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The Wonder of the Willow

The Wonder of the Willow

The simplicity of Hoshana Rabbah

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Simplicity. We all say we crave it. But do we respect it?

Although we might profess to value the proletariat, to celebrate simplicity, to refrain from cultural and intellectual elitism, I’d bet few of us walk that talk. How many people do you know who’ve named their kid after the local postman, or deliveryman, or maid who cleans the night shift? Forget about actually naming after someone of limited income, status, emotional sensitivity, intellectual prowess or fame; how many of us give the “simple” folk in our lives the time of day?! A warm “Good morning.” A sincere “How are you?” We’re in strong need of a remedy for our “attachment-to-fame disorder.”

We’re in strong need of a remedy for our “attachment-to-fame disorder”

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chassidic movement, is renowned for his appreciation of and love for the ordinary Jew. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, writes in his memoirs, “It was this love for the common man that was, and remained, the real basis of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. He did not seek for high scholarship amongst Jews. He valued more the heart. The Jew who could read his prayers in Hebrew, even if he did not know the translation—the mere fact of his sincere utterance of these holy words in Hebrew was a source of satisfaction to the Almighty in heaven, the Baal Shem declared."1


The seventh day of the holiday of Sukkot provides much food for thought on the supreme value of “simplicity.” We’re prompted to think about the worth of the naive and guileless among us. Hoshana Rabbah, as it’s called, encourages us to let go of our attachment to all that is slick and sophisticated, to look beyond the “talented, special” ones among us and to instead pay attention to the straightforward, possibly naive, yes . . . simple folk. And it does this all through a practice involving willow branches.

In Temple times, the people would take willow branches from a place below Jerusalem called Motza. Throughout the holiday of Sukkot, they placed them at the sides of the altar so that their tops bent over it. Then they would sound the shofar. They did this once every day of Sukkot and seven times on Hoshana Rabbah.

Today, in memory of this mitzvah, we circle the bimah in shul, as was done in days gone by around the altar in the Temple. And on Hoshana Rabbah we take five willow branches, bind them together, say a special prayer, and beat the bundle on the ground.

There’s no blessing for the latter, no fanfare. Seemingly, the act does not have sufficient “value” for us to make a blessing. We simply take the lowly willow, beat it, and toss it on to the ark.

The willow certainly has a bad rap. A midrash2 correlates the four species of Sukkot with four types of Jews. The etrog, which has flavor and fragrance, corresponds to those Jews who have both Torah and good deeds. The fruit of the palm fronds (dates) have taste but no fragrance, just like those Jews who have Torah but not good deeds. The myrtles, by contrast, have fragrance but no taste. They correspond to those Jews who have good deeds but lack Torah. And “this willow has neither taste nor fragrance . . . (like those) who have neither Torah nor good deeds.”

You really don’t want to be a willow person! Or do you? Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn states that the willow is “indicative of simple people whose fulfillment of the commandments is with simple faith.”3

This comment brings out a profound depth of the midrash, and explains the inner content of the willow. Superficially, the midrash seems to be implying that only the etrog has both the advantage of Torah knowledge and good deeds. The three other species, it would seem, are lacking one or both of these. The Previous Rebbe clarifies and qualifies this understanding. He is of the opinion that all four categories of Jews alluded to in the four species fulfill both Torah and Mitzvot.

The willow’s minimalism is indicative of the inner point of the Jewish soul, which is indivisible, and thus empty of discernable distinctive qualities

His reading of the Midrash makes a lot of sense. Think about it just a little. The lulav Jew is immersed in study. But, as our sages say, true learning brings one to action. So, if the said Jew is learning in the way study is meant to happen, he or she is also fulfilling the actual commandments. Similarly with regard to the myrtle Jew. This is the person who’s doing good deeds. That, by necessity, implies knowledge! You have to know what Torah requires in order to fulfill its requirements. By the same token, the willow Jew does study and does act. This person is part of the same bundle of folks who are like citrons, palms and myrtles. The willow persona is one of a totality of individuals whose lives are bound up with the Torah and its commandments. The identifying feature of this person, says the Previous Rebbe, is that all they do is permeated with simple faith.

