What is the nature of the aravot (willow branches) that are taken together with the other species during the first 6 days of Sukkot (and only on the last day is taken by itself, meriting a holiday of its own - Hoshanah Raba)?

The Sages explained that the four species represent four different types of Jews: The etrog (citron) which has both a good taste and fragrance, represents one who possesses both Torah learning and mitzvot. The lulav (palm branch) which has a good taste (i.e. dates) but no fragrance, represents one who possesses Torah learning but has no mitzvot to his credit. The hadassim (myrtle twigs), which have fragrance but not a good taste, represent one who has mitzvot but no Torah learning. The aravot, which have neither taste nor fragrance, represent the one who lacks both Torah and mitzvot.

When one considers all the things that G‑d placed in the world for our benefit, there are three categories; things which are "sweet and pleasant", things which are "good", and things which are not only good but also intrinsically "beneficial or healthful". When it comes to the physical realm, "sweet and pleasant" is considered the lowest level, "good" is in the middle and "beneficial or healthful" is the most praiseworthy.

The ultimate level of service is reached when one serves G‑d solely in order to fulfill ones Torah obligations…

For example, a person who is spiritually sensitive, when choosing the foods he will eat, makes his decision based on what is healthful for his body and that which will provide him the maximum advantage in his G‑dly service. This is true even when that beneficial food is not so tasty and doesn't make such an enjoyable meal.

Nevertheless, when it comes to spiritual matters the case is reversed, and the considerations are exactly the opposite. For a Jew who is dedicated to G‑d's service, to engage is his service because it is healthful or beneficial, is like serving the master in order to receive recompense, and that is the lowest level of all. (Avot 1:3)

Above this level is that of "good". Sometimes one serves G‑d knowing that it is good and right, and he doesn't want to risk the consequences of going against G‑d's will. Still this is not ultimately the purest way to serve G‑d, since there remains some ulterior motivation in the service.

The ultimate level of service is reached when one serves G‑d solely in order to fulfill ones Torah obligations, whether or not he understand the mitzvah, and even if the mitzvah has no taste or fragrance, i.e. personal satisfaction, for him. Then, from above his is showered with divine beneficence, and he is blessed with a great sweetness and pleasantness in his service which was before unattainable. This "spiritual sweetness" - in Hebrew, "araivus" - is much higher than "good or healthful" and more pure in its essence.

This is the idea of the aravot, which is from the Hebrew word "araiv", meaning "sweet or pleasant". The lowly arava which has no taste or fragrance in the physical realm ends up being the most prominent of all the species when we take it alone on the holiday created especially for it. And we, with the willows in our hands, are elevated along with them as we refine our service, until we, like the willow, are capable of serving G‑d in a pure and unadulterated way.

Aaron…was an expert at making peace between people at odds with one another…

The arava also represents the aspect of Aaron the High Priest. He was an expert at making peace between people at odds with one another. When he spotted two people quarreling, he choose an opportune moment when he would approach one of the quarrelers, speak to him nicely and befriend him. The person would think to himself, " Aaron the High Priest is befriending me! Why does he need me for a friend? If he knew what type of person I really was, he would have nothing to do with me." At that moment, he would resolve in his heart to do real teshuva, to be worthy of calling the High Priest his friend.

Our Sukkahs are symbolic of the Clouds of Glory which accompanied and protected the Children of Israel in the desert. Therefore, on Sukkot, a holiday which is intrinsically linked to Aaron, we also incorporate the arava into our service. At the beginning of the festival, the arava is taken each day, bound together with the other species. This way, the person "without taste or smell" might be influenced by those who are already on a higher spiritual level and thereby become elevated through contact with them. On the other hand, one who has "taste and smell", when he comes into contact with the willow (i.e. the one without "taste and smell") will be reminded of the inherent lowliness of man, and will be seized by waves of humility. He will take a good look at himself, be humbled, and deepen the teshuva he began in Elul.

One who is humble is considered as if he brought all of the sacrifices…

As a person perfects his personal humility, G‑d at the same time raises him up. This is Hoshana Rabba. As the sages stated, "One who brings a burnt offering, earns the reward of a burnt offering. One who brings a meal offering, earns the reward of a meal offering. But one who is humble is considered as if he brought all of the sacrifices, as it is written, 'A contrite and humbled spirit is a sacrifice to G‑d. G‑d does not ignore a broken heart.'" (Psalms 51; Sanhedrin 43b)

The lowly willow, by way of its true humility and its willingness to be influenced for the better by the other species, is elevated higher, higher until it serve G‑d alone. For this purpose we have Hoshana Rabba.

When we, in our exalted spiritual state on Hoshana Rabba, really feel that we are children of the King, there is no request that is too much. Then, without embarrassment, we can ask for anything - including the ultimate request: that soon the day will come when the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the earth is covered with water, and He and His Name will be One, as we usher in the age of peace and prosperity.

[This article was first published in B'Ohel Hatzadikim, Sukkot 5759]