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.
Our Sages offer many interpretations of the symbolism behind the lulav and esrog, here is one angle:
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 (Evil Inclination) and the Yetzer Tov (Good Inclination) switched places. Before eating from the forbidden fruit, the Yetzer Tov (Good Inclination) was the exclusive internal influence within man, while the Yetzer Hara (Evil Inclination) was external- so much so that Adam and Chava had no desire for, nor understanding of, evil or sin. (Strive for Truth Vol 2, p138). Once they ate from the Tree, however, the Yetzer Hara entered into their hearts, while the Yetzer Tov became externalized.
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 bite into it because this fruit is exceptionally bitter. It takes a lot of work to make it to be edible, let alone taste pleasant. Most recipes for cooked esrog require soaking the cut up esrog in water for a week while 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 is a hint 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, but living our lives in accordance with this knowledge takes a tremendous amount of effort.
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, and imperfect.
The message is that 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 where 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:
- The esrog (citron), which possesses both taste and fragrance symbolizes those who possess both learning and good deeds.
- The lulav (palm) branches possess taste but no fragrance, symbolizing those who possess learning but do not perform good deeds.
- The hadassa (myrtle) possesses no taste but has a pleasant fragrance; this is likened to those who are not learned but do good deeds.
- 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.