Several months ago, during Sukkot holiday, I traveled to Rapid City to bring the seasonal observances to my brothers and sisters and spent the day visiting Jews at their homes or places of work with a Lulav & Etrog and our portable Sukkah.
The Chabad tradition is to eat and drink exclusively in the Sukkah during the seven days of the holiday. Not even a drink of water outside of it. That meant no snacking in the car for the long drive back to Sioux Falls. Setting up my portable Sukkah and taking it down every time I wanted to snack would lengthen the trip, valuable time that I could be spending bringing the holiday mitzvahs to others, but sometimes you just need to stop and eat.
It must have been about 1AM when I exited the I90. The streets were dark, and naturally I was a bit nervous. I felt even more uncomfortable as I pulled into a gas station parking lot and only saw a run down looking car.
As I walked into the gas station I was mortified to see only one other person in the entire store, staring at me intently, pointing in my direction while mumbling words. A part of me wanted to run. But that is not the Jewish approach to life. So I decided to pay attention to what he was saying.
”Numbers?” “Numbers 15!” “ Deuteronomy 22!” he kept saying while pointing at me excitedly.
I finally understood why he was so excited. “Yes” I called back, as I began waving my tzitzis (fringes worn by Jewish men on the corners of their garments). This fellow had read the Torah and knew of the commandments written in those verses to wear tzitzis but he had never seen anyone actually doing it. When he saw me walk into the store that night he was so excited because “the Torah had become alive,” he told me.
I learned several things that night. We are told to never be afraid, because G-d is always watching over us. Indeed, I had no reason to fear. Also, I should not have assumed this person had any ill intentions towards me as a Jew. In fact, as I quickly learned, he loved Jews and was familiar with Jewish teachings.
Most importantly, I experienced first hand how wearing my Jewish attire proudly and in the open brings more education, goodness, kindness, and light into the world, and gave me another opportunity to fulfill the words of Isaiah to be a “Light unto the nations.”
As I made Havdalah at the conclusion of a most inspiring Yom Kippur, and we all sang the lively holiday song vesamachta as the candle was extinguished into the wine, we could feel the Days of Joy were now upon us.
Sukkot begins on Sunday evening, and one of the very special mitzvahs of this joyful holiday season is the Lulav and Etrog, also known as "the four kinds." The Torah says "you shall take for yourselves the fruit of a beautiful tree, a bound branch of a palm tree, boughs of thick-leaved trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the L‑rd your G‑d for seven days.”
The midrash describes these four kinds as being symbolic of four types of Jews: an etrog, which possesses both a good taste as well as a fragrant odor, is symbolic of the Jew who possesses both Torah learning and mitzvahs, good deeds. The palm branch has a good taste but no fragrant odor, signifying those who have obtained Torah education but lack in mitzvah observance. Those individuals who perform mitzvahs but are lacking in Torah knowledge are likened to the myrtle, which has a fragrant odor but lacks taste. The willow, which is inedible and lacks aroma as well, represents those people lacking both in Torah and good deeds.
When teaching this midrash, the Rebbe shared a beautiful lesson. Just as all four kinds together are necessary for the performance of the mitzvah, and only then can the blessing be made, so, too, must all Jews be united; even if just the “willow” is missing, then Jewry as a whole is lacking an essential component. Similarly, just as the willow need not have its qualities revealed for it to be utilized, so must our approach to the “willow Jew” be without pre-conditions. It wholly suffices that she or he is a Jew.
It is only when all four types of Jews are brought together and held together, that we can have a real community. That is why every Jew, no matter background, level of knowledge, commitment, or social status, is valued, welcomed, and very much a treasured part of our community.
This message is especially important this year, being that it is a Hakhel year, a "Year of Gathering," when we try to gather as much as possible, to increase and strengthen our Jewish unity and observance.
We look forward to welcoming you at the Sukkot Hakhel celebrations!
Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz Blog
Serving the spiritual needs of the South Dakota Jewish community. Based in Sioux Falls and travels the state.