Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 – Identity vs. Actions

There is an oft-quoted midrash that most people are familiar with about how the four species, one of Sukkot’s most notable mitsvot, correspond to four different types of people found in the nation of Israel. This midrash is often quoted to talk about the value of diversity or how ever Jew has a place within Judaism, ideas that are important, to be sure, but ones that I think miss the power of how the midrash follows up the typology of Israelite-flora correspondences. Below is the text of the midrash and an English translation,[1] after which I will examine some of the neglected lines, without pretending to exhaust the meaning of this midrash.

דבר אחר: פרי עץ הדר, אלו ישראל. מה אתרוג זה, יש בו טעם ויש בו ריח. כך ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם, שיש בהם תורה, ויש בהם מעשים טובים. כפות תמרים, אלו ישראל. מה התמרה הזו, יש בו טעם ואין בו ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם תורה ואין בהם מעשים טובים. וענף עץ עבות, אלו ישראל. מה הדס, יש בו ריח ואין בו טעם.כך ישראל, יש בהם שיש בהם מעשים טובים ואין בהם תורה. וערבי נחל, אלו ישראל. מה ערבה זו, אין בה טעם ואין בה ריח. כך הם ישראל, יש בהם בני אדם שאין בהם לא תורה ולא מעשים טובים. ומה הקב”ה עושה להם? לאבדן אי אפשר, אלא אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא יוקשרו כולם אגודה אחת, והן מכפרין אלו על אלו, ואם עשיתם כך אותה שעה אני מתעלה, הדא הוא דכתיב (עמוס ט): הבונה בשמים מעלותיו. ואימתי הוא מתעלה? כשהן עשויין אגודה אחת, שנאמר (שם): ואגודתו על ארץ יסדה. לפיכך משה מזהיר לישראל: ולקחתם לכם ביום הראשון:

Another explanation: “The fruit of a beautiful tree” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this citron (etrog), which has taste and has smell, so too Israel has among them people that have Torah and have good deeds. “The branches of a date palm” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this date, which has taste and has no smell, so too Israel has among them those that have Torah but do not have good deeds. “And a branch of a braided tree (a myrtle)” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this myrtle, which has smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them those that have good deeds but do not have Torah. “And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.” And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.” Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The majority of the text of the midrash is taken up by laying out the correspondences one after the other. After the midrash gets to the last correspondence, however, it does not simply move on.

“And brook willows” – these are [referring to] Israel. Just like this willow, which has no smell and has no taste, so too Israel has among them people that have no Torah and have no good deeds. And what does the Holy One, blessed be He, do to them? To destroy them is impossible, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said “bind them all together [into] one grouping and these will atone for those.”

Faced with a category of Jews who do not have any meritorious actions, ritual or ethical, to their name, the midrash asks what God should do with such people. It raises the possibility that they should be destroyed by way of rejecting the possibility, in favor of proposing that national unity can enable “these” to “atone for those.”

The first point of note here is that the midrash is asking what should be done with such people. The question implies that the whole description of the various types of Jews isn’t just an exercise in description, or in midrashic creativity. There is a sense that some sort of Divine judgment[2] is at work, and this group of Jews have no merit that should enable them to survive. Presumably this is working off the way Sukkot comes hot on the heels of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, traditionally understood as a time of Divine judgment and forgiveness.

What’s interesting is that it is inconceivable that God would destroy this section of the Jewish people. Given that fact, God has to then justify their survival, which he does by way prescribing national unity. This national unity does more than simply justify their survival, however; it actually atones for these Jews.[3]

This is an important turn in the midrash. Just a few lines before, these Jews had not a single merit on their side, to the point where their survival of Divine judgment had to be justified by God himself. Now they have been atoned for.[4] They are now worthy to survive in and of themselves.

This leads to a different conception of Divine judgment than what the midrash started out with. The initial standard of evaluation used by the midrash was based on people’s actions, ritual and ethical, and to receive a positive evaluation was to have performed positive ritual or ethical actions. Now, however,  the midrash is suggesting that identity is an important factor in Divine evaluation. A Jew can be deemed meritorious not by virtue of actions they have performed, but by virtue of being part of the Jewish people.

“Being part of the Jewish people” is something of an ambiguous idea. It might just mean identifying as a Jew, without any external actions attached to that. Or it might mean that you have to express this identity in some way, likely in your relationship to your Jews. However, given that the midrash says they Jews don’t have any ethical or ritual actions to their merit, it seems likely that this national unity is just a function of internal identity. We thus emerge from the typological correspondences of the midrash with a standard of evaluation where, in order to survive Divine Judgment, you have to either have performed certain actions, or simply possess the identify as a part of the Jewish nation.

