The Vilna Ga’on said that he would forego his place in the World to Come for an etrog. Other historical figures have made sweeping statements. Recall, for example, the ruler who said, “My kingdom for a horse!” But giving away the afterlife for a citron? The Ga’on must have loved the mitzvah of etrog with consuming love.
It was not an easy mitzvah to fulfil, especially in Diaspora conditions. The difficulties that stood in the way of obtaining an etrog, any etrog, were immense. Obtaining a beautiful etrog, as commanded by the Torah itself (Lev. 23:40), was even harder. Some communities marked Tu BiSh’vat – the New Year for Trees – by prayers that God should think of His people’s need for beautiful etrogim when He organised the program of nature’s development that year.
In some congregations they had a special society for the acquisition of etrogim and sometimes were unable to do more than acquire one etrog for the whole community. There was even halachic debate about the question,
“If one has a choice between visiting a town with a sukkah and one with an etrog, which should we choose?”
The answer was, choose the town with the etrog!
All of this indicates how precious the mitzvah was. But in addition, the ethical and spiritual symbolism of the etrog made it especially important. The etrog meant beauty and symbolised the rabbinic interpretation of the verse, “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Ex. 15:2); say the rabbis,
“Glorify Him by beautifying His commandments” (Shabbat 133b).
It meant ethical achievement: as the etrog had to be as perfect as possible, so can a human being strive towards personal perfection. As the etrog has taste and aroma, so must a human being be an example for others and spread an aura of spirituality throughout the world. And as the aim of every Jew was to have an etrog from the Holy Land, so does the etrog represent the eternal link between the land and people of Israel.
In 1847 Benjamin Disraeli wrote,
“The vineyards of Israel have ceased to exist, but the Eternal Law enjoins the Children of Israel still to celebrate the vintage. A race that persists in celebrating the vintage although they have no fruits to gather, will regain their vineyards”.
It is a century and a half later and we have every reason to bless God for the privilege of seeing these words come true. The etrog is part of the pattern that kept the dream alive; it is part of the pattern that celebrates the fulfilment.
IN THE WILDERNESS.
There is a rabbinic debate about the Torah verse,
“You shall dwell in sukkot seven days, that your generations may know that I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:42-43).
Rabbi Eliezer says that the sukkot in the wilderness were clouds of glory, whilst Rabbi Akiva holds that they were real, not virtual, huts (Sukkah 11b).
As usual with rabbinic differences of opinion there is a deep underlying philosophy, and as often happens the contrasting opinions can both be true. In this case we have two differing emphases which are not mutually exclusive.
If you ask which one is true, the answer is “both!” The “sukkot mamash” (“real huts”) philosophy says that one needs a physical edifice to provide protection and defence, whereas the “ananei kavod” (“clouds of glory”) approach argues that the best and strongest edifice will never be enough without Divine watchfulness hovering above.
Now of course you could argue that everything could be left to God and He will protect us even if we have no walls or roof, but then He will say,
“My protection is not only spiritual; look, I have given you building materials and brains, and you have to make your contribution by constructing a house”.
On the other hand, if you suggest that human beings can manage quite well on their own and God can be left out of the loop, you will soon be reminded that physical edifices – however sturdy – can be destroyed, God forbid, and Divine care and concern are indispensable.
A SECOND SUKKOT.
Chanukah and Sukkot have so much in common that Chanukah seems like a replacement for Sukkot.
The final year of the Maccabean struggle was so hectic that it was impossible to celebrate Sukkot properly. After the fighting the missed festival was observed in delayed form on the precedent of the Second Pesach ordained in the Torah for those who were prevented from observing the first.
The Second Book of Maccabees says,
“It was like the Feast of Tabernacles. They carried garlanded wands and branches with their fruits, as well as palm fronds, and chanted hymns.”
Some even say that the kindling of lights replaced the juggled torches of the Festival of the Water-Drawing, Simchat Beit HaSho’evah.
BREAD UPON THE WATERS.
Question. In Kohelet (which is read on Sukkot) it says, “Cast your bread upon the waters”. How did this idea originate?
Answer. The verse is Kohelet 11:1. The full wording is, “Cast (literally, send forth) your bread upon the waters, for you shall find it after many days”. It is a metaphor for investing in one’s future.
In Kohelet’s time it is not likely to have referred to the financial markets since such institutions did not then exist. More probably it has a moral connotation: do a mitzvah today and it will bring you benefits in the future.
True, it seems to say that one should perform good deeds with a thought of reward, even though Pir’kei Avot tells (1:3) us to “serve the Master” without ulterior motive, doing good deeds for their own sake. But maybe Kohelet is speaking as an observer rather than an ethicist and he has noticed that something you do today tends to have an effect days, years and sometimes decades, later.
Rashi takes the word “bread” rather literally in this connection and reminds us that Jethro invited Moses – whom he thought to be an Egyptian stranger – for a meal (literally, “to eat bread”: Ex. 2:20). Jethro did a good deed, gained a son-in-law and changed the whole course of history.
Why the verse says “upon the waters” is that the waters flow and move and a good deed goes with them like a person on a ship whose exact date of return may be uncertain.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com