Uniting a Fragmented World By Rabbi Eli Birnbaum
Uniting a Fragmented World
“The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Flick through a newspaper, scroll down a newsfeed. Listen to conversations at the bus stop, at the till, in the café. Division, incitement, inequality, violence, prejudice, xenophobia, pain. The outlook seems bleak no matter which angle you appraise it from. And into this splintered melee steps the festival of Sukkot; a festival replete with symbolism that to most of us is as confusing as it is unfamiliar.
Talking of division and unfamiliarity, I am ashamed to admit that I had my first conversation with my neighbour yesterday. We’ve lived next to each other for over half a year, and yet it apparently took something as bizarre as my construction of a small wooden booth on the balcony adjacent to theirs for us to exchange more than a perfunctory ‘Hello’.
And that conversation got me thinking: Is there a common theme that weaves a thread throughout all of Sukkot’s imagery? It’s all very entertaining watching people hurrying through the streets holding three shrubs and a lemon, but what does it all mean and – more importantly – what is it trying to teach us?
I’d like to go a little ‘off road’ for a bit. Stay with me.
There’s a pretty unusual comment made by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105) right at the beginning of the Torah. To kick things off, he picks up on a pretty peculiar inconsistency in the text:
“And God said; ‘Let the earth bring forth vegetation, plants that yield seeds. And fruit trees yielding fruit according to its kind…And the earth produced vegetation, plants that yielded seeds, and trees producing fruit…” (Genesis 1:11-12).
It’s a tricky problem to spot, but the commentators highlight the fact that God’s original commandment specifies ‘Fruit trees that produce fruit’, whereas the result seems to be just ‘Trees that produce fruit’. Doesn’t seem like too much of a big deal, right? One verse says ‘fruit tree’, the next just says ‘tree’. Move on. Yeah…right. You know what our sages are like. Here’s Rashi’s take on things:
“God initially instructed each tree to taste like the fruit it was ordained to produce (hence ‘Fruit tree producing fruit’). However, the earth didn’t obey this command, instead bringing forth simply ‘trees’ that ‘produced fruit’.”
Now here comes the knock out line…
“Therefore, when Adam and Eve were cursed for having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, G-d saw fit to curse the earth too, as it is written: ‘The soil is cursed’ (Genesis 3:17).” (Rashi to Genesis 1:11).
Well, that escalated quickly.
Swallow the scepticism for a moment. Let’s just assume that God intended for trees to be ‘edible’, but that the soil ‘disobeyed’ His command and produced trees as we know them. That’s already stretching the imagination. But to build from that to then say that the Original Sin was QED somehow the earth’s fault for ‘disobeying’ God in the first place seriously pushes the limits! What exactly are we getting at?
Here’s an added insight from Rabbi David HaLevi Segal, 16th century scholar whose claim to fame, other than publishing one of the greatest Halachic works ever produced (the ‘Turei Zahav’) is that he lived in Poznan before ‘The Poznan’ became a thing.
“There are many opinions as to what the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge actually was. My tradition is that it was an Etrog. The reason Adam and Eve were so tempted to eat it was because it – uniquely – was the only tree in the entire Garden of Eden whose bark tasted the same as its fruit. That is, it was the one tree that grew in accordance with God’s original wish. Eve was fascinated by this oneness, and craved to experience it. Had the earth not ‘disobeyed’ God’s will, all of the trees would’ve been like this, so there would’ve been nothing fascinatingly unique about the Tree of Knowledge, and Adam and Eve wouldn’t have been tempted to eat from it. Therefore, when God cursed Mankind, He also cursed the earth – for causing the problem in the first place.”
Whether or not we take these concepts literally, at the very least: we have a powerful metaphor to work with. Adam and Eve were drawn, as if magnetically, to a manifestation of unity in a world otherwise filled with division and diversity. Let’s develop this a little further. Is there perhaps a clue somewhere – anywhere – as to why the earth ‘disobeyed’ God in the first place?
I believe it is here:
“And G-d said ‘Let there be a firmament to divide the waters, and let it divide the lower waters from the atmospheric waters.” (Genesis 1:6-7)
So, on the first Monday ever, God separated between the ‘earthly’ waters and the ‘heavenly’ waters. Now stay with me. Every other day of creation concludes with the words ‘And God saw that it was good’. Every day that is, apart from Monday. Check it out, it’s right there in Genesis 1:8. Why?
Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (better known by the title of his major work, Kli Yakar), another 16th century Polish rabbinic heavyweight, explains:
“Unlike the other days of creation, the second day is missing the Divine stamp of approval, because it was the day on which division and dispute were created. And from this primordial division, all other dispute arose.”
Let’s trace this thought all the way back to get the concept as clear as possible:
On Day Two, God divides the waters into their distinct functions in the atmosphere and down on Earth. This division leads to the earth nourishing its plant life with ‘divided waters’, which in turn manifests itself in a division within the trees: tree and fruit grow as distinct, separate entities. And there, in the midst of all of this diversity, there is a single tree apparently unaffected by the divisiveness. And it is apparently an Etrog tree. And it also happens to be the only tree in the entire Garden that God does not want us to eat. Why?
Before we get to that, some of you may have noticed a slight problem in all of this. If you’re looking for the first source of division, you’ll be needing Day One, not Day Two!
“And God said ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light. And God saw that the light was good, and so God made a division between the light and the dark”! (Genesis 1: 4).
What on Earth (literally) is going on?! Was the notion of division and difference introduced when light and dark were separated, or when the oceans and atmosphere were separated?
The answer to this question contains a profound lesson into the secret of achieving unity in a fragmented world. Like I said, it really doesn’t matter whether or not you believe these things actually took place. What matters is that the metaphor contained therein is astonishingly powerful:
A division between two entities that are each made of the same material is not a real division. Or, to put that slightly differently:
The two entities are only as ‘divided’ as you want them to be.
Division between ‘light’ and ‘dark’ is one that is so obvious, we don’t really need the difference to be pointed out to us.
But the division between oceanic and atmospheric waters is far subtler. In essence, both are made of the same thing – water. Yet their location and function gives the illusion that they are irreconcilably different entities.
And so when Adam and Eve gazed at that Etrog, what they saw was tree and fruit made of the same stuff – both entities existing in perfect harmony in a world of disparity. Now, the last thing you want to do to such a creation is to sever that unity by picking the fruit! They exist as one – don’t eat it from it! Keep it as one! Why pick the fruit and, by eating it, declare it different and distinct to the tree left behind? Why divide that which was once perfectly united?
And into this mess steps the festival of Sukkot. We started with him, so let’s finish with him too. Here’s Rashi to Leviticus 2:13:
“The waters of the atmosphere and those of the oceans were given an occasion to reunite with each other: Every Sukkot the libation offering – usually wine – would be made from water. This would evaporate back up to the atmosphere.”
On Sukkot, we combine four diverse species – Lulav (palm brach), Etrog (citron), Hadass (myrtle) and Aravah (willow). Our sages teach that each of them represents a unique personality type. The Lulav, coming from a tree that produces edible fruit, represents a person who is wise but doesn’t put that wisdom to practical use. The Hadass, fragrant but inedible, represents a person who lacks wisdom but does as many good deeds as he can nonetheless. The Aravah, inedible and without fragrance, represents a person with no wisdom and no interest in performing good deeds. And finally – the non-coincidental focal point of the four: The Etrog, whose superior fragrance and unique taste lead it to represent a person of true righteousness.
The one overreaching proviso for all four species? If you’re missing any of them, even one, the whole set is invalid and effectively worthless. Even if the tasteless, bland Aravah is absent, the set loses its significance entirely.
And on Sukkot, we celebrate the Water Libation. The Jerusalem Talmud (Succah 5) records the eye-witness account of Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah, who recalls:
“In Jerusalem, we barely slept throughout the week of Sukkot. The celebrations in the Temple were so joyous and so lively, that a person couldn’t leave them for any length of time...and they would go on from dusk to dawn”
Why the all-night Temple rave? Because the Water Libation reminds us:
A division between two entities that are each made of the same material is not a real division. They are only ever divided as you want them to be.
And there, surrounded by thousands of people from all walks of life; some wise, some not, some righteous, others not, our ancestors celebrated the ultimate reality that humanity would be far better off for remembering:
Far more unites us than divides us. We too are all made of the same stuff, all made ‘in the image of God’. We have far more in common than we dare allow ourselves to admit.
This year, as we bring together the Lulav and Etrog, let’s take a big step towards uniting a fragmented world.