Office of the Chief Rabbi

D’var Torah: Sukkot

In his message for Sukkot, the Chief Rabbi explains how integral the community is for people’s success.

A ‘nebach’ becomes the greatest of them all. That is what happens during the festival of Sukkot.

The Mishna, in Masechet Sukkah, describes how on each day of the festival, the people would encircle the alter once. On the concluding day, Hoshana Rabba, they would go around seven times. Then the Mizbeach (the alter) would be draped with willows and the people would exclaim, “Yofi Lecha Mizbeach – How beautiful you look o’alter.”

Isn’t this remarkable? We are familiar with the ‘Arba Minim’ – The Four Kinds. The majestic Lulav (palm branch), the beautiful Hadas (Myrtle), the aromatic Etrog (citrus fruit), but what can be said about the Arava (the Willow). It is so commonplace, it is so drab. Yet of all the species, it is the willow which, on Hoshana Rabba, was elevated in Temple times to cover the alter. And today, we have a remnant of this in the practice of the Hoshanot on Hoshana Rabba – we take the willow, we separate it from the others for its own special ceremony.

I believe that this has everything to do with the essence of the character of the willow. Willow in Hebrew is ‘Arava’ coming from a word which means ‘mixture’. The willow naturally needs to be attached to others.

First of all, it is dependent on water – the willow can only grow if it is very close to a source of water. Then during Sukkot, we bring it together with the other kinds. It is through being bound with those other kinds that it attains a sense of beauty and presence which it did not have on its own.

There are very few Halachot relating to the willow. One is that it should look ‘K’Masor’ – that its sides should not have jagged edges like the teeth of a saw. The purpose of a saw is to cut something into pieces, whereas the essence of the willow is all about forging together in a spirit of unity and togetherness.

I believe that there is a great lesson to be learnt here for our communities. So often I see people who have latent talent. They have so much to give and yet they never have an opportunity to excel. But through the power of the community, people are brought to serve on committees, to be involved in initiatives, to take on responsibility for delivering projects. And it is through bonding together with others that the very best of their talent comes to the fore.

As a result, we have people succeeding in spectacular fashion and that is what we learn from the willow. What starts out being ordinary becomes extraordinary. What starts out, at the beginning of the festival of Sukkot, being totally eclipsed by the other species, becomes, by the end of the festival, the greatest of them all. That is something that can happen to each and every one of us.

I wish you all Chag sameach


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