Monday, September 23, 2013

Sukkot, a Holiday of Compassion

As a Jew, I am proud of the fact that as part of every major holiday, we are encouraged to invite "ushpizin" or "orchim" (guests) to celebrate the holidays with us. Sukkot (the holiday) is no exception of course as it is a mitzvah (good deed commanded by God) to invite others to eat with us in our sukkot (temporary structures.) I am excited to see one of my best friends from my childhood this Thursday and to sit in her sukkah with her and her new husband.

Arba'at Ha'Minim

But aside from being commanded to invite others into our sukkot, we shake the "arba'at ha'minim" (the four species) as part of the ritual as well. There are two popular explanations for why we have the four species, and both highlight our need to have compassion and kindness for others.
Shaking the Arba'at Ha'Minim in the sukkah.

Four Species Represent All Jews

The aromas and flavors of the four species represent the four different kinds of Jews. Of course, today, if you were to say "there are four kinds of Jews", you'd probably either get a laugh or people would assume that's the start of a joke. It feels like there are more kinds of Jews than ever before. But the story is that there are four kinds of Jews and they each have value, especially when brought together.

The Four Kinds of Jews

The four kinds of Jews are those who study Torah and perform good deeds (represented by the "etrog" (citron), which is flavorful and aromatic), those who study Torah but do not perform good deeds (represented by the "lulav", which are palm leaves from a tree that produces fruit but has no aroma), those who perform good deeds but do not study the Torah (represented by "hadas" (myrtle), which has aroma but no flavor) and those who neither study Torah nor perform good deeds (represented by "arava" (willow) which is neither flavorful nor aromatic.)

Arba'at Ha'Minim
From these descriptions, it seems that there is a hierarchy regarding the species. So if we are not careful, we can look at this symbolical categorization as a separation of people, where etrog is "the best" and arava is by far "the worst". However, we need to remember that we are commanded to bring all four together and shake them in celebration of Hashem (God). It is not enough to have an etrog in your hand; this does not fulfill the commandment to shake the arba'at ha'minim.

Anything to Save a Life

For one, all four species are God's creations as all Jews are God's creations. Perhaps the most important "middah" (value) in all of Judaism (at least it is the most important to me) is "anything to save a life." This middah teaches us that one life is not more valuable than another; rather, all human life is valuable whether or not you study Torah or perform good deeds. Personally, I like to extend this middah to all creatures to the extent that this is possible without compromising human life.

Plus, all four species along with all four types of Jews contribute to society in different ways. The etrog may sustain us in moments of hunger, but it cannot be used to build houses; Arava (willow) is one of the building blocks of civilization as it gives us shelter, furniture, and more.

If arava represents individuals who do not study Torah and do not do good deeds, we may then decide to judge them. What are they contributing to the greater good, if they neither study Torah, nor do good deeds? But this is where we must remind ourselves to be compassionate towards others. We do not know why these individuals do not study Torah and do not do good deeds. Perhaps their lot in life does not afford them the luxury of taking time to study Torah. Maybe life is so hard for them that all they can do is just get through the day... perhaps their good deed is trying their best not to spread negativity upon others when they do not have the strength or energy to spread goodness, joy or love.

What I think we often don't realize is that we are each the four species at one time or another. Even if we are typically the etrog, studying Torah and doing good deeds all the time, we have our days, weeks, and even months or years when we are not able to put in 100% to either of these tasks. We all have good reasons when this happens:

"I was a college student and didn't have the time to study Torah since it was hard enough keeping up with my courses."

"I was in a tough place trying to make enough money to support my own family. How was I supposed to go out and help someone else?"

"I was depressed after the loss of a loved one and could barely keep my job, no less do anything for anyone else."

Life happens to us all, and as long as we are always trying to do our best, we should not judge ourselves or others for what we didn't do at given times of our lives. We should always strive to do better, but we also need to acknowledge when we are doing all that we can. Sometimes our best has to be enough.

Of course, we need to be careful not to come up with excuses. If we realize we are arava but are not doing our best, we need to carefully evaluate what we are doing and why. What is keeping us from studying Torah and doing good deeds? Is there something in our lives that needs to change because we are neither moving our lives forward nor helping others with theirs?

Using Our Powers for Good or for Evil
"Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil."

The other popular interpretation for the four species is that they each represent a part of the body that can be used for either good or evil. It's almost like the Jewish version of those three monkeys with their hands on their eyes, mouth and ears. In our case, each specie kind of resembles a body part: the etrog is the heart, the lulav is the backbone (which has the greater association with the reactive body), the hadas are the eyes, and the arava is the mouth.We can look at these as physical parts of ourselves that can spread kindness or pain, or we can see them as symbols of our actions: being careless with our love and expressions of love, acting or reacting with/without forethought and consideration for others, choosing to see or ignore injustice, and deciding when to speak up and when to stay silent. Either way, we are faced with the choice to use our powers for good or evil.

Compassion and Self-Reflection this Sukkot

So while Sukkot is a harvest festival and offers much in the way of history, culture and storytelling, it is also a great opportunity to teach our children about spreading compassion and kindness.

Are we an etrog right now, or are we arava? If we are arava, are we doing something productive with our lives that is moving us forward so that we can eventually be an etrog? If we someone who is an arava, do we judge the fact that they are not studying Torah nor doing good deeds, or do we have compassion for her and her situation? Perhaps there is something we can do to reach out and help her so that she eventually feels like she is capable of becoming an etrog. One beautiful thing about aroma is that it rubs off on anything it touches; if we do good deeds for others who are incapable of doing good deeds themselves, eventually our aroma will rub off on them and they will have aroma themselves; they will have the ability and inspiration to "pay it forward" and probably will do so!

Are we using our powers - our heart, bodies, eyes and mouths - for good or evil? What can we do to make sure that we are always pointing our powers towards Hashem (God) as we do with the Arba'at Ha'Minim?

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