Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sukkot (Midrash)

“And he stood between the myrtles”

The Four Kinds of plants taken on Sukkot which, together with the sukkah (festive booth) itself, form the central mitzvot of the festival, are subject to a wide gamut of interpretations. One hears almost ad nauseum the midrashic explanation that the four species correspond to four kinds of Jews, with various combinations of moral and intellectual virtue, but there are many other interpretations as well. My attention was drawn to the following midrash by a long departed friend, Rabbi Meir Feist, (see HY II: Aharei Mot) who described to me a near- mystical experience he had one Sukkot morning, while meditating on this midrash before taking the Four Kinds. Leviticus Rabbah 30.9:

Another thing: “the fruit of a goodly tree [‘etz hadar]” [Lev 23:40}.—This is the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is written, “with glory and splendor [hadar] are You clothed” [Ps 104:1]. “Branches [or: crowns] of palm trees”—this is the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is written, “the righteous shall blossom like a palm tree” [Ps 92:13]. “And boughs of a leafy tree ” [traditionally interpreted as referring to the myrtle] —this is the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is written, “and he was standing among the myrtles” [Zech 1:8]. “And willows [‘arvei] of the brook”—this is the Holy One blessed be He, of whom it is written, “Lift up a song to He who rides upon the clouds [‘aravot], Yah is His name” [Ps 68:5].

What is the point of this midrash? To display the ingenuity of the Rabbis in making puns? That everything equals everything? Obviously, there is far more to it than that. The central idea, as I see it, is that God is present in the material universe, and that no place is empty of Him. More specifically, the Four Species, as objects used in a mitzvah celebrating God’s goodness and bounty and lovingkindness, are somehow seen here as almost tangible representations of the Divine Presence: God Himself is somehow in the etrog, in the lulav, in the myrtle and willow, as demonstrated by the fact that they are described using the very same terms (with a little linguistic imagination) as are used to portray God coming in His glory. But, in typically Jewish, monotheistic fashion, the midrash toes a thin line between immanence and transcendence; its authors don’t actually want to make a physical object, not even a $100 Janover etrog, into a direct embodiment or incarnation of the Divine presence, but seem to do so in somewhat indirect, suggestive fashion.

What is the significance of the verses chosen? They seem a rather mixed bag. Two of them allude to God’s glory: His splendor =hadar=etrog; He rides upon the clouds, or in one of the heavens=’arabot=willows. One verse refers to the righteous man, the tzaddik. Interestingly, God is also called tzaddik; indeed, perhaps the righteous human is called such only by way of analogy to the Holy One. In classical Kabbalah, tzaddik serves as a kind of conduit of divine fulness or abundance into the world, symbolized by the sefirah of Yesod; there are echoes of this in the institution of the tzaddik in Hasidism. Finally, there is Zechariah’s mysterious figure mounted on a red horse while concealed among the myrtles. Is he a divine messenger? Or perhaps a personification of the Almighty Himself, as in Sanhedrin 93a, where He plans to destroy the world and is held back by the figures of the righteous?

This midrash seems a kind of forerunner of the Kabbalistic interpretation of the four species, which sees this mitzvah as particularly pregnant with symbolism, each of the four corresponding to various sefirot or groups of sefirot, or else to the letters of the Divine name. R. Yosef Caro, in Beit Yosef on the Laws of Lulav (Orah Hayyim §451, under s.v. katav b”h), quotes an extraordinary story related by the 15th century Italian Kabbalist Menahem Recanati. One Sukkot Recanati had a house guest, an Ashkenazi pietist named Yitzhak; during the course of Yom Tov night he saw his guest in a dream writing the name of God in a Torah scroll, separating the final heh from the first three letters (thus: YHW H); when asked to explain this (still in the dream), he replied that such was the custom in his place. Puzzled by this mysterious dream, the next morning in synagogue he noticed that his guest was carefully shaking the other three species without the etrog; he rebuked him, stating that he must not “separate the structure” (lo lehafrid habinyan)—that is, upsetting the unity of the Divine world represented by the wholeness of the Name. The Beit Yosef ends by quoting the above midrash, as a proof that the four species represent the name of God.

One last thought: is it merely coincidental that the Four Kinds is one of the few subjects in which a metaphysical claim is invoked in the middle of a halakhic debate? The Rabad of Posquières, in his gloss to Hilkhot Lulav 8.5, on the subject of the myrtle whose top was chopped off, differs with Maimonides’ view, as he does in hundreds if not thousands of other places throughout the Mishneh Torah. But here he begins with the words “and the Holy Spirit has already appeared in our Study House for several years and disclosed to us that…” Is it far-fetched to suggest that there is indeed something mysterious about the mitzvah of the Four Kinds that invites this type of blending of the spiritual and the practical? Perhaps it is precisely because this mitzvah otherwise seems so inexplicable: taking a bunch of branches and fruit, solemnly reciting a blessing over them, shaking them, marching around the synagogue in solemn procession (someone recently commented to me that the whole business seems pagan)—that in this matter heaven and earth seem so much closer to one another.


Post a Comment

<< Home