Nature Versus Nurture: Is It An Appropriate Comparison?

Last August I saw two movies in the theater: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (referenced last week) and Three Identical Strangers. The latter details what occurs when triplets who were separated at birth become reunited. These boys did not know each other at all during their formative years and yet they all became wrestlers, smoked the same cigarettes, and had the same taste in women. The brothers had a happy reunion, settling in New York City and opening the rowdy and popular SoHo delicatessen Triplets. Each brother had a different upbringing: one was from a blue-collar family in Queens, another from a middle-class family in New Hyde Park, the third the son of a prominent doctor in Scarsdale.

Unfortunately the story takes a dark turn. They discover that in being given up for adoption by the Louise Wise Adoption Agency, they were put into a psychological experiment conducted by the Freudian psychologist Peter Neubauer on separating twins and triplets at birth.  The brothers meet their biological mother and have a difficult encounter with her. They have in-fighting, one of them leaving the Triplets business and stopping communication with his siblings. That brother was also charged in the slaying of a woman during an armed robbery. Another brother (the son of the prominent Westchester physician and the “popular” one of the three) commits suicide.  All three end up in psychiatric hospitals at different times in their lives.

Most of us would be horrified if such an experiment took place today; the cruelty of separating biological siblings. It is especially difficult to fathom that it was conducted by a man who fled Nazi persecution, as we know Mengele’s infamous experiments with twins. Three brothers with identical genes have completely different turn of events. This leads to the famous question: does nature or nurture dominate-and is it even worth looking into?

In this week’s parasha, we have the birth of two siblings who cannot be more different. We have the ruddy haired hunter Esau and the quiet Jacob. Isaac favors Esau for his hunting, whereas Rebecca favors Jacob. As twins both brothers grew up in the exact same home at the exact same time, so why are they so different? Even if Jacob and Esau are fraternal, I would not imagine them to be polar opposite in personality and temperament.

Three Identical Strangers gives us insight into this. The age-old question of nature versus nurture is not what we should be asking. Rather, our focus must be on what makes each person unique from his/her peer and how we can find a place for both of them. It is not supporting Jacob while castigating Esau but rather finding things to love about both personalities. Even three siblings with identical genes have completely different fates. The one with the hardest economic background, David Kellman, the son of a grocery store owner, appears to fare the best of the three. Is that because his parents were around more, or perhaps because he had to struggle more with adversity? Should we even be asking this question-after all it seems hutzpadik.

We are so quick to make comparisons, so eager to view things in black-and-white rather than in shades of gray. We do that all the time with Jacob, ignoring his faults while looking to vilify Esau, the one who threw away his inheritance over a bowl of stew. Yet what if we look at these characters through the complexities that comprise each human being’s life? What if instead of jumping to conclusions in our brains, we take a step back and appreciate each person for who s/he is and what s/he can contribute? It’s far too easy to look for answers: Why did Eddie Galland kill himself, why did Bobby Shafran disassociate himself from the other brothers? The answers are far more complex than the questions. Similarly, why did Esau want to kill his brother? Was he just talking, as many of us do when we are angry? Why did Jacob deceive Isaac? Did he want to do this or did his mother Rebecca manipulate him into doing it?

The goal is not to come up with “the answer” but rather to ask the questions and leave space for silence. Maybe we will get a satisfactory answer, maybe not. The bottom line, however, is we cannot wrap it in a nice, neat little bow. That’s what I found most powerful about the film Three Identical Strangers: the triplets and their parents never get a satisfactory answer as to why they were separated at birth for this eugenic, sickening psychological experiment. Anyone watching the film can come up with his or her own conclusion but the key question is left open-ended. That ambiguity has a realness to it; just like life.

May each of us, when we have uncertainty, whether about a major event in our lives, the Torah portion we are reading, the film we have just watched, the book we have just read, find comfort in knowing that life is about the uncertain. We can look for an answer but that doesn’t mean we will find one. Life is not a Hollywood film with a “happy ending” where everything makes sense. It is, rather, complicated. So too is Torah. There are 70 faces to the Torah, meaning one can continuously turn it over and arrive at an answer only to see something else and jump to a completely different conclusion. If our understanding of God or of characters such as Jacob and Esau remains where it was in 4th or 5th grade, then we have a stunted Judaism. My hope and prayer instead is that we continue to ask the questions with open eyes and an open mind, not knowing the answer our outcome we will reach. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our choice to do so.


