Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Keeping the Willows Alive

For the first two parts of this series on the Four Species, see and  Hopefully part 4 on the Myrtles will be ready in time for Sukkot 5779.

Sukkot is a holiday of technological challenges, major and minor, that pit a Jew against the forces of nature.  Challenge #1:  Build a structure that is temporary and flimsy enough that it meets the criteria for a sukkah according to Jewish law, and strong enough to withstand the wind and rain that many Jewish communities can expect at this time of year.  Challenge #2:  Keep the Lulav’s willow and myrtle branches looking fresh, with vibrant green leaves, when natural processes lead the myrtle leaves to dry out and the willow leaves to turn black and grow mold.

Our synagogue distributes care instructions with the Lulav and Etrog sets that we sell.   Fortunately, the etrog requires no special maintenance (other than being careful when handling it so that the pitom protrusion does not fall off).  We instruct for the myrtles and willows to be wrapped in a wet towel or newspaper and refrigerated when not in use, or else they will decay (and we remind purchasers that the tropical Lulav (palm branch) does not want to be refrigerated, or else it will decay).   But even though I am the one who has written and circulated these instructions, by the end of Sukkot, I am always the one whose myrtle and willow leaves have clearly seen better days.  

I take some consolation in knowing that the decay of the willow branches is not a recent phenomenon. The sad condition of the willow branches at the end of Sukkot is even mentioned in classic rabbinic texts.  The midrashic collection Psikta de-Rav Kahana, from the year 700 or earlier, includes various allegorical interpretations of the Four Species.  In one interpretation, the etrog corresponds to Abraham, the palm branch corresponds to Isaac, the myrtles correspond to Jacob, and the willows correspond to Joseph, “for just as the willows decay and dry out before the other three species, so did Joseph die before his brethren.” (PdrK 28)   A similar midrash connects the Four Species to the Four Matriarchs, and the willows correspond to Rachel, because she died at an early age, as do the willows.  Of all the Four Species, the willows are a symbol of decay and loss.

In fact, this understanding of the willows can help us understand the mystifying role of the bundle of willows on Hoshana Rabbah, the final day of Sukkot.  After seven processions with the Lulav and Etrog, it is traditional to put down the Lulav and Etrog and pick up a bundle of five willow branches, which -- after the recitation of several prayer-poems for the occasion -- are beaten on a hard surface until the leaves fall off.  There are diverse explanations for this unusual ritual.  Some traditional commentaries see the leaves as representing the sins that have fallen away at this conclusion of the penitential season.  Some academic scholars note that some other Near Eastern cultures had willow-beating ceremonies that were fertility rituals, and Hoshana Rabbah may be the Jewish version of these rituals.  While I am not qualified to weigh in on why this ritual originated, I do know what invariably has gone through my mind when I have participated in it:  I have considered it as a dramatization of what is soon to happen in nature around me.  The leaves will fall off the trees, winter is coming, and time marches on.   Like the more gradual decay of the willows over the course of the Sukkot holiday, like dwelling in the sukkah at exactly the point when the weather is likely to turn, the beating of the willows makes me maximally aware of the passage of time, arousing in me a bundle of diverse feelings including wistfulness, urgency, and hopefulness for the future.

Writer and educator Parker Palmer wrote in a collection of essays about the seasons: “My delight in the autumn colors is always tinged with melancholy, a sense of impending loss that is only heightened by the beauty all around. I am drawn down by the prospect of death more than I am lifted by the hope of new life.”  Palmer notes, though, that autumn is also the season when seeds are scattered to ensure the renewal of life after the winter, teaching the “hopeful notion that living is hidden within dying.”   So too, Sukkot reminds us of the natural processes that are winding down to set the stage for rebirth in the coming year.  Just two days after Hoshana Rabbah steers us to confront loss, we begin the Torah reading cycle anew on Simhat Torah:  “And God said: Let there be light, and there was light.”   How can I ensure that these willow leaves, decayed and broken, will help me to seek and guard God’s light in the coming year?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Lulav: growth, frozen in time

I have lived most of my life far away from palm trees.  But on my visits to palm trees in places like Florida, California, and Israel, I have always been captivated by how majestic and (to me) exotic and unusual they are.   

On a visit to California several years ago, I started paying attention to how palm trees grow.  Most of the fronds of a palm tree are bent over to one direction or another. But at the very center of the top of a palm tree (at least for the date palm and other varieties that I observed) is a small “closed frond” that is not bent in one direction or another.  Rather, it points straight up.  As this “closed frond” grows, it will eventually open, and its leaves will separate and some will flop this way and some will flop that way.  But at the moment, the “closed frond” is united and undifferentiated.

Jews have a special name for the “closed frond”:  it is the Lulav, the palm branch that is one of the Arba Minim, the four kinds of plants that are used ceremonially on the holiday of Sukkot.  Each palm tree grows only one Lulav at a time. (A recent article on Lulav harvesting,, notes that each palm tree can yield approximately 1 Lulav each month -- but a palm tree has only one Lulav at any given time.)

Jewish law instructs that a Lulav that is fit for ritual use must exemplify this quality of being united and undifferentiated.  The Lulav’s leaves are arranged in a kind of pyramid arrangement, with the shortest leaves on the sides and the tallest leaves in the middle.  The tallest two leaves in a kosher lulav are fused together; collectively, they are known as the ‘tiyomet’ תיומת (related to the Hebrew word for ‘twin’). (The word ‘tiyomet’ can also refer to any fused pair of leaves in the Lulav, but in Ashkenazic halakhic discussions the reference is to the central and tallest pair.)  If the Lulav had not been harvested, the closed frond would have grown, and the tiyomet would have split, with the two twin leaves that comprise it going off in different directions.  But according to halakhic sources, one of the most important qualities of a kosher Lulav is that the tiyomet not yet be split.

The Lulav itself, and its unsplit tiyomet, can be a palpable symbol of the future, with its decisions yet to be made and its outcomes yet to be realized. For our ancestors, the undifferentiated quality of the Lulav might have been a symbol of their uncertainty about the quantity of rain that would fall in the coming year - always a preoccupation in the land of Israel, especially at Sukkot time.  

For us, the undifferentiated Lulav can also represent the moment, frozen in time, immediately before an important decision is made.  The two twin leaves in the tiyomet are now identical but would soon diverge (had the Lulav not been harvested). Similarly, in my own personal life, and in the life of  my community and nation, I am constantly faced with decisions, sometimes binary decisions, which will dramatically affect the future for me and for those who are connected with me.    I may sometimes seek the comfort of the middle path, resisting a decision. But so often in our lives, there isn’t a middle path. The tiyomet has not split yet, but its splitting (in a live palm tree) is inevitable. And it is up to me to locate myself on one side of the divide or the other.  The Lulav can remind us that, even at times when we feel powerless, we can still make decisions that will affect and transform our future.

The Lulav grows at the very center of the top of the palm tree and represents that tree’s potential for growth and change.  Staring at the Lulav’s tip, I can ask myself: right now, what is my tiyomet - the decision I need to make but have not yet made?  How can I make the most of this current moment that is full of possibility?