Sukkot and the Secret to Happiness
What Do The Arba Minim (Four Species) Represent?
Sukkot and the Secret to Happiness
Sukkot is called the “Festival of Joy”, but it’s not so obvious why. Through a closer look at the mysterious mitzvah of the Four Species, this podcast can open up new understandings so we may access a deeper, and more fulfilling sense of joy and happiness.
Hi everyone. This is Ami Silver, one of the scholars at Aleph Beta. What you’re about to hear is a conversation between me and Imu Shalev, exploring the mitzvah of the Arba Minim - the four species that the Torah commands us to take during the holiday of Sukkot.
And, to me, this mitzvah has always been of the stranger things that we do throughout the year. I mean, we build the Sukkot for the holiday. Ok, I get that. We like to decorate it - that’s fun. But… then the Torah is saying: beyond the Sukkot itself, you need to make sure to take these four, very specific kinds of plant species and you just kind of hold ‘em together in your hands. We make a blessing over them and then, during our prayers we wave them around and shake them around in very specific patterns.
And to me, it was always kind of bizarre. Like: why are we whipping around these plant arrangements in the middle of our prayers? Why are we shaking and waving these things around throughout the holiday of Sukkot?
So I started to look a little more deeply into it and go back to the source itself.
And, strangely enough, the Torah seems to indicate that the mitzvah of the four species actually has something to do with simchah - with joy, with happiness.
And this really got me wondering. Because: Sukkot itself, this holiday, is known as Zman Simchateinu - as a potent time of joy. And it is actually not so obvious why that is.
But I started to explore this.
Does the four species, this very strange and mysterious mitzvah, have something to do with joy? And if it does, might it actually be a key to understanding the joy of the holiday of Sukkot itself?
So, I looked further into this, and I found what I think are some really interesting and promising possibilities for tapping into not only a deeper understanding of this mitzvah of the four species, but actually that this mitzvah itself might hold a key to unlocking a certain kind of joy. An essential kind of joy that we’re invited to tap into, particularly at this time of year, during the holiday of Sukkot.
So, without further ado, here is me and Imu. I hope you enjoy this as much as we did.
Ami: So, Imu, before we dive into any text, I'm going to kind of just ask you some holiday trivia.
Ami: Okay. Here we'll refer to the liturgy of the festivals. Because in the liturgy, actually for each of the three festivals, right, for Pesach (Passover), Shavuot and Sukkot, there is a special kind of description of what that day is. So for example, Passover is called zman -- do you remember, zman what?
Imu: Cheiruteinu, time of our freedom.
Ami: Cheiruteinu, talking about freedom and liberation.
Ami: It, like, totally makes sense for Passover to be zman cheiruteinu. It is like the liberation holiday. So it's the time of liberation. What's Shavuot called in the festival prayers, do you remember? Zman --
Imu: Zman matan Torateinu (time of giving of our Torah).
Imu: The time of the giving of -- the gift of Torah, the giving of Torah.
Ami: Yeah. Does that one make sense?
Imu: Yeah. It's Shavuot, the holiday of Torah giving, totally makes sense. Passover, freedom day. Shavuot, Torah day. Sukkot is -- this is where you're going.
Ami: Sukkot is zman --
Imu: It's not zman Sukkoteinu.
Ami: It's not zman Sukkoteinu.
Imu: It's zman simchateinu (time of our rejoicing).
Ami: Zman simchateinu. The time of our --
Imu: Our happiness.
Ami: Of our happiness.
Ami: Now, why is that?
Imu: Yeah. Interesting.
Ami: Right? With Passover and Shavuot, not only did they make sense, but -- it's the essential identity of that holiday. The whole holiday of Passover is about celebrating the liberation from Egypt. The whole holiday of Shavuot, the reason for this holiday, so to speak, is that it is dedicated to celebrating the day of -- that the Torah is given. Sukkot, it's the time of our happiness.
Ami: if I were to just look at them and I'd think of, well, maybe the rabbis didn't have a good thing to call Sukkot. So they gave it a generic name.
Ami: Simchateinu, it's a holiday, it's a joyous time. Let's just give it that joyous name. In lieu of something specific. Okay? You know, I don't write them by that.
Imu: Sure. I didn't think you did.
Ami: I don't buy that first of all because it doesn't make sense if you compare it to Passover and Shavuot. Because you're not being generic at all. Sukkot actually has quite a lot of particularity about it as a holiday. It's not just a day where we do nothing. There's quite a lot going on, on that day. Now, what's interesting is that if we look in the Torah's description of Sukkot, we actually do find an element of joy in it. Part of what I want to do with you here today is explore the nature of that joy. What is the joy associated with Sukkot? Why might Sukkot be this particular time of joy? I think actually the kind of joy that we encounter there or the quality of that joy has the potential to raise some really interesting directions for us here.
I want us to start by looking at actually the first place that the holiday of Sukkot appears in the Torah. This is in Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 23, Parashat Emor, the long list of festivals where we sort of got introduced to a lot of the holidays for the first time. Here, let's get right into Verse 39. The Torah is talking about other holidays in the seventh month of the year, the month that we know of as Tishrei and then it says the following. "Ach bachamishah asar yom lachodesh hashevi'i," but on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, "b'os'pechem at tevuat ha'aretz tachogu et chag Hashem shivat yamim." When you gather the harvest of the land, you will celebrate God's holiday for seven days. "Bayom harishon shabbaton u'vayom hashemini shabbaton," the first day will be a Shabbaton, a festival observance day, and the eighth day will be Shabbaton, a festival observance day.