Celebrating Life: A Response to Pittsburgh

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?…

Let’s make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we’re together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor?
Won’t you please,
Won’t you please?
Please won’t you be my neighbor? [1]


When I got home from elementary school, I watched two shows on PBS. The first was Sesame Street; the second was Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers always managed to capture my imagination with his insight and creativity. It’s very rare that I see a movie nowadays so I need to make it worth my time; when I was a “bachelor” for a week in August the first movie I saw was Won’t You Be My Neighbor. I knew I’d use it in a sermon but was unsure when. Today’s the day.

Last Saturday a man filled with hate, who used the social media site to spew his venom, walked into Congregation Tree of Life and murdered 11 people. The congregation is located in Squirrel Hill, a very Jewish area of Pittsburgh but also the neighborhood of Presbyterian Minister Fred (Mr.) Rogers. Unfortunately such an incident is the anathema of everything that Fred stood for; he used television as his ministry to bring children together, make them learn important life lessons such as kindness, patience and generosity. In the movie Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Mr. Rogers is shown after the 9/11 attacks, and it mentioned that before his public address, he was ashen and wondered what difference it would make. Yet he gave his final message, saying “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder what Robert Bowers would have turned into if his parents and classmates told him “I love you just the way you are.” I wonder if he still would have acted like Amalek, going on a rampage and shooting the vulnerable and elderly congregants in the rear of the synagogue.

What would Fred Rogers say in light of this massacre in his hometown? No one will know-לא המתים יהללו יה. I cannot look to my childhood exemplar for guidance-I need to do this on my own.

This week we read the Torah portion Haye Sarah, “the life of Sarah.” The portion begins ויהיו חיי שרה, these are the days of the life of Sarah.[2] The funny thing is the portion begins with her death-why therefore does it say the days of her life? The answer I like best is that we are celebrating each and every day of every week of every month of every year of Sarah’s life; who she was and the impact she made in the world.

I will now share about the days of the lives of every victim who was shot down in cold blood by the Jew-hater Robert Bowers at Tree of Life and New Light Synagogues. I do this to celebrate who they were and all that they contributed during their length of years; though each was taken before his/her time.

These are the days of the life of Joyce Feinberg z”l, a former research specialist who had been married to a world famous statistician. As a world traveler, she could not imagine living anywhere outside of Pittsburgh. She was a worrier about other people’s needs, devoted to her family and to her belated husband Stephen z”l. Her memory is for blessing.[3]

These are the days of the life of Irving Younger z”l the shamas and schmoozer of Tree of Life who had been a small business owner and youth baseball coach. Irving would arrive early and stay late at synagogue. He was an usher, guiding people to a seat and handing them a prayerbook. I wouldn’t be surprised if he saw this gunman walk into the room where the services were and his first thought was ‘Can I help this stranger get settled?’ — until he saw what the stranger was doing — because that’s the kind of thought that he would have,” said Barton Schachter, a past president of Tree of Life. His neshama should have an Aliya.[4]

These are the days of the lives of Bernice and Sylvan Simon z”l.  Sylvan Simon was a retired accountant with a good sense of humor. He was best friends with Rabbi Emeritus Alvin Berkun, who would have been in synagogue sitting next to the Simons if his wife had not asked him to stay home. Bernice Simon was a former nurse. She loved classical music and devoted time to charitable work. The Simons were going to celebrate a family birthday after Shabbat services. תהי נשמתם צרורה בצרור החיים.[5]

These are the days of the lives of Cecil and David Rosenthal z”l. Two brothers, each with their own challenges, who greeted attendees of Tree of Life Synagogue on Shabbat with prayerbooks as well as at weekday evening minyan at Beth Shalom. According to brother-in-law Michael Hirt, “David loved anything relating to the police or fire department.” Cecil was referred to as the “unofficial mayor of Squirrel Hill,” unafraid to go after what he wanted. He became a part of a Best Buddies chapter in 2005 when the organization shared a space with the disability services group Achieva, which helped and housed the Rosenthal brothers.” The brothers were inseparable, always together. Their memories are for blessing.[6]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz z”l. This man never stopped smiling, and was believed by those who knew him to be a malakh, an angel. He compassionately took care of those who suffered during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. He was always present and smiling at whatever he was doing, even when filling the Dixie cups with grape juice. יהי זכרונו ברוך[7]

