Leviticus 22:26-23:44
Numbers 29:12-16

Dr. Ronald A. Brauner

“On the first day, you shall obtain the fruit of goodly trees, palm branches, boughs of leafy trees and water willows. . .you shall dwell in shelters for seven days. . .”

Two of the most important concepts in Judaism are embedded in the Torah reading for Sukkot. Consider if you will that the explicit directions the Torah provides for the proper performance of its requirements are often not sufficient, in themselves, to enable us to put into practice what we are obliged to do. Look at the directions above: “fruit of goodly trees” – what’s your notion of “goodly” – apples, pomegranates, figs? “Boughs of leafy trees” – okay, what’s “leafy” – maple, oak, ginko? What
is clear in the passage above is that part of the celebration of the festival requires palm branches and water willows – but what are we to do about the other two species which are mentioned only generally and for which we are given no particular hint as to what exactly is meant. What specifically does the Torah have in mind? The answer is, as in so many other passages of the Torah, that the details of the Written Torah (the Five Books) are to be found in the expansions of the Oral Torah (the accumulated body of Jewish law and lore). The Written simply cannot be fully understood without the Oral Tradition nor can the Oral Torah make sense without its being grounded in the Written. It is for this that our Sages have taught us: “two Torahs were given at Sinai, one Written and the other Oral.”

Indeed, it is our Oral Torah which tells us that the “goodly tree” here is none other than the
etrog (citron) and the “leafy” one is the myrtle (hadas). Torah continues to be the foundation of the Jewish people as it has for thousands of years precisely because we are in possession of the means to understand exactly what is demanded of us and how the Torah’s intentions can be actualized as times and circumstances change.

The other great idea to be found in the reading for the festival of Sukkot is that, as much as it may seem nature rules over us, it is we, through God’s mandate, who are to master it
(Genesis 1:28 – “God blessed them and said. . . fill the earth and subdue it and rule. . .”). This enormously significant concept, which speaks to the importance of man and to his centrality in the divine design of things, is acted out continuously through the Jewish year but particularly at Sukkot time in the way we observe the holiday. The five central symbols of the festival (citron, palm, myrtle, willow AND sukkah roof) are all taken from nature and yet, as the Oral Torah would have us understand, these five central symbols can
only be used in celebration of the holiday after they have been disconnected from their source. We remind ourselves ritually that no matter how beautiful, how bountiful, how sustaining the vegetative world is (isn’t fall harvest a perfect setting?) ultimately it is God and not nature who bestows the countless blessings of life and wellbeing we enjoy.

In our relationships with God, we are indeed subordinate. In our relationships with the world around us -- as our Oral Tradition teaches -- “it is for us that the world was created.”

Dr. Brauner is Professor of Judaic Studies at Siegal College, Cleveland, OH