By Rabbi Barry Block
We hold the four species of the lulav together, as we wave them in every direction, symbolizing that all Jews – indeed, all humanity – must be united if God is properly to be praised. Nevertheless, I’ve never resonated to the specifics of the midrash in Vayikra Rabbah, detailing the four types of Jews which the species are said to represent: the etrog, with taste and smell, representing Jews who study Torah and perform mitzvot; the palm branch, with taste but no smell, symbolizing those who study Torah but do not practice what they’ve learned; the myrtle, with good smell but no taste, symbolizing those who perform mitzvot but are not learned in Torah; and the willow, with neither taste nor smell, symbolizing those who lack both learning and Jewish observance.
Let me suggest an alternative.
Perhaps the etrog represents those who participate actively in Jewish worship, study, and performance of mitzvot as well as the stewardship of the Jewish community. The palm, then, might stand for those who practice Judaism actively but aren’t engaged in the business of the synagogue or other Jewish institutions. The myrtle would symbolize Jews who give their time to Jewish communal governance but don’t often worship, study, or observe the mitzvot.
Dan Hotchkiss, author of Governance and Ministry, writes about a woman who has participated in building perhaps more Habitat for Humanity homes than any other volunteer. However, she has never attended a committee meeting. She wants to do the good work; governance doesn’t interest her. The converse is true of others, though they may engage in at least token volunteer work in Habitat’s service. The mistake we make, Hotchkiss teaches, is that we often ask people to be on committees, then frustrate them with unclear expectations: People who are eager to do the work end up being asked to make decisions, and vice versa. The palm branch and myrtle remind us that different Jews prefer engagement in different aspects of our community, and that we should embrace both.
But what of the willow, that symbol with neither taste nor smell? Which Jews does it represent? Each congregation I have served is blessed, and I do mean “blessed,” with more than a few “willows,” members who are neither eager to practice Judaism actively nor be involved in governance. Active congregants sometimes speak of these folks derisively, emphasizing that they attend “twice a year,” if ever. I, on the other hand, see these “willows” differently. Yes, I’m eager to find ways to engage everyone in Jewish life. Still, I am grateful for the “willows” who haven’t totally disengaged from the community, who stand up and let themselves be counted as Jews – and, in the case of the congregations I have served, continue to pay their annual financial commitments faithfully, even as they rarely “take advantage” of the “privileges of membership.”
On this Sukkot, let us rejoice in every Jew in our midst, appreciating even the “willows,” as we embrace members of the Jewish community of every proclivity. May we all pull together, appreciating one another, rejoicing that we do band together in diverse ways to serve the Holy One of Blessing.
Rabbi Barry Block serves serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Cross-posted on RavBlog.