These are the days of the life of Daniel Stein z”l, a member of New Light Synagogue. A man who recently became a grandfather, Daniel had recently retired and worked at a funeral home and as a substitute teacher. He picked up his grandson from daycare each and every day, this simple gesture giving him the joy he needed. He will not be forgotten.[8]

These are the days of the life of Rose Malinger z”l, a 97 year old woman was a stalwart, attending services each and every Saturday. Her family reports that she retained her sharp wit, humor and intelligence until the very last day. Tree of Life Congregation was “her place to be social, to be active and to meet family and friends.” Her 61 year old daughter Andrea was wounded in the attack. We will remember her.[9]

These are the days of the life of Dr. Richard Gotfried z”l. Rich was a dentist who tried to ‘Heal the World’ with work treating immigrants and refugees at a health clinic. He was a father figure to many on his staff, and he truly engaged in tikun olam, repairing the world on a daily basis. His soul will rise higher and higher.[10]

These are the days of the life of Melvin Wax z”l. Melvin knew so much yiddishkeit and was the default lay service leader at Tree of Life. He often did bikur holim, visiting ill people in the congregation. His soul is bound up in the bond of life.[11]

Please Rise-God, Healer of the Broken Hearted, we turn to you at this moment of grief. We ask in Your mercy that those massacred in Pittsburgh, who came to synagogue to worship You, that they not have been murdered in vain. May we never forget their example, the devotion they gave to their congregational home, the love and kindness they demonstrated in how they lived their lives. Let their example inspire us to be vigilant, not jaded; active, not silent; focused, not distracted; strong, not weak. May those of us who showed up special for this Shabbat continue to honor us with your presence, recognizing that regardless of our beliefs, each of us is grateful to be alive and to be able to call the Jericho Jewish Center our spiritual home. May we remember these 11 righteous and pure souls not in how they were murdered but rather in how they lived. In your almighty name we pray, Amen.

[1] “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” by Fred Rogers

[2] Genesis 23:1










How Can Faith Assuage the Fear of Death (In Newsday’s Ask the Clergy)

The last words we say at the end of Shabbat morning services, as well as before we go to bed, are “God is with me and I will not fear.” In saying these words, we acknowledge that the world can be a scary place and at times we might feel alone and vulnerable. We turn to God as a source of comfort for when we are afraid. This is most certainly true in regard to death. The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th (a taste) of death so before going to sleep, when we have no control over our bodies, we acknowledge God’s role as our protector.

Much of our fear of death stems from a fear of not being in control. We love life and living and fear for a time when we will no longer be on earth. We love our families and cannot imagine a time when we are no longer here for them. What religion and faith entail is a belief that everything will be ok. We are commanded to teach Torah to our children who in turn will teach it to their children, ensuring that the moral and religious blueprint that we follow will remain eternal. Furthermore, we will live on in the next generation, as they are shaped by how we raised them: the values we taught them and our modeling for them how to live our lives. While we cannot control how many days we will live on this planet, we have ultimate control over the example we set for our children and our grandchildren, our nephews and nieces, our cousins and dear friends.

The Jewish faith also teaches that while we bury the body, our soul (or “spirit”) lives on and will never be extinguished. We will never truly be gone: we will always be present in spirit. This belief system ensures that there is nothing to fear about death that it is a part of life that each of us will experience. It’s not a vanishing into nothingness but rather a step in a process. By letting go of our need to have all the answers and by seeing death not as oblivion but as a part of what it means to be a human being, we recognize that we have nothing to fear.

As in the words of the anonymous poet: “If you continue to love the one you lose, you will never lose the one you love.”

The Cursed Land

As I was preparing for a class on the Hoshanot during Sukkot, I noticed the peculiar language of the 6th Hoshana that we said of Hoshana Rabba. The prayer begins הושע נא אדמה מארר, save us from the cursed land. What cursed land? The note in our Artscroll Mahzor for Sukkot points to this week’s Torah reading. When Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden, G-d said to him ארורה האדמה בעבורך, “The land is cursed because of you.”[1] The verse continues, בעצבון תאכלנה כל ימי חייך, “You shall eat by the sweat of your brow all the days of your life.”[2] The following verse begins וקוץ ודרדר תצמיח לך “Thorns and thistles shall the land sprout for you.”[3] Not exactly the most pleasant or comforting images.