This unity of national identity is articulated not just as an ideal state by which to survive judgment, but as an instruction from God to the Jews to unite in order to make sure even the most marginalized survive judgment. To paraphrase, the Jews who have acted righteously are essentially told, “You want to save the rest of the Jews? Help them feel Jewish.” Importantly, they are not told to help the other Jews perform more mitsvot or to do more good in the world. That would potentially be a solution, moving the Jews of the fourth category, the “willow Jews,” into the previous floral categories But God, according to the midrash, does not take that route; God does not turn to what we typically think of as “kiruv.” It seems to be less important to God, at least for the purposes of the present Divine judgment, that the Jews perform ritual and ethical actions than that they identify as Jewish. The next line of the midrash takes it beyond just the practical needs of the present judgment, however.

And if you will have done that, I will be elevated at that time. This is [the meaning of] what is written (Amos 9:6), “He Who built the upper chambers in the heavens” (indicating his elevation). And when is He elevated? When they make one grouping, as it is stated (Ibid.), “and established His grouping on the earth.”

The unity of the Jews leads to the elevation of God. The identifying of all of the Jews as Jewish, more even than their performance of mitsvot, leads to the elevation of God. This unity is not just a practical move in order to help the Jews survive judgment; it is a goal unto itself. It might be argued that it is the survival of the Jews in judgment that elevates God, but the midrash preempts that argument by using a verse from Amos to explicitly link God’s elevation to Israel’s unity. It is thus the very fact of the Jews’ collective existence and identity that elevates God.

This may serve as an explanation for why God cannot destroy the meritless among the Jewish people. The midrash posits an inherent connection between the elevation of God (whatever that means) and the national body of the Jewish people. So destroying Jews, even just a small part of the larger collective, goes against God’s elevation.

This also leads to a sharp conclusion: It is more important that the Jews exist as a collective group with a shared identity than that Jews should perform specific actions. While this might seem strange to some, it is well grounded in an important idea from Tanakh. This is the idea that God sometimes saves the Israelite nation for the sake of God’s name.[5] God is connected to the bodily existence of the Jewish nation (a relationship of elevation, according to our midrash) so it’s destruction is something God has an active interest in avoiding. Thus even when the Israelites are sinning, to the point where they would merit destruction, God may still avert this destruction for the sake of God’s Name. This midrash can thus be seen as extending this idea to a new and exciting conclusion: it is not just the national collective that God is interested in saving for the sake of God’s name, but also individual Jews, meritorious or not.


Hence Moshe warned Israel, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day.”

The midrash then funnels all of this theological momentum into the mitsvah of of the four species. The mitsvah is a reminder of the importance of Jewish identity. Regardless of the importance of what actions we do or not perform, the essential point is that we identify as part of the Jewish nation.


[1] Hebrew text and translation from

[2] Judgment in this article should be understood as shorthand for judgment of the Jews specifically.

[3] Due the the midrash’s use of inherently vague pronouns, it is possible to understand the midrash is suggesting that each type of Jew atones for some lack in all the others, and perhaps even that God has to justify not destroying all of different types of Jews. I find such a reading unlikely and forced, however, but rejecting that specific reading goes beyond the scope of this article.

[4] Notably, “atonement” usually has to do with removal of actual sin rather than a lack of merit. The midrash seems to assume that people who lack merit are inherently sinful, or are for sure also sinning, or something to that effect. Examining this understanding of merit and human nature would be an intriguing topic for a different composition.

[5] I have written about this theme in this essay.


Parashat Bo 5774 – Rights and Responsibilities of the Firstborn

וְכֹל בְּכוֹר אָדָם בְּבָנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה

The narrative of the Ten Plagues closes with the Death of the Egyptian Firstborn and the consequential dedication of all  firstborn Israelites, man or beast, to ‘א. All the firstborn male (Shemot  13:12) animals from Bnei Yisrael must be sacrificed or redeemed and all firstborn sons must be redeemed.This finale parallels and was predicted by the very opening of the story. When Moshe is on his way down to Egypt ‘א tells him to say to Paroah, “Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My firstborn. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy firstborn.”[1] Then Moshe “encounters ‘א” and nearly dies, saved only by his wife circumcising their son, who then says, “Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me… A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.” (Shemot 4:22-26). This parallel creates a structure that not only creates a closed literary unit out of the story, but also perfectly lays out what is at stake.

