and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God

for a seven day period.

Vayikra 23:40 

While the Sages offer many interpretations of the symbolism behind the lulav and esrog, here is one angle that speaks to today’s generation in particular…

In chapter 10 of Sefer Tehillim it says:

 יֶאֱרֹב בַּמִּסְתָּר, כְּאַרְיֵה בְסֻכֹּה  

  יֶאֱרֹב, לַחֲטוֹף עָנִי; יַחְטֹף עָנִי, בְּמָשְׁכוֹ בְרִשְׁתּוֹ

He lies in wait, like a lion in his lair (literally “his sukkah”)

he lies in wait to snatch the poor one

He snatches the poor one by pulling him into his net

Tehillim 10:9

On the surface, this chapter of Tehillim seems to be referring to enemies of the human sort, but it can also refer to our biggest internal enemy, the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination), whose raison d’etre is to cast its net, cause us to stumble, and ultimately pull us away from HaShem, His commandments, and the truth we know in our heart of hearts. So strong is the Yetzer Hara that without Divine assistance we would be unable to overcome it:

R. Simeon bar Lakish stated, The Evil Inclination of a man

threatens every day to overpower him, and seeks to kill him,

as it is said, “The wicked watches the righteous and seeks to slay him;”

and were it not that the Holy One, blessed be He, is his help,

he would not be able to withstand it…

Sukkah 52b

The “poor one” mentioned in the above possuk of tehillim refers to the person who is susceptible to the Yetzer Hara’s grasp and finds it nearly impossible to rid himself of its influence:

Raba observed, First he [the Evil Inclination] is called a passer-by,

then he is called a guest, and finally he is called a man,

for it is said, “And there came a wayfarer to the rich man,

and he didn’t want to take of his own flock and of his own herd

to prepare for the guest that had come to him,

and [instead] he took the poor man’s lamb,

and prepared it for the man that had come to him.” (Shmuel 12:4)

Sukkah 52b

The Gemara explains that Yetzer Hara takes on three personas as he seeks to lodge within an individual: a “Wayfarer,” an invited “Guest,” and finally a “Man.” First it appears as an innocent wayfarer, who has no particular hold on the person; then as a regular boarder who is tolerated by his host; and finally it makes itself at home, exerting full control over the person’s thoughts, desires, and actions.

But what is the symbolism of a “lion in his sukkah”?

A lion is a symbol of physical and spiritual strength. Not only is he the “King of the Jungle,” but he is strong in character, as well.

Lions are not solitary animals. They live together in small groups called a pride consisting of two to four males, several females, and their cubs. Though most male lions will seek to dominate other males, they will often join forces with one another in order hunt bigger game and better protect their territory. But for a male lion to share a pride with other males, he has to hold himself back from fighting with them and instead agree to work together.

It’s why Chazal urge us to be:

.גבור כארי לעשות רצון אביך שבשמים

[A]s strong as a lion to do the Will of Your Father in Heaven

Pirkei Avos 5:20

We have to be as strong as a lion, because that is precisely how the Yetzer Hara deals with each of us. Every day, the Yetzer Hara persistently gathers all its strength and rises up to wage a new battle within a person. Even when it fails, it quickly and stealthily changes its approach, waiting for the right moment to resume its attack from another angle.

But what is “his sukkah​”?

This is a person’s heart.

Rav Dessler cites a passage in Nefesh HaChaim (1:6) which explains that when Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge Good and Evil, the Yetzer Hara and the Yetzer Tov (Good Inclination) switched places. After the chait, the Yetzer Hara entered into their hearts, while the Yetzer Tov became externalized. This reversed the original position before the sin, where the Yetzer Tov was internal and the Yetzer Hara was external so much so that they had no desire for, nor understanding of, evil or sin. (Strive for Truth Vol 2, p138)

After Adam and Chava fell, life changed in every conceivable way. Their actions brought several “curses” into the world, such as being banished from Gan Eden, having to work, experiencing suffering in the birth and rearing of their children, and finally death. But perhaps the most significant change was that from then on a person’s natural tendency when left unchecked by Torah, Mitzvahs, and a connection to God, would be towards evil. The Yetzer Hara became the “strange god that is in the body of man” that is “situated at the entrance to the heart” to prevent the entry of holiness (Shabbos 105b; Brochos 61a, Strive for Truth Vol 3, p174).

The only way for us to get rid of him is to go through the arduous process of pushing him out little by little by actively choosing to bring in a little bit more light, a little bit more emes, and in the process, revealing HaShem in our lives a little bit more…

So what is the connection between all of this and the lulav and esrog?

Chazal tell us that the esrog is symbolic of the heart. It is also something that has a pleasant taste, which refers to learning, and a pleasant smell, which refers to good deeds.

While the esrog certainly has a nice smell, you may want to resist the urge to take a big bite into it. If you did, you’d realize right away that it is actually extremely bitter. It takes a lot of work to make it to be edible, let alone taste pleasant. For example, most recipes require soaking the cut up esrog in water for a week and changing the water daily, after which it must be boiled several times, mixed together with sweeteners, and then finally boiled again.

All of this work no doubt hints to the slow, arduous process we need to go through to get the Yetzer Hara out of our hearts. We may know intellectually that a certain thought, feeling or action may pull us away from HaShem (or reveal areas where we are lacking a connection to Him), but we still have extreme difficulty living our lives in accordance with this knowledge.

But if so, then this brings us to an interesting insight… When we stand with the lulav and esrog in our hands, at that point the esrog is still bitter. We aren’t standing there with the pleasant tasting esrog that Chazal praise… This may be hinting to the fact that we are standing there as we are right now- a work in progress- unfinished, unrefined, an imperfect.

Even the unwanted parts within us that are bitter, unpleasant, and undesirable, the places where we are blocked from the light, and from HaShem, even those places have a purpose: to eventually expose the light of HaShem that they conceal.

In other words, they are pleasant tasting in potential.

This is the same message within the lulav and esrog taken together which is symbolic of the whole person:

  • The lulav, whose central pillar is referred to as its “backbone” resembles the backbone of man.
  • The leaves of the myrtle branch resemble the eyes of man.
  • The leaves of the willow branch resemble the lips of man.
  • The esrog resembles the heart of man.

VaYikra Rabbah 30:14; Midrash Tanchuma, Emor 19

The meaning is that we are meant to use every single part of our being for the service of HaShem- the areas The Symbolism of the Lulav and Esrogwhere we are connected to HaShem together with the areas where we are still struggling to achieve that connection. If we leave parts of ourselves or our experiences out by ignoring them, denying that they exist, or actively refusing to work on them, then it could be said that in those areas our service of HaShem is possul.

The same message applies on a bigger scale as well. The lulav is also symbolic of four types of people:

  1. The esrog (citron), which possesses both taste and fragrance symbolizes those who possess both learning and good deeds.
  2. The lulav (palm) branches possess taste but no fragrance, symbolizing those who possess learning but do not perform good deeds.
  3. The hadassa (myrtle) possesses no taste but has a pleasant fragrance; this is likened to those who are not learned but do good deeds.
  4. The arovah (willow) has neither taste nor fragrance, symbolizing those who possess neither learning nor good deeds.

Only when Jews of all types and levels come together in unity– even the Jews who have no merits on their own- only then is HaShem’s Glory revealed in this world.

May we merit to internalize the messages of the lulav and esrog and ultimately reveal HaShem’s Glory in our hearts, our homes, and the world at large.

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