It’s a beautiful reading of our people and the midrash. But it leaves us with a question: If they’re all endowed with both qualities, why then make distinctions and overtly imply that there’s a definite continuum from the “have-alls” to the “have-nots”!?

The inner meaning of the midrash, though, is that while we are all equal when it comes to our connection to the Torah and our abundance of good deeds, there is a difference in the manner and quality of the way in which we both study the Torah and fulfill the commandments.

We access Torah through intellectual pursuit.4 So, according to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s interpretation, when the midrash refers to someone as “having Torah,” it implies someone who has superior intellect. Good deeds, on the other hand, emphasize the advantage of the emotional attributes which drive our actions. So, “having mitzvot” in the language of the midrash is indicative of a person with emotional intelligence.

This throws new light on the difference between the four species. They are each connected to both Torah and good deeds. It’s just that they do it differently! The etrog folk have both high IQs and profound emotional intelligence. Contemporary culture might call them “Renaissance men.” In Torah terminology, they would be called “Adam”—a term reserved for those who have mastered both mind and heart. The lulav personas are the Harvard grads. They’re the Torah scholars who soar on the wings of reason and intellectual exploration. Myrtle people are highly skilled at identifying and managing both their own and others’ emotions. They’re likely to be in the helping professions, empathizing with others and knowing how to make them comfortable. They’re skilled at applying the Torah to daily life. Last, but not least, are the willow members of society. These are the “simple” folk5 who form the bedrock of society—good, honest, sincere people whom we might be dismissive of, but whom we feel awfully comfortable being around! These are Jews whose fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot lacks the advantages of both intellect and emotion. Their access to study and fulfillment of mitzvot is permeated with a simple and pure faith.

It is precisely in the unaffected and possibly naive individuals that G‑d’s presence is to be felt most

Through looking at the four species in this light, it becomes clear that there’s a special aspect to the willow that surpasses the other species. The willow tree gives no fruit, and its leaves give off no fragrance. Yet it is precisely in that “blandness” of being that we recognize the presence of something beyond. The willow’s minimalism is indicative of the inner point of the Jewish soul, which is indivisible, and thus empty of discernable distinctive qualities. We all have this point within us, but it is most felt in the “simple,” unlettered and emotionally unadorned individuals. The Baal Shem Tov states that the “simplicity” of the common people is synonymous with the essential simplicity and unity of G‑d Himself. It is precisely in the unaffected and possibly naive individuals that G‑d’s presence is to be felt most.6


This special quality of the “willow” folk is reflected in the physical qualities of the willow itself. The mitzvah to “take for (ourselves)” the four species is comprised precisely of these four because each encapsulates the theme of unity and oneness.

The etrog is an evergreen tree, and the fruit “lives on the tree from year to year.” Not only does it not shrivel, wilt or die with the change of seasons—it actually grows. In this way, all four seasons of the year are united through the individual fruit which remains on the tree throughout the year. The lulav frond has many leaflets that come together in one tip. Myrtle leaves surround the stem in groups of three, all of which meet at one point. And willows are called achvana in Aramaic, a “brotherhood,” because they grow together in groups, or be-achavah.

The world we live in is characterized by the very opposite of unity. In fact, the Hebrew word for “world” is olam, and is etymologically related to the word he’elem, which means “concealment.” As such, the world manifests division and plurality. If anything on this physical plane does in fact express something of unity, then it’s an indication that something of the original, supernal Unity that is the source of everything is shining through that object. In other words, the “ego” of the object is less manifest, and its source is more revealed.

This concept is evident in the four species. Each of them displays unity, albeit in different ways. As such, one doesn’t experience their natural “ego identity,” which exists simply by virtue of being of this world. Rather, one is touched by their nullification to their source. This existential subordination brings about a revealed unity even on the physical plane.