So this is the first thing we hear about what's happening on this holiday. It's the holiday that's happening when you're gathering your harvest and you're celebrating for seven days, God's holiday.
Ami: Okay? Let's go to the next verse. "U'lekachtem lachem bayom harishon," and on the first day, the first day of this holiday, you will take for yourselves, "pri eitz hadar," a fruit from an eitz hadar, from a tree that is hadar. This word hadar, what do you make of that word? Just you know, generic meaning.
Imu: I mean, I think pretty. It's a pretty tree, a beautiful tree.
Ami: Pretty. Beautiful tree. Right? Hadar is like beauty, glory. So a pri from a beautiful tree. A fruit from a beautiful tree. "Kapot temarim," palm fronds. "Va'anaf eitz avot," and a branch of an eitz avot. Avot means thick.
Imu: Right. Very thick. The branch from a thick tree.
Ami: Some kind of thick branch. "V'arvei nachal," and river willows. Nachal is a river. Arvei nachal, the willows growing on the river. "U'smachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem shivat yamim," and you shall rejoice, you shall be joyous before Hashem, your God, seven days.
Imu: There's that word. Simcha.
Ami: There's that word. Simcha. Right. And the next verse is, basically, iterating that this is an eternal holiday. And then explain that it's because we sat in these sukkot (booths) when we left Egypt, and we will remember that for all time. So this is the descriptor about the holiday of Sukkot. Where is the joy on Sukkot? What's the joy about on Sukkot?
Imu: It's unclear what you're "joying." But the simcha part, if you're asking me to pay attention to the rejoicing, it seems to come in the middle of this list of laws. Right?
It's telling you, hey, on the 15th, you've got to keep this holiday, Sukkot. You've got to grab a bunch of weird plants. And then somehow it seems to -- you could read it in two ways. You can say, grab a bunch of weird plants, period. Also, you should be really happy on this holiday. Or a way of reading it that I think would be appropriate, would be somehow, one of the laws of Sukkot is to gather these weird plants and through these weird plants -- I'm calling them "weird" just because I think that the idea of this is kind of funny. But take these plants and be happy with God. Somehow the plants are a vehicle for being happy before God, for seven days.
Ami: Right. And you're talking about -- I think you said, gather the weird plants. But the funny thing here is that, actually, in the previous verse, in 39, there's actually a lot of plant gathering happening. "B'os'pechem et tevuat ha'aretz."
Imu: You're totally right.
Ami: We're in an agrarian society. This is harvest festival. This is a big deal.
Imu: That actually makes far more sense. It's the Jewish version of Thanksgiving. Everybody, get all of the last harvests. Take the gourds and the pumpkins and your bounty and your cornucopia and have a major feast, a celebration. Happiness. But that's not where the happiness commandment actually comes in.
Ami: Right. And that's the thing. If you were writing this, then you should make an edit here. You should take that phrase, "u'smachtem lifnei Hashem," rejoicing before God, and you should put it up at the end of the previous verse.
It should be, when you gather all the crops of the year, gather them in at this time of the year and rejoice before God for seven days with all of your bounty. But here we have this very strange thing. Gather in all your harvest at this time of year, period. Go take for yourself this fruit, from this tree. These palm fronds. Some branch. Make sure it's thick. And then, river willows. Oh. And then, "u'smachtem," and when you do that, wow, are you going to be happy!
Imu: It's actually funny. If I were to show up to my mom's Thanksgiving, you know, everyone pot-luck. My sister brought the yams with the delicious marshmallows on top. Another brother brings some potatoes. And I bring the thick branch and the river willows. I don't think -- and I'm like, the joy is here everybody. I've got the --
Ami: The party doesn't start until Imu comes with those branches in his hands.
Imu: River willows. Exactly.
Ami: Then everyone is just going to get up and dance for seven days straight. They would just be so gripped with ecstasy.
So granted, this is weird. The placement of "u'smachtem," is weird. Associating it, at least what the verses seem to be doing. Associating rejoicing before God with what we call the four species, the arba minim, seems out of place.
You, actually, when you first started to talk about it, you called it these weird plants. And if we even just take a step back, it really is a very weird part of this holiday, anyway. We've been doing this, you and I, for decades. Our people have been doing this for millennia. So we might think it's just absolutely normal to walk around, for a week, with some kind of unidentifiable citrus fruit. This stalk, this tall stalk in our hand, and different kinds of leafy things.
If someone were to ask you, stop you walking down the street with your four species and say, what are you holding in your hand? What is that? What would you even say to them?
Imu: This is my ritual bouquet.
Ami: "My ritual bouquet." Oh. And what do you do with it? Well, we shake it. We shake it because God wants us to have these plants. Why these plants? What are these plants? I don't know. But you know what? The Torah is telling us, these plants somehow are connected with some kind of joy.
Imu: Yep. Mm-hm. I think what you're getting at is such an elementary, basic question, that I think I'm almost afraid to go there. I'm almost afraid to ask. Right? Because it's such a good question, you better have a really good answer for me. I think many people have waxed poetic on what is the meaning behind the four species, that no one really expects a very good answer.
Ami: Well, I'd say that a lot of the explanations that are given tend to be very -- almost metaphorical. It's the four kinds of Jews. It's the four letters of God's name. It's four parts of the body.