Before Adam’s transgression he had it easy: all he had to do was to pluck the fruit from the trees. As Radak, Rabbi David Kimhi, commented, “You (Adam) will not have to work before you can eat… ‘to till it and to tend it’[4] meant nothing more than light work-not work that would raise a sweat.”[5] Adam now had to work hard in order to yield any fruit. As a matter of fact, Rashi says that the sproutings will be “Artichokes and cardoons, which can only be made edible with great effort.”[6] A lot of effort will be needed in order to produce a little food.

This fate of Adam is transposed onto each of us through the Hoshana we said less than a week ago. While at times in life we feel like we are in Eden, that things flow naturally without effort, at other times each of us strives to produce something yet our hard work and best efforts fail. We might even feel (G-d forbid) cursed just like Adam’s land is cursed. We might feel unproductive, that our efforts do not bear fruit. The Hoshana is a prayer for G-d to save us from this: to make our efforts bear fruit and to make sure  that we do not give up.

We might take a more ecological approach, arguing that with global warming our efforts things which used to be easier are taking even more work to yield fruit. With drought preventing crop growth and fires destroying thousands of acres in California, flooding wiping out entire crops of fruit in Florida as well as the Carolinas and numerous other natural disasters, the Hoshana could be calling on G-d to save us from our worst inclinations and tendencies, reducing our carbon footprints, however inconvenient that might be. Alternatively it could be beckoning us to think twice before doing something destructive, reminding us that hard-earned respect and careers can be ruined in an instant over something foolish. It can be equally important to pray that G-d save us from ourselves as it is to pray that G-d will save us from natural disasters and scorched earth where the earth appears to be cursed.

As we began the Torah anew this morning, let us think about what we can do to make our lives a little more Eden-like and feel a little less cursed. At the same time, may we recognize that sometimes we need to work by the sweat of our brows in order to achieve results about which we feel proud and accomplished. Perhaps Adam’s Eden was not an ideal but rather something meant to be short-lived. The next time we feel that our land or our lives are cursed, let us pray to G-d that we have the inner strength and fortitude needed for transformation, and may we be the change we want to see in the world.[7]

[1] Genesis 3:17

[2] Ibid

[3] Genesis 3:18

[4] Genesis 2:15

[5] Radak on Genesis 3:17 ד”ה ארורה האדמה בעבורך

[6] Rashi on Genesis 3:18 ד”ה וקוץ ודרדר תצמחך לך

[7] Attributed to Mahatma Ghandi

Heading Back to Reality

Whether we like it or not, change and transition are part of our lives. We can attempt to follow one schedule or routine only to have it thrown out of whack by something unexpected. The same goes with the Jewish calendar. We can bask in the heat of summer, but fall will come in due time. Similarly, we can love the High Holy Day season but eventually it will come to an end and we will head back to reality.

While there is a dispute as to whether Shemini Atzeret is a רגל בפני עצמו, a holiday in and of itself, or the 8th Day of Sukkot, all agree that after Shemini Atzeret the High Holy Days are over. Some synagogues change the ark and curtains right after Shemini Atzeret services. All agree that one no longer eats in the Sukkah after today.

A special prayer is recited upon leaving the Sukkah for the final time each year. The prayer goes as follows: יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלקנו ואלקי אבותנו, כשם שקימתי וישבתי בסכה זו, כך אזכה בשנה הבאה לישב בסכת עורו של לויתן. לשנה הבאה בירושלים! “May it be your will G-d and G-d of our ancestors that just as I established and dwelt in this Sukkah, so too may I merit in the year to come to dwell in the Sukkah made out of the skin of the Leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem!” This is a prayer for the Messiah to usher in the World to Come, the same reason we read the Haftarah of Gog of Magog, the apocalyptic, cataclysmic battle ushering in the Messiah. We are praying for change; to leave this physical world and bask in the glory of a Messianic Age.

