Come Together: The Arba Minim
This short Dvar Torah from Rabbi Sacks explores the symbolism behind the Four Kinds – the lulav, the etrog, the hadas and the aravah – brought together on the festival of Succot.
The lulav and etrog, hadassim and aravot – the arba’a minim of Succot – testify to the fact that Succot is – above all a festival of rain – not just for Israel, but for the world. “Uve-chag nidonin al hamayim” (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). We hold that the rainfall of the year is determined on Succot. Or at any rate, on Succot we are mindful of – and thankful for – the rain that makes the trees, the flowers, and the crops grow. And that is the primary fact about the arba’a minim, the Four Kinds. But of course, over time, various forms of symbolism have come to be attached to them. And one of them, perhaps the most famous, goes as follows.
The etrog, the citron, has taste and smell. The lulav, the date palm, has (or at least the dates have) taste, but no smell. The hadassim, the myrtle, have smell, but no taste. And the aravot, the willows, have neither smell nor taste. And the symbolism is that so it is with Jews. Taste represents learning. Smell represents good deeds. Some Jews have both. Some have one, but not the other: learning, but not deeds; deeds, but not learning. And some are like the poor willow that have neither.
And the Midrash says, “amar Hakadosh Baruch Hu”, the Holy One, blessed be He, says, “yuksh’ru kulam agudah achat”, may they all be bound together in a single bundle, a single binding together, “v’hen m’chaprin eilu al ailu”, and let them atone for one another (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12).
Now, this is remarkable, because what it implies is that not only does a Jew who has learning and good deeds atone for one who has neither, but the other way round as well. A Jew who has neither atones for one who has learning and good deeds. Now this is a very, very powerful statement of the agudah achat, this one binding together of these four kinds, that what counts is the “We” more than the “I”. Our greatness as a people is as a people, not as individuals. Our greatness exists when we ‘Come Together’.
And I mention that famous song by the Beatles – the first track, if I’m not mistaken, on an album of theirs called ‘Abbey Road’ – because it reminds me, interestingly enough, that the Beatles themselves are the great secular example of this fundamental human truth. I mention Abbey Road because I used to live very close to there when I was Chief Rabbi for 22 years. In fact, the walk from our home to the St John’s Wood Synagogue took us over a very famous zebra crossing, indeed, the zebra crossing of Abbey Road. And just a couple of weeks ago, there was a big celebration at the EMI Studios in Abbey Road for the 50th anniversary of the Beatles album called ‘Abbey Road’, which was the last they made (although not the last they released).
The fascinating thing about these four musicians is that as long as they stayed together, they produced music of absolute genius. Still, you cannot go a single day of any week along that Abbey Road and the zebra crossing without seeing hordes of people just wanting to be photographed like that famous photograph on the cover of Abbey Road.
And so long as they were together, they produced music of genius. But when they split apart, they never, ever recaptured it.
Just judging by their most famous and perhaps most successful individual efforts, you’d have to take ‘My Sweet Lord’, George Harrison; Paul McCartney, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’; John Lennon, ‘Imagine’.
Now go and look up the dates of those three songs. George Harrison, ‘My Sweet Lord’: 1970. Paul McCartney, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’: 1970. John Lennon, ‘Imagine’: 1971. The momentum of their creativity as a group carried on for a year thereafter, but then it simply dissipated and they were never the same again. Same individuals, the same four “I’s”, but they’d lost the “We”. They’d lost the agudah achat, that one band.
Human beings come in many kinds, and when we bind and bond together, that is when we achieve greatness. And that is what the lulav and the etrog, the hadassim and the aravot, remind us of.