Imu: That's not a very common explanation we give to our mitzvot in general. Like, you don't go, this corresponds to the four this. Oh, this is the classic four-letter of God name mitzvah. So it is somewhat rare, I think, in Jewish practice, to have very esoteric, spiritual answers. Not that they're invalid. It's just, if you're looking for a rooted, concrete p'shat-driven (simple explanation), answer, it's a great question. I don't know.
Ami: Because the Torah's very insistent and specific. The Torah is like, this kind of fruit, these kind of plant parts. This is what you get. And it doesn't tell us why. What are the four species? What is this mitzvah? And what does it have to do with simcha, with joy? Yeah.
Imu: I'm intrigued. Take me on this journey.
Ami: Good. You upped the ante here by saying I'd better have a good answer. So I hope that I have a good answer here.
So what I actually want to zero in with you on the verse about the four species, the description of the four species. I want to start by asking ourselves a question. It seems to be quite random and coming out of nowhere. Take this fruit. Take that thing. Do these things. I want to start with really asking ourselves a question, when we read these words carefully. Is this really coming out of nowhere?
is this really existing in a vacuum, this mitzvah? Do these words evoke anything for us when we hear them and listen to them sensitively?
Ami: So let's start with the beginning of that verse again, we're in Verse 40. "U'lekachtem lachem bayom harishon pri eitz hadar," take for yourselves on the first day a fruit of a beautiful tree. The basic mitzvah here, take for yourself a fruit from a tree. "Lekachtem pri eitz hadar."
Now let's forget where we are in the Torah. Let's forget everything we know. Let's forget about etrogs, let's forget about the four species. Just think about these words, "lekachtem pri eitz," taking a fruit from a tree. Specifically with the phrase of "u'lakach," to take. Taking a fruit from a tree. Does that phrase, or that idea, remind you of anything? Taking a fruit from a tree?
Imu: Right. Maybe the first taking of a fruit is Eve taking from the Tree of Knowledge? Is that right?
Ami: So yeah, exactly, and if we turn to Genesis Chapter 3 Verse 6, let's just look at what it says. "Vateireh ha'ishah," the woman -- this is Eve -- saw "ki tov ha'eitz lema'achal v'chi ta'ava hu la'einayim," and it's good for eating, it's desirous for the eyes, "v'nechmad ha'eitz lehas'kil," it is --
Imu: Pleasant to contemplate?
Ami: Pleasant to contemplate. Now look at this phrase, "vatikach mipir'yo v'tochal," and she took from its fruit, and she ate it. So in fact, the first 'taking of a fruit' is happening here when Eve took the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
Ami: It's so interesting, right? Now you might say, okay whatever, taking a fruit, that's how you get fruit off of trees --
Ami: -- so maybe it's not so wild or interesting that when we have a mitzvah having to do with fruits we're obviously told to take it. How else do you get a fruit off a tree? Let me ask you something. Looking at this verse in Genesis, what was it about this tree, this fruit, that make Eve want to take it?
Imu: It seems like three things. She say "v'teireh ha'ishah ki tov," it was good. Good to eat. "Ta'ava hu la'einayim," it was a desire for the eyes. So maybe in that sense --
Ami: What does that mean?
Imu: It was pretty. Maybe it was hadar. Maybe it was beautiful.
Ami: It seems like something about the way it looked that she couldn't take her eyes off of it and she couldn't keep herself away from it.
Imu: I don't want to jump here but it is kind of interesting that the etrog is a beautiful fruit, but we don't eat from it.
Ami: So that is interesting and maybe we'll come back to that but isn't it interesting now that when we come back to Parshat Emor, "u'lekachtem," and you shall take, "pri eitz," not just any fruit from any tree, but "pri eitz hadar," the fruit from the tree that's beautiful. The beauty of it is actually it's only identifying feature here. Take fruit from that beautiful tree. That seems to be exactly what was going on back there in the garden.
Imu: Fascinating. This also helps me understand, there's a Gemara that discusses the four opinions of what the Tree of Knowledge was. What fruit it was. One of those opinions, if I recall properly, is that it was an etrog.
Ami: Very good. This actually comes up in a number of places in Midrash Bereishit Rabah. , one of the opinions in Midrash Rabah is exactly that. That the Tree of Knowledge is identified as an etrog.
Imu: Very cool. I wonder if this is its source, but that's very interesting.
Ami: The rabbis certainly saw a kind of resonance between what we're seeing in Sukkot and what's being described in the Tree of Knowledge. I don't want us to stop there. Okay? Let's come back to the verses in Parshat Emor. "Lekachtem pri eitz hadar," you take the fruit and you take all of these other things and what did we say happens at the end?
Ami: "U'samachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem." You rejoice before Hashem your God. What happened after Eve took from that fruit, from that tree, and she and Adam ate it? What happened after that?
Imu: Interesting. I think I see where you're going. Almost the exact opposite of happy. The polar opposite of happy is sad. So one of the curse that God gives woman is etzev, is sadness, is "arbah arbeh itzboneich."
Ami: Right. This is in Verse 16. "Harbah arbeh itzboneich v'heironeich b'etzev teildi banim." Some kind of sadness that's going to be involved in pregnancy and childbearing. By the way, it's not only to the woman, but in the next verse --
God turns to Adam and says, because you did this, "arurah ha'adamah ba'avurecha," the earth will be cursed on your behalf, "b'itzavon tochlenah kol yemei chayecha," you're going to experience sadness in eating produce of the earth. So the consequence of this taking from this beautiful tree is that both of them were to experience forms of sadness.