Yet even within the four species themselves there exists a difference in the nature of that unity. When it comes to the etrog, lulav and myrtle, one notices that the unity we’re talking of exists within each plant at an individual level. The leaves of this particular palm or myrtle, and this particular etrog, display something of oneness. But that unity is not connected to other plants of the same species.

Our gifts inevitably conceal our simple faith

Conversely, willows grow in groups, in “brotherhood” with one another. The fact that in this physical world willows grow in unison, expressing unity, is because they are subordinate to their source more so than the other three species. It is precisely the willow, which surrenders its “ego”—or sense of being an independent existence outside of G‑d—that reveals the one and simple supernal root of reality within the concealment of creation. That’s why it’s also unique in that even its name reflects unity.


The willow’s unusual display of unity also says much about the unique qualities of simple faith.

At a purely physical level, although the etrog, palm and myrtle are in actuality chosen because of their manifestation of unity, one could make a mistake. Their respective flavors and fragrances draw attention to themselves. As such, they conceal the simplicity and unity that underlie them, even though that simplicity is even more transcendent in its root than the quality that draws our attention. One might mistakenly think they’ve been selected for the mitzvah not because of their unity, but because of their benefits.

The willow, by contrast, has nothing special about it at all. And being that there’s nothing to draw our attention, nothing to mask its clear-cut identity, the oneness of the willow radiates outwards. There’s simply no way to make a mistake as to why it’s included in the group. The only reason it could be there is because of this notion of oneness.

The same thing applies to us as individuals. Those of us who are “rich” in intellect and emotion face a challenge. Our gifts inevitably conceal our simple faith. We lose access to the simplicity and innocence that exists within us, and are instead swept up by our abilities, seduced by our gifts. We lose access to the very essence of who we are.

It is precisely in the “simple folk” who are bereft of intelligence and “specialness” that “essential supernal unity and simplicity” shines.


Given all the above, we can now understand the greatness of Hoshana Rabbah, particularly as it was practiced in the Temple and as it is practiced today.

The willows of Hoshana Rabbah are of an even higher level than those of the four species. The latter are bound together with three other plants, each of which reveals something of G‑d’s singular Oneness and simplicity, but each of which at the same time is remarkable for something distinctive. As a result, the willow associated with the group is somewhat compromised. Its simplicity is not entirely pure, because by association it is connected with other distinctive attributes.

The willow, devoid of flavor, devoid of fragrance, reflects that point of undifferentiated unity and simplicity within each of us

The willows the Jews placed around the altar in the Temple, however, were entirely plain. They were not bound with anything. No other species lent it “importance,” and it had no notable features of its own. As such, they served as visual, physical analogies of pure and unadulterated simplicity.7

The practice of placing the long willow stems around the altar is not explicitly stated in the Bible. It is a law that has been passed down to us from Moses as he received it from G‑d at Mount Sinai.8 These kinds of commandments are connected to profound levels within the soul. There are dimensions within us that are connected to G‑d through overt instructions. They are fed by all the deeds laid out in the Bible and their corresponding commentaries. Beyond these dimensions, there is a point within us where our essence touches that of G‑d. It is a place where we are so connected that we don’t need to be overtly commanded to do something in the Written Law. This point manifests its bond with G‑d through the commandments that were received by Moses at Mount Sinai and passed down to us across the generations. It is a point of simplicity within the soul itself.

Today’s practice of the willow touches even one step deeper. We take five willows, which correspond to the five dimensions of severity. Holding them, we say a prayer, bang them on the ground, and then throw them over the ark in the synagogue, or the lintel if we’re at home.9 It is a custom that was instituted by the prophets. So, it’s neither a law explicitly stated in the Bible, nor one received from Moses. At the surface, it’s “just a custom”—of minimal significance. However, in actuality, Jewish custom is rooted in the very essence of our souls and collective consciousness.

