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Through The Eyes of a Woman

Sukkos: Turning a New Leaf — the Symbolism of a Lulav

It often happens that a person who possesses some superior quality or distinction is liable to become arrogant, even though that quality is not necessarily earned. He or she may have been born with it, or have inherited it. On the other hand, just as widespread, and perhaps even more so, is the feeling of low self-worth experienced by a lot of people these days. What is the difference between true humility and low self-esteem?

Regarding Moshe Rabbeinu, the Torah states that he was "the most humble (anav) person on earth." The Rebbe points out that the word used for Moshe's humility is anav, rather than shafel. What is the difference? The word shafel is used to signify a person who regards himself as lacking in distinctive qualities, while an anav is a person who has special qualities (and who even knows that he has them) but is humble about them.

Who has to worry about arrogance? The person who has great qualities. If a person thinks he is stupid and ugly, with a terrible personality, and his whole life people have been telling him just that, he will probably have a very low self-image. There is not very much chance of this person being arrogant. He has to worry about his low self-esteem, for what does he have to be arrogant about? (This subject also needs to be discussed at length, but at present let us look at the other side of the coin, the aspect of arrogance and humility.) A person who is beautiful, bright and talented, and throughout his whole life has been told how wonderful he is, is liable to have feelings of superiority and arrogance. Such a person has to take precautions and preventive measures to make sure that he does not fall into the clutches of gaavah -- conceit.

One of the lessons we can derive from the lulav and esrog relates directly to the prevention of arrogance:

As is well known,[1] the esrog represents that type of Jew who has it all -- both Torah learning and mitzvos. It is told that when the great Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the AriZal), was on his deathbed, his final words were the verse Al tevoeini regel gaavah -- "Let me not come to arrogance" (Tehillim 36:12). What does this have to do with an esrog? The initial letters (the roshei teivos) of the Hebrew verse -- esrog – al tvoeinu regel ga'avah -- Esrog! So the esrog's very name is a plea that HaShem help me not to become arrogant. "Granted, I do have Torah and mitzvos to my credit. But let me remain humble about it."

As for the lulav, although it is the symbol of someone who learns much Torah, such a person could easily become arrogant about himself if he thinks he is such a Ben Torah (a Torah scholar). (This is the Ben Torah syndrome, where people feel they are such great Torah scholars that if you do not pay homage to them you're a terrible sinner.)

The story is told about one of the young students of the Maggid of Mezritch who was a very diligent fellow. One day, after learning several pages of Gemara with all the various commentaries, he walked out of the beis midrash for a breath of fresh air. Being proud of his achievement, he placed his hat upon his head at a jaunty tilt. As he strolled past the Maggid's window, the great Rabbi called out, "If so-and-so many pages of Gemara make a Yeshivah boy's hat tilt at such an angle, how many more pages of Gemara will knock it right off?"

What must be done in order to prevent arrogance in the Torah scholar? We can answer this by pointing out something paradoxical: Isn't it the fruit of the date palm which has taste, rather than the leaves? And yet we do not recite the blessing over the dates, but over the leaves of the date palm, which do not have the taste! There is something incongruous here, a paradox! Why don't we take dates themselves? After all, they are the ones which symbolize Torah learning! Just as we take the esrog as a fruit, not the leaves of the esrog tree, let's take the dates rather than their leaves! From the fact that the Torah tells us to take the leaves and not the fruit, the Rebbe deduces a hora'ah -- an instruction: It is in order to prevent the lulav type of person from becoming arrogant that we are instructed to take the leaves instead of the fruit. The fruits of a tree are its consummation, its glory, whereas the leaves are merely secondary. So we take the leaves and hide the fruit. We know that these are the leaves of the date palm, but we do not see the dates in a revealed way. This teaches us a lesson in modesty -- tznius. Be humble. Do not show off your fruits. Everyone knows that there are dates behind the leaves, but one does not have to put the fruits on display.