Imu: By the way, sadness, in the realm of fruit. So inasmuch as women bear fruit, we even say "pru u'revu," it's the same word, Pri and pru, that you should be fruitful and multiply. And man's toil, his sadness, is going to come from his labor in the fruit of the earth.
Ami: Reaping fruits is going to be sad.
Imu: Yeah. So that makes me think that on this Sukkot holiday, this harvest holiday where the harvest is finishing up, somehow we're reconfronting this sin which brought us great sadness in our fruits, is going to bring us great, great joy and happiness. This is really cool, Ami. What else do you have?
Ami: It does seem like something else is going on there, right? I've got one more thing for you. Before we got to the sadness -- when we look at Sukkot, u'smachtem, where is this joy taking place? "U'smachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem," in God's presence, before God. Very literally, before the face of God, lifnei Hashem.
Let's go back a little bit, closer to the Tree of Knowledge. Adam and Eve ate from the fruit. God comes out. They hear God's voice walking in the Garden, and what do they do? "Vayitchabei ha'adam v'ishto mipnei Hashem Elokim." Adam and his wife hid mipnei, from the face, of Hashem Elokim, that same double form of God's name.
On Sukkot, you take the fruit, you do the four species, you have joy lifnei Hashem Elokeichem, before the face of God. At the Tree of Knowledge, they took and ate from that tree and then they hid mipnei, from the face of Hashem Elokim, of Hashem their God.
Imu: That's really cool. I think if you would have asked me at the beginning, if I would have changed the verse to u'smachtem shivat yamim, would I have felt like, wait a second, no, an essential part of this mitzvah is doing it lifnei Hashem. Or even, somehow, u'smachtem b'makom asher yivchar Hashem.
as a way of saying no, an essential part is doing it in Jerusalem, at the Temple. But that's actually not what it's saying. It's saying u'smachtem lifnei Hashem, which is not common as a formulation, I don't think. The fact that they hid mipnei Hashem, that makes it seem that an element of this is really your connection to God, is hiding from Him versus confronting His face directly.
Ami: it seems like very opposite kind of tracks happening here. If we just kind of collect it, we're seeing two instances of taking fruit from a beautiful tree, or a beautiful fruit, in the mind of some of the Rabbis perhaps even the same exact species of fruit. Look at where it leads. In the Garden it leads to sadness and to hiding from God, and in Leviticus, in Sukkot, it leads to joy before God, in God's presence.
Imu: But no eating.
Imu: It is kind of fun. Like, I think that's a missing element in Leviticus itself. There seems to be an ingathering of the fruits that you would eat, and that's not where the happiness is. The happiness is in actually taking the fruits and the stuff that you would never eat. Right, nobody is gnawing on thick branches and willows and etrog. So there's something about this vegetation that you don't eat, and having joy before God.
Ami: Right. what you're noticing here is we see all these things that seem to be shared elements, and what you're noticing here is a key difference. A key difference is what is done with the fruit. In the Garden it was eaten, it was eaten illicitly. That was the cause of the breakdown afterwards. On Sukkot, it's commanded to take it and there's no mention of eating, and we're obviously not eating it, and we're rejoicing with it.
Now, there's actually one other key difference between these two parallels, between these two instances in terms of not only what you do with the thing that you take, but on Sukkot, what are you in fact taking?
Imu: What are you taking on Sukkot?
Ami: Look back at the verse. You're not just taking a fruit, right?
Imu: Oh, right. Yeah. You're taking some other vegetation.
Ami: You're taking a bunch of other things. It really makes me wonder, does that have something to do with the difference between taking from the Tree of Knowledge, so to speak, and kind of the taking we're doing on Sukkot? Does that have something to do with the element of joy before God, rather than a kind of sadness in hiding from God?
Ami: Here's where the stories diverge. Take but don't eat, and take it together with these three other things. Can those be the elements that actually make it a very different experience?
Imu: So it's fascinating, because as I'm listening to you I'm like, this is all really intriguing, but Ami is avoiding the other meaning. This is a big etrog thing. You read the beginning of the verse, you read the end of the verse, but let's just gloss over this kapot temarim va'anaf eitz avot v'arvei nachal. Now you're adding a really --
Ami: Which would be convenient, right? Because what in the world is it?
Imu: Right. I was thinking, I'm like, kapot temarim, were there kapot temarim in Eden? Anaf eitz avot in Eden? Where is he going with this? Now you're somehow saying that -- you're specifically saying those things, those elements, the lulav, the hadasim and aravos, or as the Torah calls them the kapot temarim, the anaf eitz avot, the arvei nachal, those three are somehow, maybe, part of the distinctions from the Eden experience. Right, there was eating in Eden; no eating here. There was sadness in Eden; there will be joy here. And there's a bunch of new other elements that get taken with this fruit. So yeah, I'm curious to see where you take this.
Ami: Right. And is it possible that if what we're kind of asking here is this sort of mysterious identity of joy that shows up here, that somehow this is a, just take these things u'smachtem, as if you will almost automatically just be filled with happiness and joy on Sukkot. Like, why? Holding these things? Is it possible that if we can try to understand a little more, like, what these four species really are about, we might understand how they hold a kind of secret to joy?
