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Parshas Sukkos (5769)

Prayer and the "Aravah-Branch" of Judaism

One of the many mitzvos (commandments) that we perform on the Jewish festival of Sukkos is that we take the Four Species mentioned in the Torah (see Leviticus 23:40) - (1) Esrog, or citron, (2) Lulav, or palm frond, (3) Hadassim, or myrtle branches, and, (4) Aravos, or willow branches - and bind them together to make a blessing over them. This we do for all seven days of Sukkos except for Shabbos.

The Talmud asserts that each of these four species represents a different type of Jewish personality. The edible and fragrant Esrog symbolizes the Jew who is both learned and charitable. The Lulav, which bears sweet dates but totally lacks fragrance, represents the scholar who is very learned but undistinguished by his good deeds. The fragrant but inedible Hadas symbolizes the Jew who excels in good deeds but is unlearned. Finally, the unimpressive Aravah symbolizes the ordinary Jew, lacking both Torah knowledge and good deeds.

By binding these species together and holding them at one time, we express the integral unity of all Jews, as well as the idea that by getting all these different types of Jews together in one room, each one can contribute to the spiritual growth and advancement of the entire group (if they don't kill each other first!!).

The seventh day of Sukkos, also known as Hoshana Rabbah, is unique in that, in addition to our taking the Four Species mentioned above, we take the Aravah (willow) branch by itself and we recite special prayers over it, called Hoshanos (see your Artscroll Siddur or Machzor for details).

What is the significance of Hoshana Rabbah and why does the Aravah play so prominent a role in that day's service, especially when you consider that it symbolizes the Jew who excels in neither Torah knowledge nor in good deeds?

The Sfas Emes explains that there is a beautiful symbolism in Hoshana Rabbah and in the taking of the willow branch by itself on this day. The Midrash states that in addition to representing all the different types of Jews, each of the Four Species represents a different organ in the human body. The Esrog resembles the heart, the Lulav symbolizes the spine. The leaves of the Hadas look like eyes, and the leaves of the Aravah resemble the lips.

G-d loves all His children equally. For the first six days of Sukkos, we hold the Four Species together as one to symbolize the unity of all the different types of Jews, and to show that, by being close to each other, we can study Torah together and impact positively upon one another.

But what about the Jew who feels disconnected from the religion and is not involved Jewishly with other people? What can we say for the Jew who has gone through very difficult times that have strained his/her relationship with G-d? Or what about the Jew who isn't convinced that the Torah is of divine origin or that there is any depth and meaning to the "rituals" in the Torah?

That's where Hoshana Rabbah comes in. On this day, we take the Aravah by itself - symbolizing the Jew who has no connection to the Torah and Mitzvos - and we pray with it in the synagogue. The very shape of the Aravah, which resembles human lips curved to a point on both sides, reminds us of the power of prayer.

As long we can pray to G-d, we're okay. We can express our frustrations, our pain, our questions, our sincerest requests to G-d. We still have a relationship with Him. And in the merit of our sincere prayers, G-d will lead us in the proper path.

Today, all of us are "Aravah-Jews", to a certain extent. Even if we study Torah and do good deeds, very often we perform these deeds by rote, or we study for the intellectual stimulation that the Torah provides or for some other reason, and not as a means to become closer to G-d. We are surrounded by a very materialistic society which desensitizes us to our spiritual needs and takes away our ability to see G-d and His Divine Providence in the world.

But there's one thing we can do that no one can take away from us. We can pray to G-d to help us find true meaning in our lives. We can say to G-d, "I don't feel so spiritually connected to you. And on top of that, I have lots of problems. I don't know what to do anymore. Please, G-d, show me the way. Guide me in the proper path".

This is the message of the Aravah on Hoshana Rabbah. By the sheer power of our prayers alone, we can reconnect with G-d, and He will help us find our way back to Him.

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