Furthermore, when a person learns Torah, the thing that causes him to become arrogant is when he feels he has come to the conclusion -- he has learned everything. For example, let's say you're figuring out a math problem. When do you feel pride? When you solve the equation. "Ah! I got the answer. Wow! I'm so proud!" But while you're figuring it out, you're not so proud -- you're struggling to figure it out: "Which theorem should I use? Did I get it right?" It's only when you finish that you're proud. The Rebbe says that the leaves are symbolic of what precedes the fruit. On a tree, the leaves precede the fruit. They protect it, but are not the culmination of the growth process. Thus, they signify the process of learning, rather than its culmination, symbolized by the fruits. Because the process of learning is difficult, at times tedious, at times exasperating, so that the person is often troubled and even upset that he hasn't reached the answer yet -- at that point there is no possibility of arrogance. That is why we take the leaves of the date palm, rather than the fruit, to symbolize that no matter where you are up to in your Torah learning, you have not yet come to the conclusion. You're always still at the stage of the leaves, because as far as you've gone, you can always go further, and further, and further. If you would take the date, you would say, "Ah! I've made it; I've reached the end." And so, you take the leaf because you never reach the end. And if you feel as if you never reach the end, you will never become arrogant. As it says, the more one learns, the more one knows how little he knows. The more you learn, the more you see how much more there is to learn, and that is very humbling.

The Rebbe makes another interesting point: The blessing we make before shaking the four minim is, "...al netilas lulav." Why not "...al netilas esrog?" Since the esrog symbolizes a person who is outstanding in both his Torah learning and his observance of mitzvos, shouldn't we therefore make the blessing on the esrog? Alternatively, since all four of the species are necessary to fulfill the mitzvah they should all have equal importance. Accordingly, shouldn't we make the blessing "...al netilas arbaah minim?" Why do we say "...al netilas lulav?" One of the explanations offered is that this is because the lulav is the tallest and most prominent of all the four minim. Is this in itself sufficient justification for our Sages to focus the wording of the blessing exclusively on the lulav? The Rebbe answers that the physical structure of an object is a reflection of its spiritual stature. In other words, the fact that the lulav is the tallest of the four species also suggests that there is some superiority that the lulav has over the other three kinds, and that is why HaShem made it the tallest. It's not the fact that it merely has more inches, but that this is a sign that there is some special quality associated with it.

As explained previously, the lulav is associated with somebody who has really devoted himself to Torah study, even more so than the esrog-type. Although he puts on tefillin, he eats kosher, etc., he is most outstanding in his devotion to Torah learning. That is why he is taller than the esrog, and that is why we make the blessing over him.

However, because the lulav signifies someone outstanding when it comes to learning, he really may have the problem of swelling with pride at his achievements, especially when this is not counterbalanced by an equal devotion to the performance of the mitzvos, as with the esrog type of person.

One of the ways in which a Torah scholar can avoid arrogance is by emulating what we do to the lulav when we fulfill the mitzvah of the arbaah minim. As everybody knows, during the up and down and inward-outward movement of the four minim in all four directions, called the naanuim, it is customary to make sure that the leaves of the lulav shake visibly or audibly. Although all four types are obviously shaken along with it, it is clear that the lulav shakes the most.

The Rebbe points out that this is reminiscent of the shoklen -- the Yiddish word for swaying from side to side, or backwards and forwards -- that a Jew does when he prays or learns Torah. Why does he shokl? If you ask him why, he probably will not be able to tell you. Furthermore, he might not even have realized that he was shokl-ing!

In fact, the Rebbe explains that it is the unconscious result of the ratzoh and shov -- the "running forward and returning" -- of a person's Neshamah (soul).

Regarding the Neshamah, a verse states, "Ner HaShem nishmas adam" -- "The soul of man is a lamp of G-d." Just as a flame flickers because it longs to return to its source above,[2] so too, the soul of a Jew. Each element of the world has a natural tendency to return to its source. Water and earth fall down if you throw them up in the air because that is where their elemental sources are -- below. But a flame, whichever way you turn the candle, always burns upward. Similarly, the Neshamah of a Jew longs to return to its source, and therefore it "flickers" -- this is manifested in shoklen, which indicates that the person is connected with his Source, and unconsciously shows that he longs to return to it. When does this happen? When a person prays or learns Torah. When you're eating lunch, or reading a newspaper, you don't feel that connection to your source. But when you daven and when you learn, that subconscious desire to gravitate to your source manifests itself in shoklen. This in turn reminds you that you're not just davening because it's an exercise in Hebrew, and you're not just learning because you're taking a Gemara test, but because this is how one attaches oneself to HaShem.

And that is why it's the lulav that does most of the shoklen, because that's the kind of person who needs to be shaken up. He's the one who has to be reminded that this Torah learning is not just an intellectual exercise, but the way for a Jew to unify himself with HaShem.


  1. (Back to text) See previous section.
  2. (Back to text) Our Sages explain that a flame always flickers upwards because the divine source of the element of fire is Above.
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