Imu: So I wonder if I understand what you just said properly, which is just methodologically speaking, you're saying that the verse, the way it reads is, you take these four species, u'smachtem lifnei Hashem, and seemingly it will result in happiness. So you're sort of asking the question as to, what about the taking of these four is going to make happiness result? Because my ritual experience of taking these four elements personally doesn't necessarily result in happiness. Maybe, if you unlock something for us in a certain way, it might.
Ami: Right. I think probably a lot of people's ritual experience is, I hope nobody stops me on the street and asks me what I'm doing.
Imu: Right, exactly.
Ami: I hope I don't poke out someone's eye with the sharp end of my lulav when I'm shaking it.
Ami: But the Torah seems to be saying that there is a key to joy in this.
Ami: So we've unpacked a little bit about the taking and the fruit, but we're really ready now to look at the other elements of this mitzvah. So come back with me to Leviticus 23, and let's look again at this verse. What I want you to do as we read this, is I want us to kind of encounter each of these plants, each of the four species, as if we've never encountered it before. Let's get out of our mind the Sukkot fair and tents that are set up to get your four species. Let's get out of our mind the prepackaged plastic wrapped stuff that we just kind of order from somewhere.
The Torah is telling us about different elements of the vegetable kingdom, of the plant world. That's what I want us to kind of just focus on here. So number one is pretty simple. "U'lekachtem lachem," the first thing you take, "pri eitz hadar." What part of a tree are you taking here, Imu?
Imu: The fruit. "Pri eitz hadar."
Ami: You're taking a fruit. Pri, it's a fruit. Pretty simple, right? The first of the four species, the first element of this mitzvah, take a fruit. The next one, "kapot temarim." Now, what are kapot temarim?
Imu: That's fascinating. So kapot are -- they're palm fronds. They're the leaves of a tree, but what's funny is it's telling you to take the leaves from seemingly a different tree; it's not saying, first take the fruits of an etrog tree --
Ami: It seems like a different tree, yes.
Imu: -- then take the leaves. But what's funny about this part is if you asked me what would I rather have, would I rather have an etrog or would I rather have dates? I would rather have dates. Dates are actually, like -- right?
Imu: Yeah. That's what I'm saying. Go to a date tree -- oh, this is a great command. And grab some -- not dates, but leaves.
Ami: Leaves, leaves. By the way, I love that you identified it as a leaf, because if you asked somebody what a lulav is, they wouldn't think a lulav is a leaf, but it really is. A lulav, you know, I live here in Jerusalem, there are palm trees out in my courtyard here. What the lulav is, is at the top of a palm tree, when you have a new leaf growing out, what we call a frond, which is just a fancy word for leaf. So before it opens up into that kind of canopy and hangs off the side, it just stands up as a lulav, as a thick, closed spear, so to speak.
If you let it grow, the individual slats on the lulav, they open up and they are the leaves of the palm tree. So a lulav is an immature leaf.
Ami: I've actually, in the past, cut my own lulav from trees for Sukkot.
Imu: That's incredible. That's incredible. I've seen what you're talking about, yeah. It looks like these lulavs sticking up out of these palm trees, and then they do seem to unfold, unfurl into the fronds.
Ami: Right. So when the Torah is telling us kapot temarim, it's saying, take a leaf. A specific kind of leave, granted, but take a leaf.
Imu: I do still -- I think it's fascinating that it's telling you to take it from a tamar.
Ami: From a fruit tree, yes.
Imu: From, I think, one of the best fruit trees. When you talk about Israel as the land flowing with milk and honey, the honey the Torah is referring to is not bee honey. It's talking about date honey. Israel, just historically, was -- its main exports, I believe, were dates and olives? So it's the valuable fruit, but you're not having the fruit, you're having the leaf, which is interesting.
Ami: Right. So it's like, go to where the fruit is, but don't take the fruit. Take its leaf instead.
Ami: Beautiful. Let's continue on to the next step, va'anaf eitz avot. What did we say this translates to, just in a very simple way?
Imu: The branch of a very thick tree.
Ami: Some kind of thick tree branch.
Imu: Oh, interesting. So we went from fruit -- oh, okay. From fruit, to leaf, to branch.
Ami: Yeah. Isn't that interesting?
Imu: What's that song? "And the fruit, and the tree, and the branch, and the green grass grows all around all around, and the green grass grows all around."
Ami: Right, "and the green grass grows all around." Yeah. We seem to be taking different elements of the tree as the different elements of this mitzvah.
Imu: And getting further from the fruit.
Ami: Getting further from the fruit and closer to the tree itself, so to speak. Right? You move from the fruit and then you go past the fruit and you find the leaf, and then oh, but don't stop at the leaf, go take a branch. Imu, what's the next thing we do in this mitzvah? V'arvei nachal. What is the unique characteristic of this type of plant?
Imu: The willow tree? Maybe that it grows from rivers?
Ami: It's an arvei nachal. The specificity of this part of the mitzvah is that it's a thing that grows on water. Arvei nachal is the plants that are growing up from the water.
Imu: So you see this as sort of a progression where, like, we got the fruits, we got the leaves, we got branches, and in some sense we even got trunks. It's va'anaf eitz avot, it's the branch --
Ami: A branch is a trunk by another name.
Imu: Exactly. But it's specifically like those -- the branch is a stand-in for the tree itself, right, because it's the --
Ami: It's something woody. Yeah.
