During Sukkot, observant Jews participate in a beautiful but relatively arcane ritual. We take a bundle of arba minim, four species of plants: an etrog, or citron fruit; a lulav, or palm branch; a hadas, or myrtle branch; and an aravah, or willow branch. We hold this bundle, wave it in all spatial directions, and then parade it around the sanctuary.
The act of encircling the sanctuary (known as “hakafot”) continues throughout Sukkot, even through the final days of the holiday, known, successively, as Hoshanah Rabbah and Simhat Torah. On those final days, the circumambulatory celebrating undergoes significant metamorphoses. On Hoshanah Rabah, we add more aravah to the normally evenly balanced bundle so that the number of willows far exceeds the other species.
The next day, on Simhat Torah, we continue to dance, but this time, we ditch the plants altogether and, in their place, hold Torah scrolls. According to the Jewish legal tradition, communities on Simhat Torah are urged to take out all of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls and to have as many people carrying and dancing around with the sacred books as possible.
While the Torah offers no explanation as to why it commands the ritual of the arba minim, creative rabbis have, over the millennia, offered various interpretations. One of the most famous (found in the midrashic collection Leviticus Rabbah 30:12) is that the arba minim represent four different types of Jews: The etrog, having both taste and smell, symbolizes those Jews who study Torah and perform good deeds. The lulav, having taste but no smell, symbolizes those Jews who study Torah, but do not perform good deeds. The hadas, having smell but no taste, symbolizes those Jews who do not study Torah, but who perform good deeds. And, finally, the aravah, having neither taste nor smell, symbolizes those Jews who neither study Torah nor perform good deeds.
On its surface, this midrash expresses the value of Jewish inclusion. During the first six days of Sukkot, we dance with all Jews: Affiliated and unaffiliated, scholarly and ignorant, pious and irreligious, committed and apathetic to the good. But we can also understand the midrash another way. Not only a lesson for relating to multiple kinds of Jews, it can also teach about relating to the multiple facets of our own personalities.
In his essay “First Person Plural,” Yale Professor Paul Bloom argues that our character, which we often think of as a single identifiable entity, is actually comprised of many different “selves” that interact with each other in the deep recesses of our psyches. In some contexts, one of these selves might wrest control from the others and manifest exclusively; in others, a combination might come to the fore.
Put back into the context of the midrash’s arba minim metaphor, within us exist all four personalities or inclinations that are like the etrog, lulav, hadas, and aravah. At times, we will act like the etrog, civilized and wise. In other contexts, our inner aravah will be on full display, barbaric and boorish.
On Sukkot, we bind these four species together and dance with them all. Sukkot, a holiday that is supposed to be symbolic of peace, invites us to ritualize inner peace. Rather than denigrating or exalting any one characteristic to the exclusion of all others, we express on Sukkot that inner peace is about balance, utilizing all of our tendencies for the service of the Divine.
This also helps explain the shift of dancing partners on Hoshanah Rabbah. Most of us would like to be free of the aravah part of our personality, the part of us that can manifest as ignorant and selfish. We want to see ourselves (or, perhaps, we want others to see us) as wholly good, rational, and wise beings. But we often forget that our inner aravah, the part of us that is primordial, chaotic, and raw, is also the part of us that erupts in our creativity, our desire to succeed, our capacity to love, and laugh, and enjoy life. So on Hoshanah Rabbah, we elevate and dance with our inner aravah.
To paraphrase Whitman, on Hoshanah Rabah we sound our barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world, reminding ourselves that the truly integrated personality also celebrates the aravah within.
The shift of partners once more on Simhat Torah, from willows to Torahs, reminds us how to go about this holy work. It suggests, through the embodied metaphor of ritual, that Torah offers a path to a psychologically integrated life. As the Psalmist teaches, “God’s Torah is pure, restoring the spirit” (Psalms 19:8). The path to inner peace involves mustering all of our inner forces to common purpose.
By inviting us to serve God and others, to be stewards of the planet, and to make the world a more just and compassionate place, Torah offers us that kind of purpose. If dancing with the arba minim remind us “be a whole person,” and dancing with the aravah insists, “Don’t be afraid to really be a whole person,” then dancing with the Torah finally teaches “the way to be a whole person is to be a holy person.” Happy dancing!