By Rabbi Peter Rigler
Sukkot is, at its essence, an agricultural celebration — a time where we leave the comfort of our own homes and are reminded of the impermanence of our lives.
The sukkah, the temporary dwelling, draws us closer to our roots by having us use natural materials to build. Is that all there is to this holiday?
The great teacher and scholar Nechama Leibowitz reminded us that whoever sees only the agricultural aspect of Sukkot removes one of the threads from the threefold blessings that makes up the significance of the festival. The simple joy in the gift of the field and vineyard; the joy in the miracles and wonders performed for us in history; and the joy in the presence of God who is the source of nature and its creator.
The holiday lessons are as relevant as ever. I would suggest that we need to look past the
sukkah and go deeper to connect with the lulav and etrog. On its surface, we get it, we hold these species and etrog tight in our hands to remind us of the wonders of the earth or, as you may have heard, to remind us of our own physical bodies.
Sometimes we don’t have to look so deep for a message: It is sitting right in front of our eyes. In this case, the etrog is an incredible teacher for us all.
If you have never seen the markets for lulavim and etrogim, they are a sight to behold. It takes great love and care to pick a special lulav and etrog, one of quality and beauty. If you have been to the market, you have seen people inspecting the lulav and etrog with a magnifying glass and a very careful eye.
The etrog itself is identified in the Torah as pri etz hadar, or fruit of a beautiful tree. This beauty in Judaism is not only about appearance but, according to our sources, beauty is also about a deep desire to live through great difficulties in life, the quality of how one lives.
So what makes the tree so beautiful? It grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout the year. The tree itself can tolerate heat, cold, wind and storm. This quality and strength of the tree is what makes it beautiful. The translation of the Hebrew word hadar is that which dwells — from dar. Dar reminds us of impermanence and the temporary nature of our world and lives.
The word hadar appears in Torah only twice: Pri eitz hadar (Lev. 23:40) and “Before the grey haired you should rise and honor the face of the elder, (v’hadarta p’nei zakein), and fear your God; I am Adonai” (Lev 19:32). Hadar reminds us of the beauty of those who have lived full lives; it reminds us to honor that beauty.
So what are we looking for when we look for the perfect etrog? Actually, it is not perfect at all.
The sign of a beautiful etrog is its bumps. The more bumps we see, the more we are taken by its appearance. The same can be said from our lives; the bumps and bruises we receive have the ability to make us deeper and more beautiful individuals. Each bump is an experience, a struggle, a moment of transition and so much more.
My hope for us all is that in the coming days and the new year ahead we will all be like that etrog tree.
Seeing our bumps as beautiful, we also have the ability to rise above the harsh elements of weather and the world. The bumpiness can remind us of what is most beautiful, not a life free from struggle but one where we find the beauty by living fully despite the challenges and look to gain wisdom.
Rabbi Rigler is the rabbi at Temple Sholom in Broomall. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.