Smashing the Aravot to Bits as a Reenactment of Jewish History

Sukkot is, to modern eyes, perhaps the strangest Jewish holiday, and its seventh day is by far the strangest. For the whole week of Sukkot, Orthodox Jews take a four-part floral arrangement and shake it in all directions. On the seventh day, known as “Hoshanah Rabbah,” they take one of the four parts, willow branches, and smash a bundle of them into the ground repeatedly. The original reason behind the ritual is unknown, but it’s energetic alienness demands explanation. While attempts to divine it’s reason abound, none can ever definitively claim to be the original reason. In what follows, I want to do something different, similar to what John Caputo has called a “short-circuit” (See the first few chapters of “The Weakness of God”) – I want to wire together this ritual with several texts that never had each other in mind, because they resonate deeply with each other, and because this short-circuit produces something true and worth saying. By the end of this process, I hope to have arrived not at the meaning of the ritual, but a meaning the ritual may bear today.

Jumping right in, there is a famous rabbinic text comparing the four species of flora use on Sukkot to four different types of Jews, based on their possessing or lacking A. Torah and B. good deeds (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12, which I have previously written about here). The last of the four that the text discusses is the willow: “‘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.” The willow branches, as opposed to the other plants, represent Jews who have nothing specifically Jewish about them. They are characterized neither by Jewish cognitive content, Torah, nor by Jewish actions. In short, they are Jewish in name only.

Being Jewish in name only is a topic that Rav Tsadok Hakohen Rabinowitz of Lublin explores in Tsidkat Hatsadik #54 (English translation to come when the time allows):

עיקר היהדות – בקריאת שם ישראל. כמו שנאמר זה יאמר לה’ אני וגו’ ובשם ישראל יכנה. שלא יהיה לו רק מעלה זו שמכונה בשם ישראל די. ומצינו בריש פרק כלל גדול (שבת סח:) גר שנתגייר בין האומות ומביא חטאת על החלב והדם והשבת ועבודה זרה, עיין שם דלא ידע כלל שזה אסורה ואפילו על עבודה זרה ושבת. ונמצא שלא ידע כלל מכל התורה, ובמה הוא גר להתחייב חטאת, רק בקריאת שם ישראל די.

In this first paragraph, Rav Tsadok discusses the Babylonian Talmud’s statement (Shabbat 68b) that a convert who converted among non-Jews has to bring a sacrifice when they join the Jewish community, to atone for sins they may have committed unknowingly. The convert has no knowledge of even Shabbat or idolatry so in what sense have they converted, ask Rav Tsadok. His answer: they are called by the name “Israel” – they are Jewish in name, if only that. This, in fact, is the essence of conversion, for “the essence of Judaism is being called by the name ‘Israel.”

What does it mean to be Jewish in name, and even only in name, that it is so much more significant than having Jewish thoughts or actions? What is the advantage of the willow branches over the other Sukkot plants?

When you have Jewish thoughts or actions, then you have specific Jewish parts of who you are. You do Jewish acts and you think Jewish thoughts, and you may participate in non-Jewish thoughts and actions alongside these. When you are Jewish in name, then all of your thoughts and actions are Jewish by definition, regardless of their content. To be Jewish in name is to be all-pervasively Jewish; every part of you is Jewish simply by definition. It is this Jewish name that characterizes willow branch-Jews, as opposed to all others.

 

What does all of this mean for the Hoshanah Rabbah ritual, wherein the willow branches are smashed against the ground, coming apart with every blow? I would like to explain that in light of a passage from Frank Rosenzweig’s “The Star of Redemption.” In context of a discussion of Jewish chosenness, Rosenzweig states:

Judaism, and it alone in all the world, maintains itself by subtraction, by contraction, by the forma­tion of ever new remnants. This happens quite extensively in the face of the constant external secession. But it is equally true also within Judaism itself. It constantly divests itself of un-Jewish elements in order to produce out of itself ever new remnants of archetypal Jewish elements. Outwardly it constantly assimilates only to be able again and again to set itself apart on the inside. (trans. William Hallo, p. 404)

Whereas other nations and religions maintain themselves by expanding, Rosenzweig says, Judaism maintains itself by contracting. Like other groups, Judaism constantly develops new forms, absorbs new ideas, and generally finds new ways to grow. Unlike other groups, however, Judaism quickly sheds all of these new manifestations, in a constant process of elimination, ever condensing toward a core Jewishness, a Jewishness that has no content, that is Jewish in name only. This core, which Rosenzweig identifies with the prophetic “remnant of Israel” (שארית ישראל), is what persisted throughout Jewish history, as all kinds of specific types of Judaism have  disappeared or broken away. That isn’t to say that Rosenzweig identifies the remnant of Israel with traditional Rabbinic Judaism. Rather, he identifies it with Jews who are Jewish in name, whose whole existence is bound up in being Jewish, so that everything they do and say is Jewish, by definition.

Smashing the willow branches against the ground reenacts Rosenzweig’s vision of Jewish history. The willow branches, representing the in-name-only Jews, the Jews who are Jewish whether or not they know Torah or do mitsvot, are smashed against the ground of history. They slowly come apart, losing bits of leaf with every strike, but the core of the branch remains. So too the core of Judaism, the Jews whose Judaism has defined them inherently, regardless of their thoughts or deeds, has survived the travails of history. When we smash the willow branches into the ground, we may remind ourselves of the necessity of this in-name-only Jewishness. The ritual could challenge us, calling us to be “called by the name ‘Israel.’”