According to Jewish tradition, the mythic sea monster known as the Leviathan will be slain as one of the steps to usher in the Messiah.[1] Many scholars, including Maimonides, highlight that we will feast on the Leviathan in the Messianic Age. The question, however, remains as to why we say this prayer. In a class on this topic, Rabbi Ethan Tucker asks, “What will happen to Leviathan’s inedible hide? This prayer prompts us to imagine it as the material out of which we construct our sukkah. Animal hides are completely invalid for sekhakh, the sukkah’s water-permeable roof—we will see why below—so, the image of Leviathan’s skin here is meant to conjure up the walls of our future sukkah in our mind’s eye. Why are we talking about the sukkah’s walls at all? Isn’t sekhakh the essence of what a sukkah is about, the part that must be carefully constructed to conform to the expectations of our halakhic canon? Why would the walls be the focus of our point of departure?[2]

As Rabbi Tucker points out, rabbinic tradition teaches that the material to make the walls of the Sukkah is immaterial. The Mishnah only focuses on the roof, the sekhakh. It teaches: “…This is the rule: Anything that can receive impurity and which does not grow from the ground may not be used as sekhakh; anything that cannot receive impurity and which does grow from the ground may be used as sekhakh. Bundles of straw, wood and reeds may not be used for sekhakh. But if any of these bundles were untied, they are valid, and they all are valid as walls.”[3] The medieval commentator Rashi continued on this theme, asserting, “And they are all”—of the items that are invalid for sekhakh. “Valid as walls”—Because whenever the verse speaks of a sukkah, it is referring to sekhakh , because a wall is not called a sukkah …”[4] This is further pointed out by Rambam, who asserts “דפני סוכה כשרין מן הכל”/The walls of a sukkah may be made of anything.”[5]

If we do not care what comprises the walls of our contemporary Sukkot, why should it matter what the Messianic Sukkah’s walls are made out of, and why should we make such a big deal out of this by saying a prayer upon leaving the Sukkah for the last time?  The answer I suggest is that we are marking a transition. We had seven days of feasting in our temporary booths which despite the rain served as a nice respite from the ordinary routine of our lives. For some of us it might have been a vacation or a break from reality. In two days more, we will be transitioning back to the “real world” with all of its routine and with all of its challenges. We will be returning perhaps disappointed that the Messiah has not come and that we are unable to dwell in the Sukkah with Leviathan skin. Yet we are to return with undaunted hope and belief in a better future. That is precisely what the prayer we say today is about: just as we merit the physical joy of this Sukkot holiday, so too may we merit seeing a better future, a day where there is peace in the world and each of us can dwell in G-d’s home, the great “Sukkah in the Sky,” made out of the Leviathan’s skin.

Today we gather to say Yizkor, on this one extra day of Shemini Atzeret, the day on which G-d told us “Stay with me one more day.” Some of us might be eager to return to our routines; at JTS we said המבדיל בין קדש לחול and yelled the word חול-yet Yizkor cautions us to slow down to take a moment to remember our loved ones; from parents who gave us life to siblings who we reveled playing with, to children we nurtured, to spouses with whom we shared our deepest hopes and dreams. Yizkor hearkens us to close our eyes and remember the dear moments of love and friendship, joy and companionship.

Before we go, leaving the presence of G-d, let us take the time we need and deserve to remember our loved ones who are no longer physically present. We will also dedicate the memorial plaques purchased during the past year, honoring those who have chosen to give their loved ones a permanent remembrance in our Beit Midrash.

We continue with Yizkor in the booklets.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 75a.

[2] Rabbi Ethan Tucker, “The Sukkah of the Leviathan”-Sukkot 5778.

[3] Mishnah Sukkah Chapter 1 Mishnayot 4-5.

[4] Rashi on Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 12a

[5] Rambam Mishneh Torah Laws of Shofar 4:16

Being Pelted with Etrogim[1]

In my second year of rabbinical school I learned the fifth chapter of Tractate Sukkah, החליל, “the flute,” about the water-drawing festival that occurred during Temple times. Before we got there, however, we learned a few small sections of chapter four, לולב וערבה, one of which tells a bizarre story. It begins with שמחת בית השואבה, the water-drawing festival during which the priests filled a golden flask with water from the Siloam spring to offer on the altar of the Temple. The water was brought as a libation to G-d to receive a favorable judgment in the amount of rainfall that would occur in Israel during the coming year. One time, rather than pouring the libation on the altar, the priest poured it on his feet, and as a result the entire community pelted him with etrogim.[2]