Imu: V'arvei nachal, and now you've gone even further to the source of the tree, which is water.
Ami: So let's just think for a moment, what it might mean to hold this in my hands as a mitzvah. I'm holding a fruit. And like you said so beautifully, we're actually moving in each stage, it actually takes us almost from a fruit, further back into the process, further toward the origin of the process. I take a fruit, but then I don't stop there, and I go a little further back. What comes before the fruit? There's a leaf. Oh, and then I took a leaf and if I keep going into the process, I'm going to find a branch. I'm going to find the body of a tree.
But where does a tree come from? Well, a tree grows from water. The source of that tree is water. When I'm holding these four different kinds of parts of plant life in my hands, I'm holding an entire ecosystem, so to speak. I'm holding the entire vegetable life, the whole process of plant life, together, from water to fruit.
Imu: I think it's more than an ecosystem because they're not so much independent beings that live together. It's actually a product and source with all of its in-between.
Ami: All the stages of the process of growth. The entire process, so to speak.
it's actually kind of elegant, the way you brought it up earlier, which is when you said, I want to go through this not thinking about the four species in their plastic wrapped containers under the tent.
Imu: You brought us back to the place of their growth. But even the fruit itself betrays its source sometimes in its packaging, especially if someone else harvested it for you. So what you're getting is a transparent fruit, transparent in the sense that you can see through it. You can see through the fruit to its leave and branch and trunk and water source. So it betrays its source to you.
Ami: It's telling you the whole story. Yeah. Let me ask you something, we were noticing here that it seems like each element of the four species is kind of like a further step toward the source of where these things come from. When you get to the water, the beginning of where the tree comes from. Well, what happens when you go past the water? What happens when you go before the water? What's the source of the water, look at what comes next in the verse. I'm just going to read the verse now keeping in mind the progression we've just uncovered. Take for yourselves pri eitz hadar, the fruit of this tree; kapot temarim, the leaves; anaf eitz avot, the branch; arvei nachal, the willows on the river. U'smachtem, and rejoice, lifnei Hashem Elokeichem.
Imu: Right there. You go straight to the source.
Ami: You go straight to the source. It almost reads, you will be rejoicing, you'll be in God's presence. You're going to meet the Creator. If you follow this process back to its source of its source, you're going to be right there in God's presence. Rejoicing.
Imu: Beautiful. You know, I'm smiling as you teach me this. I'm curious to mine with you, in what sense does this grant happiness. But somehow, you walking me through this purely in the mind and through these verses, that in itself made me smile. Just, like, visualizing myself -- no, it's true. Like, experiencing a fruit and where it comes from and seeing its source, and then taking that source all the way to God. It's just like, you relax. You relax in joy, you relax in gratitude. The tension kind of goes away.
It reminds me of just -- you know, I found it to be a very spiritual experience to take my kids to a farm, or to pick fruits, because especially in modern times, when our fruits essentially grow in the supermarket, it can be a very moving experience. It almost feels artificial, weirdly, to see a pumpkin on the vine, or to see a peach on a tree and be like, oh, like in those commercials.
Ami: Well, yeah. That is an intense reality of disconnect from the source. We don't know, we don't identify things from their source. We get them after the fact.
Imu: And there's intense joy, and there's something thrilling and exciting. If you ever grow vegetables in your backyard, it's almost hilarious that the earth gives you fruit. It just gives you fruit. It gives you, like, candy. So to bundle that experience together and to really just meditate on it or just be moved by it, maybe that's why I haven't had this experience in my ritual Judaism until now, is I didn't really know what I was doing. But to stare at those four things in your hands, four things that kind of tell you the source of your bounty and connect you as far back as we can, back to water, back to God, there's great joy in that.
Ami: and this is part of what's beautiful about the process here in this mitzvah. It doesn't say, think about these things. You're literally holding them in your hands. Like, you are fully, as much as possible, you're fully sensing each of these stages of the creative process.
The first thing that it kind of seems to be saying here, you know, if we were to read u'smachtem -- you brought up a good question. Is u'smachtem sort of, then you shall do the happy thing? Or is u'smachtem a natural outgrowth of what happens when you hold these four species? I can imagine that if I'm holding this with the awareness that I'm encountering, very directly and viscerally, this very fundamental creative energy that runs through creation, and I'm holding it in my hands and it's opening me up to, oh my God, this is how this world works and this is how God runs this world.
In a sense, I have no choice but to encounter the source of all of this, when I kind of take stock of it. Then it kind of brings up the question, which is, this is called joy, this experience. It's called simcha. What kind of simcha is that, exactly? What would we call that simcha? What is the cause of that simcha?
Here I also want to kind of bring us back to where we started, because when we read the descriptions of Sukkot and it's saying, gather in your crops, it's a harvest festival. We're thinking to ourselves, that would make sense to us for it to be a time of simcha because yeah, you've got all this great food. But the Torah sort of throws a curveball here. Then go outside. Take this, take that, take that, and find your joy here. What is that joy? You know, it made you smile. What is that? What are we sensing when we're kind of recognizing this process up close and recognizing God as the source of it?
Imu: The word that's coming to mind is matanah, is gift. Because you're right, and what a lovely distinction. I hadn't thought about that. It seems like the Torah is telling you to go beyond mere enjoyment of the harvest, right. The harvest was hard work, I would imagine. It is davka (specifically) at the time of -- you're disconnecting the fruit from its source. So when the ritual asks you to go beyond merely bringing the bounty back to the table and eating it, then it tells you, remember where this came from. It seems to be that a source of the joy is that this was given to you. This is a gift.