Certain practices were revealed to us by the prophets. But they didn’t come at the people in a heavy-handed way. They simply took on to act in a particular way, and the people followed of their own accord. In this sense, Jewish custom reflects the Jew’s ability to intuitively sense the cosmic means of connection to G‑d that are available. It is for this reason that our sages tell us that “Jewish custom is Torah.” The overt meaning is that we cannot dismiss these practices, because they take on the status of actual law. The deeper reading is that, as a people, we have the power to “create” Torah through collectively intuiting the patterns of conduct that bind us with G‑d.

Thus, the custom of the willows of Hoshana Rabbah as we practice it today reveals the very root and essence of our soul. The willow, devoid of flavor, devoid of fragrance, reflects that point of undifferentiated unity and simplicity within each of us. When we access this place within us, the lowly willow suddenly becomes the most radiant of all the plants of Sukkot. At that moment we can forgive ourselves for all we’re not, and celebrate ourselves for the untouchable and indescribable essence of who we are. And then we’re able to look at others differently, too.



Species

or Persona

Advantages according to overt meaning of the midrash

A deeper reading of the midrash

Personal strengths of the individuals

Physical qualities of the four species that reflect Oneness

Parallel of physical qualities in the personas

Etrog

Learns Torah and does good deeds

Has both the advantages of Torah and good deeds

Highly intelligent and emotionally gifted

 

Lives on the tree from year to year. All four seasons of the year are thereby united.

Essence point of the soul is concealed by the sparkling mind and personality

Lulav

Learns Torah

“Learning brings to action,” so although this Jew focuses on learning, that itself implies doing

Excels in intellectual arenas

 

All leaves come to one unified point.

Essence point of the soul is concealed by the gift of intelligence

Myrtle

Does good deeds

Anyone who does mitzvot must have knowledge of the what and how of Torah

High in emotional intelligence

All the groups of three leaves come to one point at the stem

 

Essence point of the soul is concealed by gift of emotional intelligence

Willow

Has neither Torah nor good deeds

Included in the same prestigious group of individuals who are imbued with both Torah and good deeds, and by extension, has both as well.

Imbued with guileless, pure and simple faith

Are called achvana, “fraternal,” because they grow be-achavah, “together”

No revealed gift, and therefore the essential, unified and “simple” point of the soul is manifest

FOOTNOTES
1.

Rabbi Y. Y. Schneerson, Memoirs, vol. 1.

2.

Vayikra Rabbah 30:12.

3.

Sefer ha-Maamarim 5710, p. 4.

4.

Each of us receives the Torah as an inheritance. Our wanting the Torah, having a tradition of studying it in our nuclear family, and the like—all have nothing to do with the fact that it belongs to you by virtue of your birth. The Torah belongs no more and no less to anyone one of our people. (Which may explain why we get in to such heated arguments over its meaning at times, and each feel we have the correct reading of an issue at hand.) Nonetheless, absorbing the Torah into our own consciousness requires mental exertion.

5.

Anashim peshutim in Hebrew.

6.

It is interesting to note that the spheres of netzach (“ambition”) and hod (“humility”) are called “willow leaves.” This is because they have no unique flavor, but are rather extensions of the higher soul powers of love and awe. Nonetheless, just as the willow has a uniquely superior advantage over the other three species, they are rooted in an even higher source than both love and fear. (See Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim 27d.)

7.

In this light, it is interesting to note that for the four species, one needs at least three moist leaves to fulfill the mitzvah. In fact, we take two stalks, each of which must have leaves that meet in twos at the stem. The minimum requirement for the Temple practice of the willow was one stem with one leaf.

8.

In Hebrew, halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai.

9.

Some people throw them onto the roof of the sukkah at home.

