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Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40 ... the fruit of a beautiful tree, branches of palm trees, boughs of bushy trees and willows of the brook ...
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Rabbi Akiva is reported by the Pesikta de Rab Kahana to have commented on each component of this text. He said that the word in the phrase "fruit of a beautiful tree" is a symbol of the Majestic One, of whom it is said, - "You have put on glory and majesty" (Psalm 104:1). Similarly, he added, the palm tree - here in the plural - is a symbol of the Holy One of whom it is written - "The Righteous One will flourish like a palm tree" (Psalm 92:13). Moreover, he continued, , a bushy or intertwined tree, interpreted by rabbinic tradition as the myrtle, is a symbol for HaShem of whom it is written - "and He was standing among the myrtles" (Zechariah 1:8). Likewise, he concludes, "the willows of the brook", for it is written "Extol Him who rides in the heavens" (Psalm 68:5).
Whilst some of Rabbi Akiva's comparisons rely on homonyms in the Hebrew text or traditional interpretations, his overall point is clear. He aligns each one of the four species with G-d, so that he can take the whole verse "Now on the first day day you shall take for yourselves [the four species]; and you shall rejoice before the L-rd your G-d for seven days" (Vayikra 23:40, NASB) to mean that in order to rejoice before G-d you must fully embrace G-d; it is not enough just to see Him or approach Him in one way. At the same time, Akiva is saying, although each of the four species might be misused as symbols of idolatry, they are all to be seen instead as symbols of G-d, brought before Him and acknowledged as His creation and sanctified 1 as a means of celebrating before Him.
The biblical text nevertheless records for us that the words which Adonai spoke through Moshe concerning the Israelites came true: "But this people will get up and offer themselves as prostitutes to the foreign gods of the land where they are going. When they are with those gods, they will abandon Me and break My covenant which I have made with them" (D'varim 31:16, CJB). During the time of the kings, the Bible says, "They abandoned all the mitzvot of ADONAI their G-d. They made cast metal images for themselves, two calves. They made an asherah. They worshipped the whole army of heaven. They served Ba'al" (2 Kings 17:16, CJB). Indeed, "they erected high places, standing-stones and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree" (1 Kings 14:23, CJB). The very symbols of life - the willows which show G-d's provision of water, the myrtle that shows the abundance and fragrance of G-d's grace, the etrog and the palm that show the fruitfulness of G-d's land - which should have been a means for worshipping Adonai, the L-rd G-d of Israel, became instead tokens and symbols of idolatry, used in shallow and superstitious representations of the false gods that were worshipped by the nations. Because of their idolatry, G-d hid His face from our people and banished them from the Land: "Then My anger will flare up, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them. They will be devoured, and many calamities and troubles will come upon them. Then they will ask, 'Haven't these calamities come upon us because our G-d isn't here with us?' But I will be hiding My face from them because of all the evil they will have done in turning to other gods" (D'varim 31:17-18, CJB); "Therefore I am thrusting you out of this land into a land you have not known, neither you nor your ancestors; and there you will serve other gods day and night; for I will show you no favour" (Jeremiah 16:13, CJB).
Where do we stand today with regard to symbols? Have we as G-d's people in this generation been careful to use the symbols that G-d has given for worship only for that purpose, or have we slipped into wrong practice? We have the symbol of the cross - a key symbol representing the death of Yeshua when "stripping the rulers and authorities of their power, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by means of the stake" (Colossians 2:15, CJB). It is also used as the point of grace and forgiveness, with people encouraged to bring their sins, shame and sadness to the cross. Yet the symbol of the cross can be misused; it can be used as a talisman - or good luck charm - worn, waved or invoked without any real connection to Yeshua. Rav Sha'ul warned against this when he wrote about people "holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power" (2 Timothy 3:5, NASB). Yeshua made it clear that a mere observance of formalities is of no effect when He said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'L-rd, L-rd!' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, only those who do what My Father in heaven wants" (Matthew 7:21, CJB).
During the Middle Ages, the church was heavily beset with relics: splinters or fragments of the true cross, the nails from the cross, saints' bones, material from Mary's robe and so on; while not usually actually worshipped, these objects took on a reverence and awe in the eyes of the people that was entirely inappropriate. Generations of sincere people were preyed upon ruthlessly by cynical and manipulative hucksters who exploited their naivety to sell enough wood and nails to have made Noah's ark many times over! Even today the remains of St Therese of Liseaux2 are being taken on tour around the world in the hope of arousing spirituality in prisons and churches.
The elements of communion - the bread and wine used to remember the Last Supper, the Pesach seder that Yeshua shared with His disciples on the night before He was betrayed and crucified - are regularly taken into hospitals and homes so that elderly, infirm or sick people can share communion with the rest of their church. Yet in some traditions, those elements take on a life of their own, a larger than life presence that is far more than the symbolic elements themselves.
As we prepare for the feast of Sukkot, it is important that we see the sukkah, the lulav and the etrog and the traditions of our people as a way to embrace and worship G-d, seeing in them reminders of the way He led our people through the desert for forty years. We should also see the prophetic picture of Jew and Gentile celebrating the feast of Sukkot together, pointing to the marriage feast of the Lamb when "many will come from the east and from the west to take their places at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven with Avraham, Yitz'chak and Ya'akov" (Matthew 8:11, CJB). Eating in the sukkah each day, away from the security of bricks and mortar, be reminded of the frailty of our human lives set against the vastness of eternity. As we shake the lulav in each direction, remember that it is G-d who surrounds us and protects us; He is the rock, the sure foundation, the only true constant in a world of change. We build a sukkah and take the lulav because we are commanded to do so; we cannot allow our obedience to be swayed either by criticism from those who hold us be legalistic, or a fear of being drawn into rabbinic superstition. Build, take and rejoice in faith, for that is our heritage and our calling!
1 - 'sanctified' here means made holy by virtue of having been used to worship G-d. Traditionally, the lulav is kept through the winter and used as the basis of the fire used to burn the last fragments of chametz before Pesach.
2 - A French woman, born in the 1870s and beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1923.
Further Study: Nehemiah 8:13-18; Romans 5:8-11
Application: Have you been discouraged from keeping the feast of Sukkot by fear or the criticism of others? Now is the time to change, to overcome the fear and to ignore the criticism. Step out in faith and know G-d's blessing as you rejoice before Him at this season!
© Jonathan Allen, 2009
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