I’m telling this story on Shabbat so that I do not get pelted with etrogim. Seriously, though, when I first learned this story I thought of being pelted with tomatoes or eggs after a poor performance. Many people are still pelted, ranging from Chancellor Angela Merkel at a campaign rally[3] to the South Korean soccer team after returning home emptyhanded from the World Cup.[4] Generally when one person pelts another it’s to indicate that they don’t like something that the other person is doing, whether politically or in a public performance. In our Mishnah, the Kohen is supposed to pour water on the altar for G-d to provide the people of Israel with water in return. No mention is made as to why the Kohen poured the libation water on his feet. Perhaps he made a mistake and slipped up. Perhaps he meant it as an act of rebellion. Whatever the case, the Jews at the Temple don’t take kindly to him doing so.

In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, we learn that on Sukkot Israel is judged for rain-that the amount of rainfall for the entire year is determined on Sukkot.[5] Rain was a life or death matter: if there was drought, one would not eat. In Tractate Taanit we read of a number of fasts that would occur if rain did not fall within a certain period of time on the Hebrew calendar. We read of miracle workers like Honi HaMaagel and Hanina ben Dosa who beseech G-d to make rain fall. Therefore, it stands to reason that a priest who does not follow the proper procedure for obtaining rainfall would be severely condemned, as his error could be held responsible for a drought.

In an age without a centralized Temple in Jerusalem, we believe that sacrifices are replaced by prayer, ונשלמה פרים שפתינו[6]. As such our prayer for rain, which we will begin to say the evening on December 4th,[7] has a great power to it. One must ask, however, if our prayer for rain as a blessing (תן מטר לברכה) really has an impact. In two days we will pray that the rainfall be לברכה ולא לקללה, for blessing and not for curse; לחיים ולא למוות, for life and not for death; לשבע ולא לרזון, for satiation and not for famine. If we continue to have torrential hurricanes, like Florence, or wildfires, like in California, does that mean that G-d is not heeding our prayers? Is there someone to hold responsible, to “pelt with etrogim,” because of negligence?

Some will say I am going about this wrong, that the story in the Mishnah is really a political dispute. The rabbinic reason given for why the Kohen poured the water on his feet is because he was a Sadducee who believed that the rabbinic customs were nonsense, as there is no biblical basis for the water libation. The pelting was a protest by the Pharisees, or “proto-rabbis,” against those who ignore the Oral Law. With that being said, I think there is room to see this as a Kohen who made a mistake and paid a severe price for it. The Talmud teaches that the people pelted the Kohen so hard that it damaged the horns of the altar.[8] The same could be said for the way the teens throw candy at an aufruf or Bar Mitzvah.

I hope that in addition to enjoying Sukkot, each of us will take a moment to look at the situations where we feel like pelting another with something-hopefully not our etrog after Sukkot-and examine why that is the case. Is it because we disagree politically or religiously? Is it because we feel their behavior is antithetical to what it should be? Is it because we feel they are engaging in negligence and something is at stake which we highly value? Before we “pelt the etrog” let us take a step back and reexamine the situation, seeing whether or not that is the warranted approach or whether another response would be more effective. In so doing, may we avoid an approach like in the Mishnah, and not damage our altar.

[1] Thank you to my teacher Rabbi Jason Rogoff whose teaching “Our Very Life” for JTS reminded me of this text.

[2] Mishnah Sukkah 4:9



[5] Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2

[6] Isaiah 14:7

[7] In Israel it will be said beginning October 16, the 7th of Marcheshvan.

[8] Talmud Sukkah 48b

The Prominence of the Willow

This year we had an unexpected trip to Kew Gardens Hills on Thursday, and I will have another one sometime in the next three days. In order to make life easier on Marc Mishan, Steve Mann and me, we were going back to ordering lulavim and etrogim from a distributor who would also send us the hoshanot, the set of five willows that we beat on Hoshana Rabba. That was not meant to be, however. On Thursday September 6, Galit received a call from The Esrog Headquarters that 15, 000 lulavim and etrogim had been destroyed by the Customs DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) because of a fungus which grew on them. All of these were from Israel, requiring The Esrog Headquarters to try (in a scramble with all the other distributors) to get more etrogim from Morocco and Italy. The receptionist at The Esrog Headquarters said if we receive the etrogim from them they will not be ripe. Without a second thought, I called Marc Mishan and planned our pilgrimage for the second year in a row to Kew Garden Hills.