I don't think in the, I'm scolding you kind of way of like, (puts on gravelly voice) remember where this came from. You never would have done this without me. But in that same, hilarious notion that if you have a garden, it gives you blueberries. Cucumbers grow from the ground and you can eat them. The fact that things you want to enjoy just happen.
In some sense, maybe, in the basic metaphor of the Garden of Eden, at one point in human history, life was a garden and you could eat from all the fruits. You could just pick to your heart's content.
Ami: So I want to come back to that point and pick up on that in a moment. But I also want to say, to me, you know, you said the word that comes is matanah or the gifted nature of what we've received and kind of how this world works, that there's gift, that God is giving through it.
The other thing that comes to mind for me is a sense of connection. It's a sense of connection. When I hold these species with that kind of, just a very simple recognition of both the creative process itself, just the life of a plant and how marvelous that is, and kind of recognizing that this is all coming from the source of all, from God. Like you said, you said it helps you relax. I think part of that is that we're able to kind of feel, in a very fundamental way, I am connected to this universe and I am connected to the Creator. The most basic life process here that fuels the world that I live in and that sustains me in my body and life and all of us here, it's a gift and it's all kind of emerging from God and just coursing through all of creation. And here I am, part of that. I'm just part of this web of life coming from the Creator.
Imu: Beautiful. Beautiful. I love that, and I think that's also wise that gifts are wonderful because something is given to you and is ready for you, but also gifts imply a giver. The relationship and that connection come together.
But I want to now come back to another thing you mentioned because you said, you know, it's like once upon a time, God's world was a garden where you could just take and eat. That's almost true. That's partially true, but let's go back to some of the contrasts that we noticed earlier. What was happening back in the Garden when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge? If the mitzvah of the four species seems to involve taking a fruit and opening up a full recognition of the source of this fruit, and our relationship with that source, well how was that dynamic playing out back when Eve saw that beautiful fruit on that one tree?
God basically said, you can eat all the fruits in this whole garden and eat to your heart's content, but there's one tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that you may not eat from. Here I kind of want to bring in some of Rabbi Fohrman's teaching on this, that the fundamental message there is, take everything you want from this world, but recognize that there is a creator to the garden. Because da'at tov v'ra (knowing good and evil) is the Creator's domain. If you can respect and acknowledge the Creator's domain, you can really eat and enjoy from everything in the world, because you're recognizing that all of it is coming from that source.
What happened when Eve looked at that tree and decided to take its fruit?
Imu: So what you're saying, and the way Rabbi Fohrman likes to say this is, God made it -- He kind of gave the world as a gift to Adam and Eve, and He made it so that they don't have to walk around and say thank you all the time or perform thank you sacrifices. He kind of made a default state of thank you, a default state of connection and admission by creating a tree that they can't eat from. It's almost like the recognition tree. As long as you don't eat from the tree but you eat from all the other trees, you're perpetually in this process of connection, recognition, and thanks to God because you're staying away from the Master's tree.
Ami: It kind of creates a fundamental lens through which you see everything else.
Imu: Right. The moment Eve thinks, hey, that tree looks great to eat, then that framework dissolves and the respect and the admission and the appreciation, the source recognition, understanding where this garden comes from, that all fizzles away. The only way you can eat from a tree like that, I imagine, is if you're hiding from a truth, from a reality of the source of existence, of the tree, of the trees in general.
Ami: Right. This is where I wanted to go, and I'm glad you kind of went there because when God says this, eat the trees and don't eat from this one, and that's what the recognition is, in a sense Adam and Eve had to kind of forcibly ignore or force themselves to forget the Creator, to eat from that tree. Like, you can't stare at the tree that's God's tree and be fully aware that it's the Creator's tree, and violate the command and take from it anyway at the same time.
Ami: There has to be a kind of self-delusion of let's, either consciously or unconsciously put that aside. It's ignoring the source and the Creator of all, to be able to take that fruit. And you know what the consequences are? Let's go back to the consequences. It's like, oh, you're going to play that game with me and you're going to then hide because that's what you're -- kind of what you said beautifully, they're kind of already hiding from God on their own volition. So God gives them a few chances to sort of engage in conversation. But then it's like, guess what? If this is how you want to take fruit in this world, it's going to be in disconnect from Me, it's going to be in distance from Me, it's going to be without joy, and it's going to be ultimately out of My garden.
Imu: It's going to be with sadness.
Ami: It's going to be with sadness. So I kind of want to bring in, now, something that you sort of said early on and I'm almost foreshadowing. Adam's curse, Eve's curse, in a sense the sadness of enjoying -- that's ironic to say. The sadness of reaping the fruits of this world of childbearing and of eating, literally eating, come to harvest time. You're eating the fruits of the land. As we've seen, the element of simcha, it doesn't appear right there when you're harvesting all of your crop. It's only appearing now that you've collected all of the four species and that you're kind of developing this awareness of source and of connection and that giftedness, and all of this is coming from God. This is what animates my life and enlivens the world I live in.
What happens now when you go into your kitchen or into your storehouse, and you start eating the fruit that you took from your harvest? All of a sudden, everything you've gathered, everything you've toiled for, it takes on a different quality.