From the very beginning of the story ‘א intended for the plague of the first born to occur. ‘א explains this as being a consequence of his oppressing and killing ‘א’s “firstborn.”[2] Everything that happens from that moment until the last plague is a function of this idea. Then after the plague of the first born the meaning of being ‘א’s firstborn is made clear when all of the Israelite firstborns becomes consecrated to ‘א and have specific rules. Bnei Yisrael’s special place as ‘א’s nation, with all of the rules and regulations that entails, is a function of being His firstborn. Moshe’s “encounter” with ‘א and the exclamation of “bridegroom of blood” parallel the story of the Pesach (12:1-13) on several counts. First is the idea of blood as the means of salvation. Moshe is saved by the blood of his son’s circumcision and Bnei Yisrael are saved by the blood of the Pesach that they placed on their doorposts. Second is the circumcision itself. While there is no circumcision depicted by occurrence of the Pesach in Egypt, it is listed as a requirement for those participating(12:47-48) and so the midrash therefore says that a circumcision actually was performed. And of course the basic fact of both stories is that of ‘א  killing someone. Thus the story opens the same way it closes,[3] while simultaneously demonstrating how serious the stakes are; life and death are at stake.[4]

This idea of Israel as ‘א’s firstborn can be a source of triumphant nationalism. The entire Exodus narrative can be thought of as ‘א taking care of his first born (Ibn Ezra on Shemot 4:22). ‘א takes care of His people and anyone who attacks them will suffer his wrath. This then leads into the National Theophany at Mount Sinai, for only His nation gets His Law. However, this thought process ignores[5] some of the more subtle, but incredibly important, implications of the phrase “Israel is My son, My firstborn.”

“Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?” (Amos 9:7) ‘א is not god of Israel alone, and the proof for this is in the phrase “Israel is My son, My first-born.” The existence of a firstborn son by definition implies the existence of others. Thus while Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s firstborn, and has a special relationship with Him based on that, the other nations are also His sons. One only need read the books of the prophets to see what the ideal for the relationship between the nations really is. “In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth; For that the LORD of hosts hath blessed him, saying: ‘Blessed be Egypt My people and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel Mine inheritance.” (Yeshayahu 19:24-25) ‘א is the god of all earth and all the nations are his children. The title of firstborn implies special favor and grace, but it also implies special responsibility.[6] “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the peoples, unto him shall the nations seek.” (Yeshayahu 11:10) “Thus saith the LORD of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold, out of all the languages of the nations, shall even take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying: We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23) Bnei Yisrael are responsible for the raising up of the nations. Israel is meant to be the center of ‘א’s kingdom on this earth, when all peoples[7] will be united under ‘א. “Even them will I bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon Mine altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Yeshayahu 56:7) “For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD” (Zephaniah 3:9) That our relationship with ‘א is differentiated does not mean that it is exclusive, and treating like it as it if it were is an affront.

Moreover, the idea of a “firstborn” is one of the primary concepts of Sefer Beraishit, and it is not simple. The “firstborn” is rarely ever the actual firstborn. Avraham’s firstborn Yishmael is kicked out of the family. Esav, while beloved of his father, is destined from before his birth to be supplanted by his younger brother (Bereishit 25:23). This is the story of Bnei Yisrael and it is based upon the contingent status of the firstborn. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Yaakov’s children. Whole libraries could be filled with the literature that has been written on war for supremacy amongst his sons, specifically the three-way split between Reuven, Yosef, and Yehuda. Notably, Reuven lost the birthright not because it was taken from him but because sinned against his father (35:22). The contingency of Bnei Yisrael as “firstborn”, the contingency of ‘א’s added grace, is the theme of the first rashi on the Torah (Beraishit 1:1):

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from “This month is to you,” (Exod. 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments, and although several commandments are found in Genesis, e.g., circumcision and the prohibition of eating the thigh sinew, they could have been included together with the other commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with “In the beginning?” Because of [the verse] “The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations” (Ps. 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan],” they will reply, “The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.[8]

This rashi is generally misunderstood to be about the unending right of Bnei Yisrael to the Land, but that is not it’s true meaning. The Land of Canaan was given to the Canaanites until such time as they no longer deserved it, and the same holds true of Bnei Yisrael. The gift of ‘א’s land is one Bnei Yisrael might easily lose, the same way the Canaanites did before them. While Bnei Yisrael will always be His chosen people, the grace they receive from Him is dependent on their actions.

Being part of ‘א’s nation has a tendency to make people feel superior. But being part of ‘א’s nation is both less and more than people think. It is less than people think in that it is not an exclusive claim. Bnei Yisrael is ‘א’s chosen nation, but all of the nations are His. It is more than people think because it is not just a right but also an obligation. “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will visit upon you all your iniquities.” (Amos 3:2) It is the fact of being ‘א’s people that obligates, and not living up to that obligation has severe consequences (Vayikra 26, Devarim 28).

[1] Translations from

[2] Note: This would also seem to be a fairly minimal consequence in terms of Paroah’s attempt to kill all the newborn Israelite males.

[3] Also note the connection between 4:21 and 11:9-10.

[4] This is one possible explanation for the juxtaposition of 4:21-23 and 4:24-26.

[5] See, however, Devarim 4:10-14, 19, and 20.

[6] In more practical terms, the reason firstborn son inherits more is to compensate for and to enable his responsibility to take care of the rest of the family.

[7] See also Seforno on Shemot 4:22