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Sukkot - Focusing on the Positive


The following is an excerpt from Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva by Rav Judah Mischel:

For a number of years, Rav Adin Steinsaltz taught a weekly Gemara class that was attended by a wide range of academics and members of the “cultural elite.” A wide range of people joined the learning, including many who were not particularly traditional or observant of mitzvot. At one point, a renowned professor approached Rav Steinsaltz and expressed interest in joining the study group. As his introduction, there was something the fellow wanted to share: “She’teida – Just so you know, I eat basar lavan, bacon, every Shabbat.”

Without so much as batting an eye, Rav Steinsaltz asked, “Every week?”

“Yes, Rabbi. Every Shabbat,” the professor replied.

Rav Steinsaltz began to probe, “Why davka (specifically) every Shabbat?”

Said the newcomer, “Well, I have a busy week. Most days I barely have time to breathe, let alone spend time with family at home. But then the weekend comes, my wife and I sit down together over a cup of coffee, I fix a great breakfast of my favorite – bacon and eggs.” Then he added, as if testing the Rav, “It’s the most special time of the week for me.”

Rav Steinsaltz smiled thoughtfully and responded, “The Torah instructs us to honor Shabbat as the most special time of the week, with the finest delicacies. It’s surely not my way, but nu nu… I suppose there is some merit in honoring Shabbat with bacon than not honoring Shabbat at all,"(241-242). 

The Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 30), tells us that the Arba Minim (four species; lulav,etrog, myrtle and willow) represent four different types of Jews. The etrog, which has both taste and smell, represents a person who studies Torah and fulfills the mitzvot. The lulav, which has taste (dates) but no smell, represents one who studies Torah but does not perform mitzvot. The myrtle, which has smell but no taste, represents one who fulfills mitzvot but does not study Torah. And the willow, which has neither taste or smell, represents a Jew who neither studies Torah nor observes mitzvot. 

Many ask - why do we look to exclude the rasha (wicked) when it comes to the Pesach seder, yet by Sukkot, we include him, as represented by the arava?

Perhaps the following from Rav Soloveitchik can provide an explanation (from the Rav Soloveitchik Chumash, Leviticus 23/40): 

The Torah tells us that this Jew without Torah or ma’asim tovim is exhibiting only an external deficiency. Beyond the surface, deep in the soul, the arava has the same potential as the other species. The difference is that the other species had the opportunity to develop, to actualize themselves, to build on their strengths, while the arava has not…It is interesting to note that while the other species take part in only one mitzvah, the lowly arava participates in two mitzvot on Sukkot: as part of the four species and also in the arava ceremony in the Temple. The entire ritual on Hoshana Rabba revolves around the arava. On Sukkot, all Jews must be brought into the Beis Hamikdash – "Those represented by the esrogim, hadasim and lulavim were already there on Yom Kippur; only the arava was missing. Sukkos is dedicated to inclusion of the arava into the Beis Hamikdash as well.”

On Pesach, the Rasha excludes himself, therefore we follow his lead and even are told to “blunt his teeth.” But when it comes to the arava, yes, he might be a rasha and might not have any Torah or ma’asim tovim, but at least he is not against joining together with the rest of klal yisrael and therefore, we welcome him with open arms on Sukkot.

Based on this one could say that Sukkot teaches us to focus on and celebrate the positives. This arava Jew may superficially be devoid of any Torah learning or religious observance, he may even be eating bacon that he cooked on Shabbos! But in the words of Rav Steinsaltz, “I suppose there is some merit in honoring Shabbat with bacon than not honoring Shabbat at all”. Rav Steinsaltz was able to see this arava Jew before him and focus on the positive, focus on the fact that deep down the arava Jew wants to join in our service to God even if outwardly he is currently lacking. That’s why we accept the arava, to teach us that we need to focus on the positive.