Ami: That harvest now isn't a fruit that's disconnected from its source. That harvest now is every potato and every apple and every tomato is enjoying and tasting the fruit that God has gifted you.
Imu: It's actually kind of crazy what you're saying, because I've had the experience of -- you know, when you eat the fruit from the megastore with the cheap produce, the produce doesn't taste nearly the same as if you buy organic or if you buy from the farmer's market or if you buy at the farm. I think that's true chemically, but I also think it's true psychologically, spiritually.
There's something terribly sad and colorless about maybe Adam and Eve who, in their desire for the fruit, severed it from its source. So maybe they got to enjoy some fruit, but it's totally separate from a major source of its happiness, which is fruit in relationship. In relationship to the leaf, to the branch, to the tree, to the water, and to its ultimate source, God.
I think there's something very powerful here where the Torah is kind of telling us, you can actually both grow food, you can be the one who takes fruit from the world, and you can also fully enjoy it with an awareness of where it comes from and its creator.
The Torah, and God is kind of giving us this mitzvah that sounds so similar to the very first mitzvah that was violated. It sounds so similar. Like, why would God be telling us to do the thing that the people did, the first thing people didn't do right?
But it sounds as if, in some wild way, God is saying okay, you know what? You are fruit-eaters in this world. You are cultivators in this world. You are creators in this world. I want to invite you to be able to take the harvest that you've grown, but I want you to eat it like you're in My garden. I want you to be able to come take the fruit and taste it and know where it comes from, and experience the kind of full spectrum of God-Creator in all of the process of plant life that yes, you've been engaged in.
You've been working really hard, I know. But the four species are actually what bring us the awareness of what has truly animated this process, what's truly responsible for this fruit that I've gathered and harvested. It's not just, you know, my tractor and my toil and my hard work that I put in, that I'm going to now (inaudible 01:10:52). This is the way that God's world works. The Creator makes this life-giving process happen all the time, and is giving that to us.
In a sense, the four species are what make me aware of where all of this comes from, so then my harvest can be truly a divine joy. Without the four species, I worked hard and doggone it, I'm going to enjoy my food and just eat and drink and be merry for seven days, and then you know what? Then I'm hitting the field on day 8, or rather day 9, and just going back to work and breaking my back for another year, so I can then enjoy the week of it a year from now.
That's not the joy the Torah is talking about. The joy the Torah is talking about has to do with fully receiving the blessing from God. The gateway to that actually is the four species, because it's the four species that let us see that and sense that in its fullness. then I go back and I eat my crops, and they taste better, my crops. I identify the food I'm eating as this blessing, as this divine gift.
Imu: Yeah. It's beautiful. A beautiful concept.
Ami: So I think, you know, I want us to revisit this element of joy of Sukkot and happiness, and kind of open with the questions of, well, these other holidays, Passover, Shavuot, they're identified as kind of the core essence of liberation. The essence of giving of Torah. What would it mean if Sukkot is somehow clueing us into the essence of joy, to a kind of fundamental quality of what joy is?
it seems to be clear that what it's not, it's not counting the potatoes in your barrel. It's not merely the joy or gratification of how well your investments did at the end of the year. Specifically when we're at the time of all the ingathering, we're being commanded to go outside, to take the things that, as you pointed out, we're not going to be eating, and -- to hold them so that they can allow us to experience a different kind of joy. That joy of recognition of Creator and our connection with God.
So I am thinking to myself, like, in a sense, what if Sukkot is the time of year where we are centering our spiritual work and our religious practice around tapping into that kind of essential joy, for it to be able to kind of teach us a little bit, like, what could it be like to live joyously?
Imu: Yes, right. I don't think Sukkoth is the only time to be happy. It's sort of that time to remind yourself how happiness is fostered, because it's this time of bounty, because it's this time of all the taking where you're severing a whole bunch of fruits from their source.
Ami: By the way, at the time of harvest, some probably make it out really well and a lot probably don't make it out so well. How are they supposed to have joy at the harvest? I think it's leading everyone back to the same kind of discovery, to that same reorientation. Don't seek the joy only in your storehouses. You have filled your storehouses with your harvest, now go find out where joy comes from and now go eat. Now go have a blast for the next week, but not because of the pears that you have, but because of that recognition.
Ami: . Imu, I really appreciate you delving into this with me. I have been really excited about this material and it's been such a gift to use some of what we've talked about here. It's been a gift to be able to hash it out with you.
Imu: I have to tell you that the time we spent recording this went by completely in a flow state. I did not feel like we were trying to produce any fruits here and it was really enjoyable, and I mean that seriously. My work here at Aleph Beta is to produce certain products, certain deliverables and there are times in Aleph Beta that are more stressful when we're focused on how do we deliver the product, and then there are times that are more like this where it's relaxed, joyful, getting together with friends, learning together and what emerges emerges, and I'm quite proud of what emerged. I'll also say, in a very biased way, that I declare that I am quite satisfied with your answer on the four species and I already feel transformed, but I feel excited.
Imu: We'll see what our listeners say.
Ami: But you know what, Imu, even if my boss wasn't satisfied with my work, I would not let that bring me into sadness because I'm here to enjoy this process.
Imu: I love it. I love it. Look at that, invulnerable from stress. That's what we're doing. Giving everybody happiness. This is fun. Thanks, Ami.
Ami: Thanks, Imu. This was great.