The reason I was so eager to change course (after vowing next year not to go back to Kew Garden Hills) deals with the halachot (laws) of the lulav and etrog. Let us begin by looking at the etrog.[1] The etrog should primarily be turning yellow (ripe) rather than green (unripe). The peel cannot be punctured through in any spot, nor can it lack any of its inner skin. The peel cannot be overly soft, cracked, dry or peeled. The shape should preferably be like a tower – wider at the bottom and narrow at the top. The last and most important halacha is as follows: If this particular Esrog grew with a protruding stem (called a pitom), then that stem cannot be broken off. However, if the etrog grew in the first place without a pitom, it is still kosher. Many etrogim in Israel are genetically engineered to not have a pitom, which certainly helps. If the pitom breaks, however, it is not as big a deal as people make it as long as it breaks after the first day. After all, look at the verse from this morning’s Torah reading: “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar (beautiful) trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your G-d seven days.”[2] The verse specifically mentions the hadar, or beautiful aspect, of the fruit on the first day.

Going in order of the verse we turn to the lulav (כפות תמרים). The most important halacha is one often violated: the center-most leaf is not split, but rather is closed (at least half-way down). One should not shake his/her lulav particularly hard to avoid the leaves splitting. The top of the lulav cannot be cut off, and the lulav should be at least 16 inches (39 cm.) long. The lulav cannot be dried out and the straighter it is, the better. The holder which contains the lulav (in the center), the myrtle (in the right) and the willows (in the left) needs to be made from lulav, as do the rings to hold the lulav in place.

Next up is the myrtle or hadas (ענף עץ עבות). Three myrtle branches are on the right-side of the lulav and are higher than the willow because it is mentioned first in the verse. A kosher myrtle has a pattern of three leaves coming out from the same point in the branch. This three-leaf pattern must be repeated over at least half the length of the branch. Each branch should be at least 11 inches (29 cm.) long, and the branch cannot be dried out.

Finally we get to the willow (ערבי נחל), two branches on the left side of the lulav. These branches should be be cared for greatly (I take them out, wrap them in a wet paper towel and refrigerate them every day) as without that they turn black. For the willows, the stem should preferably be red, and it should be at least 11 inches (29 cm.) long. The leaves should be oblong, not round in shape. They should have a smooth edge, not serrated. Willow leaves often decay, turning black during the seven days of Sukkot and are kosher as long as they are not completely dried out and the majority of the leaves are present. For this I take some consolation from Midrash Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, comparing the willow to Joseph, “For just as the willows decay and dry out before the other three species, so did Joseph die before his brethren.”[3] Luckily we will get sets of five fresh willows known as Hoshanot to beat on Sunday for Hoshana Rabba-which if you have not attended before, this is your year.

Now I’m sure you’re thinking “Very interesting Rabbi, but what does this have to do with us?” Just as there is the interesting Midrash about the willows so too are there those about the four species. I want to teach a new one, not the classic ones about study of Torah versus doing good deeds or about the parts of the body, but one from Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. He wrote, “The lulav Jew is immersed in study.  But, as our sages say, true learning brings one to action.  This leads to the myrtle Jew, the person who is doing good deeds. That, by necessity, implies knowledge! You have to know what Torah requires in order to fulfill its requirements.  By the same token, the willow Jew does study and does act.”[4] All three types of Jews are bound together in the Lulav, giving each one the opportunity to learn from the others, with the willow, in its simplicity despite its fragility, being the exemplar to follow.

This Sukkot and beyond, let us not go for the glamour, the etrogim in our daily lives or the prominent lulav, but rather find joy in simplicity, in the willow. May we find  that we can learn from even the most fragile things in life, rather than pushing them aside or viewing them as unimportant. These willows that we will hit on Sunday, marking the true end of the High Holy Day season, have an important lesson to teach us-if only we take the time to care for and nurture them.

[1] Halachot found on I generally like to look up halachot independently in the Shulhan Aruch (in this case Hilchot Lulav) but did not have time before the holiday began.

[2] Levitius 23:40

[3] Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 28. From Rabbi Robert Schienberg

[4] Sefer HaMaamarim 5710, p. 4.