 

[as with many of my recent posts, much of my thinking and interpreting here is owed to influence from Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]

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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 http://www.sefaria.org/Vayikra_Rabbah.30.12?lang=bi&with=Amos&lang2=en.

[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.

Sukkot 5775 – Getting Out Of Our Narratives

כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

 

The mitsvah to dwell in sukkot for seven days comes Vayikra 23:42, part of the greater description of the holiday of Sukkot in verses 33-43, probably the largest description of Sukkot in the Torah. It’s also the only such description that includes a reason for the mitsvah to dwell in sukkot. “In order that your generations will know that I caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in sukkot when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael are commanded to dwell in sukkot in order to mimic and recreate the experience of Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness. This experience that is characterized mainly by two trends, Bnei Yisrael complaining about not suffering due to their not being in Egypt any more, and ‘א providing Bnei Yisrael with sustenance throughout their journeys in the wilderness.

Throughout their travels in the wilderness, Bnei Yisrael repeatedly complain that they wish they could return to Egypt, or that things were better in Egypt. The first time is just after the splitting of the sea. “If only we had died by the hand of ‘א in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, when we ate bread to satiation; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly through starvation” (Shemot 16:3). This is the first of many times such a complaint occurs due to a lack of food or water. A totally different motivation for such a complaint appears in Bamidbar 16, in the rebellion of Dathan and Aviram. “is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, but thou must needs make thyself also a prince over us?” (Bamidbar 16:13). This complaint is not about a lack of food, but about Moshe being unsuitable as a leader. They go so far as to call Egypt “a land flowing with milk and honey,” a phrase otherwise only used to refer to the Land of Israel. Seeing as their experience in Egypt was one of crushing labor and abject slavery, it is difficult to understand why they would desire so strongly to go back to it. However, this becomes a little clearer when understood in light of the post-modern concept of a narrative.

The word “narrative” refers to a story, but in the post-modern sense it refers more particularly to the stories by which people define their lives. These stories give a context within which the events and occurrences of their lives can be understood. It gives people a framework within which to choose what course of action they should pursue. The historical perspective of Tanakh, from the beginning of Creation in Sefer Bereishit to the messianic visions of the prophets, is a narrative within which Bnei Yisrael understand the meaning of the events that happen to them. This is perhaps the greatest function of the prophets, telling Bnei Yisrael that the major events they undergo, such as the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, are not random event, but are part of a larger story and make sense when viewed as such. One of the most notable effects of the loss of prophecy has been a disconnect from Tanakh’s historical narrative. Without a prophet, Bnei Yisrael had no way of knowing with certainty the significance of any occurrence, but can only try and fit it into the context of Tanakh’s historical vision.

Returning to Bnei Yisrael in the wilderness, their complaints about no longer being in Egypt can be understood in terms of a loss of narrative. In Egypt, they knew what story they were participating in, even if it was an unpleasant one. They knew who was in charge and why, they knew where their food and water came from, and they knew what they were supposed to do when. Then ‘א took them out of Egypt, and they knew none of those things. When they didn’t have food, they complained that they once knew where their food came from, and when they felt they had been lead badly, they challenged the source of the authority of their leader. They had lost their Egypt-Narrative and until they would enter the Land of Israel, they were a little lost.

The second typifier of Bnei Yisrael’s wilderness experience was that they were totally sustained by ‘א. When they needed food, he gave them Manna (Shemot 16:4-5) and Quail (Shemot 16:12-15). Their leadership was sent by ‘א, and when they doubted this, they were reminded via miracles (Bamidbar 16:28; 17:16-26). Their garments were miraculously sustained by ‘א, neither wearing out nor being outgrown (Devarim 8:4). Even their living-spaces were given to them by ‘א (Vayikra 23:43). Bnei Yisrael’s entire wilderness experience was defined by the way they lived their lives cradled in the hand of ‘א.

On sukkot Bnei Yisrael were thrust out of our normal, everyday, narratives and pushed into the wilderness. Every year, as they were gathering in their harvest (Vayikra 23:39; Devarim 16:13), Bnei Yisrael were reminded that they do not survive by their produce alone, but by the word of ‘א (Devarim 8:3). Sukkot is a week where we step out of our normal stories, our routines and procedures, and remember the truth that these stories obscure, that we are not independent, that our stories are conditional and dependent, that the lives we build were built with the power that ‘א gives us (Devarim 8:17-18).

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition.

[2] While they received the Torah long before they entered the Land of Israel, many if not most of the mitsvot apply only when in the Land of Israel (never mind the opinion of Ramban that the mitsvot only apply inside the Land of Israel). Receiving the Torah did help Bnei Yisrael’s mindset somewhat, but that is part of a different discussion.

[3] The exact nature of the “sukkot” that ‘א caused Bnei Yisrael to dwell in is subject to Rabbinic debate, with R’ Eliezer understanding them as booths such as Bnei Yisrael build today, and with R’ Akiva understanding them as the Clouds of Glory. For an excellent discussion of how R’ Akiva’s view fits with peshat, and of the symbolism behind both views, see this essay by R’ Prof. Jeffrey L. Rubinstein.