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  • Bob Karasov

Dvar Torah Toldoth :: November 18, 2023

This past week I retired from Pediatrics. To mark the occasion, I cut this stethoscope as a symbol that, since I don’t need it anymore, it is no longer usable. More on this later.

In Judaism, there is a doctrine of lishmah, of doing God’s will without any ulterior motivation or need to understand the reasons behind mitzvot. Proponents argue that if reasons are suggested for mitzvot, they could easily lead to neglect, in situations where it is assumed the reasons do not apply. This school emphasized pure obedience.

If you are attracted to this approach, then I am sorry you must sit through this Dvar Torah.

On Hoshana Raba, which is the 6th day of Succoth, there is a custom to beat the Aravah or willow branches on the floor or against a solid object. We do this after we have completed the 7 Hakafot of Hoshana Raba when we circle the room with our lulavim and etrogim.

Our custom is to take 5 willow branches, separate from the ones in our lulav, and beat them 5 times, trying to get some leaves to fall off. There is no blessing. There also does not seem to be any uniformity across Jewish communities about the required number of willows or number of beatings.

This year, I tried to find the reason for all of this. When I was unable to find anything in various siddurim, I turned to The Book of our Heritage by Eliyahu Ki Tov, which has exhaustive information on all the holidays. He says: (quote) “This custom of beating the Aravah on the ground contains profound esoteric significance, and only the great of Israel merit knowledge of those secrets. The uninitiated should intend merely to abide by the custom of the Prophets and the Sages of all generations. Their reward for emulating their actions, will be regarded by God as if they had indeed had their profound intentions.” (unquote)

A similar answer is given by Chabad. Their website says that according to Kabbalah it is done to sweeten the supernal 5 severities.

Okay, so that’s clear as mud!

I also read that by tradition beating the willows was instituted by the prophets Haggai, Zecharia, and Malachi.

All this just piqued my interest even more since I’m not very good at being told, (air quotes) “Just do it and it will be as if you understand it!”

I did more digging, and I found an interesting article by Conservative Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson called, Why Beat the Willow? I would like to share what he said.

The Mishnah describes a ritual with the willows in the Temple involving decorating the altar, parading around the altar 7 times, and maybe carrying the willows. The Talmud suggests there was a practice to beat the willows, but it wasn’t universally accepted and gives no reason for beating them. It may be the rabbis were confronting a practice whose purpose they really didn’t know, which is why there are a host of explanations offered.

Sefer Ha-Todah, also written by Eliyah KiTov, says there is no rational explanation for the minhag of beating the willows.

Minhagei Yeshurun written in 2012 by Avraham Eliezer Girshowitz sees it as a symbol of the Jewish people’s ability to survive persecution, since Hoshaha Raba was on October 6 this year, that was timely.

Hayei Avraham, a book by Rabbi Abraham Danzig written in the early 1800s, says it symbolizes the beating we deserve when we sin (ouch).

Rabbi Abraham Milgram, a Conservative rabbi from the 1900s says it may have been connected to rain bringing rituals. I assume this is because willows need a lot of water.

Echoing the Rambam, Milgram also says it is to remember the Temple service, its destruction and our hope for its restoration.

Arthur Waskow, a rabbi who was active in the renewal movement offers a homiletical interpretation of the falling leaves as a symbol of our fading falling lives (ouch again).

Rabbi Elie Munk, a German rabbi from the 1900s, builds on the midrash which describes the willow as representing those Jews with no Torah or good deeds and says, God doesn’t want the death of the sinner but that they be chastened and tried by bitter blows to learn to walk in the right path again. (It sounds like maybe we should beat the willows on each other rather than the ground.) He also says it represents our wish that in the future we will have no more calamity and sorrow.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, a Reconstructionist rabbi and author of the Jewish Catalog, sees the beating of the willows as symbolizing casting away of sins, like Tashlich.

And Rabbi Isaac Fabricant, a 20th century British Rabbi sees it as symbolizing the ephemeral aspect of life.

Rabbi Artson points out that these explanations all offer psychological or theological interpretations, but none really explain the texts as we have them and many don’t address what we actually do in the ritual or when the ritual occurs in the service. By the way, the Shulchan Aruch says it is sufficient even if no leaves fall off which also weakens some of the explanations which seem to be based on the symbolism of leaves falling off.

After running through all these possibilities, Rabbi Artson suggests that rather than looking for symbolic meaning, we look through the lens of the ancient rabbis, as best we can, and focus on their concern for the integrity of halacha.

Rabbi Artson proposes that we beat the willow to signify the end of the festival and to make its main implement, the lulav, Pasul (ritually unfit). Supporting this explanation, he notes that the beating takes place immediately after the willows are no longer necessary for any ritual. We don’t even wait for the end of the service but do it immediately. That we do so without any prayer or kavannah (intention) only strengthens the notion that this minhag serves a practical purpose rather than holding some deeper symbolic expression.

There is also some support for this explanation in the Mishnah. After describing the ritual of the aravot (willows), the next Mishnah, Sukkot 4:7, informs us that “immediately the children loosened the lulavim and ate their etrogim”

If Rabbi Artson’s proposal is correct, then the need to take 5 new aravot, as opposed to the 2 in our lulav is probably a tradition that developed along the way. 5 Aravot, 5 beatings, easy to remember.

Rabbi Artson sums up by saying that the “true” meaning of a practice may change over time with each new interpretation possessing its own validity for the community, but he cautions that too hasty accommodations of all interpretations tends to result in a hasty skipping over of interpretations that trouble us.

He concludes that beating the willows is a summons back to halachic tidiness, to cleaning up after ourselves.

So where does that leave us in our quest to understand this ritual? On the one hand is the esoteric incomprehensible (at least to me) Kabbalistic sweetening of the supernal 5 severities.

On the other hand, is an extremely practical action, with no deeper meaning, done to render the aravot pasul to signify they are no longer used.

And in the middle are a myriad of theological and psychological interpretations which are probably all later explanations and interpretations.

One way to view it is that we are all wired differently, we all find meaning differently, and the rabbis have provided us with a smorgasbord of options for bringing meaning to our ritual lives. Just like we glean new understanding each year when we come back to the same Torah reading, we can do the same with mitzvot. What brings us meaning can evolve.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book The Heavenly Torah, says a great principle was enunciated concerning religious faith. Shamor V zachor bedibur eched. Observe and remember were said in a single utterance. Observe the plain meaning but remember the esoteric meaning. Just as we are obligated to observe, so are we required to remember, Acquire Torah with the lens of reason and through the heart’s lens.

Next year as you beat the willows, I hope this Dvar Torah will give you food for thought about its possible deeper meanings so we can all observe and remember the ritual.

Back to the stethoscope. I said that cutting it was a symbol that, since I don’t need it anymore, it is no longer usable. But perhaps there was a deeper meaning. Such as cutting away some of my identity to make room for new parts of my identity to emerge. There are many possible symbolic meanings one could come up with. If your mind works that way, I encourage you to share your interpretation with me at Kiddush. And if your mind doesn’t work that way, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Shabbat Shalom.

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