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 Vayera – The Covenantal Partner and The Individual

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְ׳הוָה

Parashat Vayera begins with ‘א’s appearing to Avraham as three men[1] in the Terebinths of Mamrei in order to give over the information that Sarah will give birth to a son, Yitzhak. The problem this immediately raises is that the visitation in chapter 18 follows close on the heels of the revelation in chapter 17, the main theme of which was the promise of Yitzhak’s birth. If Avraham has already been informed that Yitzhak is going to be born, then why does ‘א need to come announce it a second time? However, while the two passages share many similarities and are, to some degree, dependent upon each other, they also differ in many distinct ways, and close analysis of these differences shows that each of the passages expresses a very different perspective on the birth of Yitzhak and its meaning, both for ‘א and for Avraham.

The differences between Bereishit 17 and Bereishit 18 begin almost immediately[2]. Bereishit 17 contains the mitsvah of Brit Milah, circumcision (17:9-14), that is the sign of the covenant between ‘א and Bnei Yisrael, going all the way back to Avraham, a command that appears nowhere else in the Torah. It also includes the discussion of the covenant, and the fact that Yitzhak, not Yishmael, will be Avraham’s successor in the covenant (17:19-20), none of which is mentioned in Bereishit 18. The message of Yitzhak’s birth is given with a focus specifically on Avraham in chapter 17 (17:16, 19), even though Sarah will be the one pregnant, while in chapter 18 it is said specifically that Sarah will have a son (18:10). At no point in chapter 17 are we told the setting of the prophecy, while in chapter 18 a great deal is made of the fact that it is occurring at the tent, which is mentioned five times. To top it off, the chapters use different names for ‘א throughout, a strong differentiator. The passages are also clearly dependent on each other, in that Avraham is not referred to by name in chapter 18 until verse 6. Up to that point he is simply referred to by the pronoun “him” and it is only because this passage follows chapter 17 that we know who is being referred to[3]. But for the fact that the two passages share the pronouncement of the birth of Yitzhak, they would be two separate texts dealing with very separate stories.

Despite that, the two passages share many similarities. After briefly mentioning Avram’s age, the prophecy in chapter 17 begins with ‘א appears to Avram (17:1), using exactly the same phrase found at the beginning the next chapter. Bereishit 17:17 mentions that Avraham laughed, just as Sarah does in Bereishit 18:12-15. In both passages Avraham is predicted to give birth to great nations (17:16, 18:18). The two chapters seem in many ways to be telling the same story, and therefore we must answer why the same story is repeated twice in the Torah, one after the other.

Each of these stories forms the context for the announcing of Yitzhak’s birth, and there are certain hallmarks of that story, such as the disbelief of an elderly parent-to-be, that occur in each passage. But each of these stories forms a very different context and therefore lends to the birth of Yitzhak a very different significance.

In Bereishit 17, the announcement of the birth is in context of the covenant between ‘א and Avraham. It is for this reason that it includes the discussion of the covenant and the command for its sign, the Brit Milah. Yitzhak is not primarily Avraham and Sarah’s son but ‘א’s next covenantal partner (as opposed to Yishmael), who happens to be born to Avraham and Sarah. This is also why there is an emphasis on Yitzchak being born to Avraham, as opposed to Sarah, for Avraham is ‘א’s current covenantal partner. Thus even Avraham’s place in the story is subordinate to the focus on the covenant and ‘א’s greater plan, rather than being about Avraham himself.

In Bereishit 18, the focus is on Sarah and Avraham as individuals, as an elderly barren couple instead of as the Bearers of the Covenant. Thus, the emphasis is on Sarah having a child at least as much as on Avraham, which fits with the way the emphasis is on Sarah being barren in Bereishit 11:30, as opposed to Avraham. Moreover, where in Bereishit 17 the need for a covenantal partner to succeed Avraham would require Yitzhak’s birth, regardless of Avraham and Sarah’s personal merit, Bereishit 18 puts a strong emphasis on their personal merit, emphasizing the way Avraham rushed to greet the guests (18:2), the way both Sarah and Avraham helped prepare food for the guests (18:4-8), and the fact that Avraham would teach his descendant to follow ‘א’s path, to be righteous and just (18:19). Bereishit 18 depicts the birth of Yitzhak as the granting of a child to a couple who had long been childless and who, both because of who they were and who they would teach him to be, could not be more deserving.

‘א acts on the level of his great historical purposes, where sometimes the personal merit of individuals is ignored for the good of ‘א’s plan. But he also interacts on the subtle, individual, stage, where He exists in relation to individuals, and their merit is the deciding factor. These two approaches each surface at various times throughout Tanakh. The great teshuvah movement of King Yoshiyahu ends tragically without ‘א relenting from his decree, as Yoshiyahu was told would be the case by the prophetess Huldah (Melakhim II 22). By contrast, in Yehezkal 18 it is repeatedly stated that all that matters is a person’s personal merit, the things they have done right and the things they have done wrong. These two approaches are manifest in Bereishit 17 and 18, respectively. Bereishit 17 is all about the fact that ‘א has a plan that involves Avraham and his successor, Yitzhak. Bereishit 18 is all about the fact that Sarah and Avraham personally merit a child.

This differentiation is emphasized through the way that the two chapters use different names for ‘א. Bereishit 17 refers to ‘א as Elokim, the name associated with divine justice, with ‘א’s orderly plan for creation, while Bereishit 18 refers to ‘א as YHVH, the name associated with divine compassion, with ‘א’s intimate involvement with His world.

It is important for us to understand these two ways in which ‘א interacts with the world, for the sake of understanding ‘א and understanding History. But it is more important for the sake of our understanding our place in History and the significance of our own actions. Bereishit 17 asks us to understand that we are players on the historical stage, that we participate in ‘א’s plan and further His goals. On this level, it is not our personal merit that makes us significant, but the fact we are ‘א’s chosen covenantal partners, and the incredible responsibility this asks us to bear. Simultaneously, we are individuals who are asked to be kind and gracious, piously dedicated and personally responsible. Existing on the world stage does not exempt us from our local responsibilities. Participation in the historical covenant does not mean that we can be rude to the man on the street; in fact, quite the opposite. The way justice and righteousness play out on the personal stage bear great significance for the realization of ‘א’s historical goals (Bereishit 18:19).

[1] The most likely explanation of the nature of the appearance (18:1) seems to be that it is constituted by the visit of the angels. They are constantly referred to as men (18:2, 16, 22, etc.), despite being angels (19:1), as this is how they appeared to Avraham. He only became aware that they were not ordinary men when the primary angel spoke as ‘א (18:13). Such is the explanation of the Rashbam. For more, see R’ Elchanan Samet’s explanation here.

[2] I owe much of the differentiation between the two passages to R’ Yonatan Grossman’s essay “News of the Birth of Yitzchak.”

[3] This dependence is picked up the midrash, quoted by Rashi on 18:1, that says ‘א was visiting Avraham when he was sick after the circumcision as the mitsvah of Bikkur Holim, Visiting the Sick. In theory, the visitation by the angels could have come at any time, it did not need to be immediately after the circumcision, but the language highlights the fact that the two passages are in fact highly connected.