In Parshat Emor, we read: “On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take for yourselves the fruit of a beautiful [etrog] tree, a “bound” branch of a palm tree, boughs of thick-leaved [myrtle] trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the L‑rd your G‑d for seven days.”1

Concerning the first three kinds, the conditions given in the Torah have to be met exactly in order to fulfill the command. The etrog must be a completed2 fruit, beautiful to behold;3 if it has dried out it is unfit for use.4 The palm branch must be bound,5 i.e., its leaves must be closely attached to its spine.6 The myrtle, too, must be thick-leaved—three leaves growing from the same place on the stem.7

However, the “willows of the brook” do not necessarily have to grow near a brook;8 even if they grow somewhere else they are also fit for use, as long as they are the type of willow that generally grows by a brook.9 Why is it necessary for the conditions of the first three kinds to be met exactly in order to fulfill the command, while the “willows of the brook” do not have to grow near a brook?

The Midrash says10 that the four kinds of vegetation that are taken on Sukkos are symbolic of the four types of Jews: an etrog, which possesses both a good taste as well as a fragrant odor, is symbolic of the Jew who possesses both Torah learning and good deeds. The palm branch [which must come from a date palm] has a good taste but no fragrant odor, signifying Jews who have obtained Torah knowledge but lack good deeds [commensurate with their knowledge]. Those individuals who possess good deeds but are lacking in Torah knowledge are likened to the myrtle, which has a fragrant odor but lacks taste. The willow, which is inedible and lacks aroma as well, represents those people lacking both in Torah and good deeds.

The mitzvah of taking these “four kinds” on Sukkot mirrors the ideal state in which Jews of all kinds are bound together.

Thus, there is a cardinal difference between the first three kinds of vegetation and the willow. The first three kinds of vegetation, i.e., the first three types of Jews, are similar to one another in that they all possess certain clearly revealed qualities. Consequently, the unity that results from this common state of revelation is also much more easily perceived.

Achieving a state of unity with the willow—with the Jew who lacks both Torah and good deeds—comes about not as a result of that Jew’s revealed quality, but rather because of his essence; at the core of his soul, he, too, is a Jew. This quality of being Jewish is intrinsic to every individual who is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and it is present even when the individual lacks both Torah and good deeds. Even if a person is unaware of his Jewishness, he still retains his essential quality of being Jewish, including all the holiness intrinsic to this standing.

For this reason, in the halachic perception as well, there is a difference between the first three kinds and the willow. The first three kinds must have their qualities revealed in order to be fit for use, while the willow is fit for use even if it did not grow by the brook; even then it may be bound up, without question, with the other three kinds.

Even when a Jew does not grow up among fellow Jews—like a willow that was not nurtured among its brother willows at the brook and living waters of Judaism—as long as he is of the same kind, a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he is an inseparable part of the Jewish people and is bound up with them all.

Just as all four kinds together are necessary for the performance of the mitzvah, so, too, must all Jews unite; if the “willow” is missing, then Jewry as a whole is lacking an essential component. Similarly, just as the willow need not have its qualities revealed for it to be utilized, so must our approach to the “willow Jew” be without pre-conditions. It wholly suffices that he is a Jew.

Based on Likkutei Sichot, Vol. XXII, pp. 132-136.