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, https://www.timesofisrael.com/largest-lulav-harvesting-kibbutz-has-fronds-in-high-places/, 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?

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