Shimona Tzukernik is the creator of The Method, a therapeutic application of Kabbalah for individuals and corporations seeking spiritually based transformation. Known as “The Kabbalah Coach,” she has counseled hundreds of individuals, and now offers coaching certification in The Method. She is also an internationally recognized speaker and author for the Rohr JLI. Shimona has been featured in media around the world including a documentary by National Geographic and NickMom’s “Take Me to your Mother.”
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Discussion (12)
July 17, 2014
willow for sukkot
Dear Shimona, do you know what willow we use for Sukkot? I want to plant it in my garden. thanksh
ezer feldman
NE
January 3, 2014
It's so true that most Jews are a richly textured bundle of the four kinds within their beings.
It seems sad that anyone could get worried or neurotic about whether they are the willow or the lemon!! Classism should truly not exist in a formalized religion, since the effort is to express the qualities of the spirit through ones' unique endowment form Gods' love (your entirely unique bodymindspirit) which becomes willy nilly the love of the great One whether through sensing and channelling or via much study and logic. All will do good works, since all Jews love and care for the world.
Susan M. Risk
Kanata
December 1, 2013
Wonderful Willow
A unique quality of willow is that you can plant a willow branch and it will grow roots wherever you stick it in the ground. It makes living fences and all kinds of interesting, beautiful and useful architectural shapes only limited by ones imagination because it is malleable, strong and roots itself almost anywhere without much fuss. When applied to human characteristics, these qualities make greatness- and survival- possible.
Yehudit
Olam Hazeh
September 26, 2013
Willow
I read somewhere that when a baby girl was born, a willow tree was planted in her honor and when a baby boy was born a cedar tree was planted for the same reason. When a couple became married, two branches were cut from her willow tree and two branches were cut from his cedar tree. The four branches were then used to support the four corners of the chupah.
Jack
Midland Park
September 25, 2013
The secret of the willow
Could I dare say that the Willow is the humble of all four ? She keeps her secret hidden in her bark .
When the other three are hurting from headaches or such pains you chew on 3-4 leaves and your ache is gone .Take a willow branch , peel away the outside park shave carefully the beautiful white soft inner bark which exude a gentle aroma and chew .All parts of the Willow contains acetylsalicylic acid or salix which is a natural Aspirin . Used also for cosmetics.
A humble Goy with some Yahuden blood .
Anneliese
Anneliese
Canada
September 25, 2013
The special quality of the willow
Of all four species, the willow is the only one that was genuinely useful. For thousands of years, healers knew that willow bark, when steeped, could reduce fevers. It was used that way until modern pharmacology isolated the active ingredient, salicylic acid. It was used by peoples as disparate as North American Indians and Hottentot tribes in Africa to reduce fevers and alleviate pain. Hippocrates recommended willow bark infusions for postpartum care; Galen (2nd century C.E.) listed all its uses in his pharmacopeia. Its derivative, which we know as "aspirin," was not fully developed until 1899. Indeed, willow was the most useful and valuable of the four species! It's really odd that it was//is treated as if it were worthless!
Fruma
Delray Beach, FL
September 24, 2013
Willows, Wonderous Willous.
Willow trees are Jewish Avatars. They exist only near precious water, its broad, encompassing boughs bowing and bent, encapsulating and hiding its trunk, its leaves mystically oval. It does not reveal except to the strongest of G_d’s winds. Neither fruit, nor fragrance, nor respite perch for birds weary flights, but a semaphore separating water from land, and witness to countless buckets withdrawn for our needs. But, its secret truth lied deep inside, acetyl salicylic acid … aspirin.
Jay Rosenberg
Gaithersburg
September 24, 2013
Something for everyone
For the esrog, the lulav, the hadas, or the willow, there's something in this article for everyone. Yasher Koach, well written, and worth the long read!
chuna
September 24, 2013
Powerful, Shimona. Thank you! (tu tu)
Deena J
Denver
September 24, 2013
The wondrous willow
An excellent article of highest etrog quality as a homage to the superiority of the willow. What delightful union.

Thank you M(r)s Tzukernik.
zeynep
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