It’s curious that Jewish religious artifacts of each of the holidays are very raw and elemental. We eat the “lechem oni,” the most basic of bread stuffs, on Pesach – matza. We take small greenery and spread them on the bimah for Shavuot, signifying the desert’s potential to blossom from the tree of life and water of life, of Torah. We take a rudimentary horn from an animal for Rosh Hashana to blow from our deepest existence to cry out to the universe. On Yom Kippur, we purposefully bring ourselves lowly without eat or drink; abstaining from senses of luxury. On Sukkot, we take twigs and branches and live in the flimsiest structures so that even the roof cannot be completed or sealed against inclement weather. And then we have the etrog – the rarest, most sublime and exquisite full fruit and fragrance. Nowhere else is hidoor, the dearest one can obtain or purchase commanded. It is not sure that the high priest or the king will obtain the choicest of all the etrogim in the land. Some Rabbi’s hold the legend that the etrog was the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why are these things – the lulav and etrog- all named as the bundle of the lulav and not the bundle of the etrog, since the etrog is the maturation of the greatest produce? That’s why the lulav is in the right hand and the etrog is joined to the lulav on the left hand. The left hand signifies “tiferet,” beauty. The pitom is very fragile and needs the protection of the basics of existence to hold its exquisite poise in the world. We all know that beauty wanes. Beauty flowers from trust and security. And so, the pitom when secure, is then turned upside right. It’s turned upside right willing to be exposed, so is the human form that allows the soul to present itself in its delicacy when embraced by the Almighty.
There are two main ideas inside the word ‘etrog.’ One recombination of the letters spell out “et garo” – G-d’s challenge. G-d always challenges us to imagine full fruition, even when we live within the world of the scant. Even in the desert, we imagine the holy land and its fullness, a land flowing with milk and honey. Even as slaves, we pretended about the life of quails and suffice, and imagine the satiation of our own spiritual world! Even on the holy Mount Sinai within the mist, we imagine the impact of seeing the world transformed by Israelites doing G-d’s mitzvot and bringing G-d’s Torah to water the earth in a world parched and thirsting for G-d’s closeness. As a kingdom of priests will hear, so with this now on Sukkot, we have this one plant now withering but expanding watered to the full. The citrus fruit amongst these leaves show how the world never stops expanding. So too in the word etrog are the words “ot ger” – a sign for the stranger or “ot gar” – a sign for you that you never dwell without the protection of the Almighty (sukkot shlomecha). At the place of the Almighty we do not sojourn; we are not a stranger to G-d, but belong firmly in G-d’s world of sanctity. The gematriah of etrog is 610, and with the three other minim of the lulav – the palm, myrtle, and willow – we have the taryag mitzvot, the 613 commandments, that every creation of G-d’s is used to complete the fulfillment of creation, even those that seem so easily discarded like the willow or the palm branch.
So we report that the objects and symbols employed on all the holidays are the poor man’s items. Only the slave, the homeless, or the prisoner in Auschwitz had trouble in gathering these religious tools. And if, G-d forbid, a Jew lived lower than the finest sukkah, the family would compel themselves to give over that to that mendicant Jew to at least have that shelter. All of us can afford these symbols except the etz pri hadat. There, the short-lived seven day holiday could have the priciest mitzvah that even money may not be able to buy. That is why we call Sukkot “ach sameach” – extreme joy, it is called “HAchag” – THE holiday – par excellence because it teaches that there is no limit to the imagination of the fullest embodiment of each of our holidays. Pesach becomes world redemption; Har Sinai becomes G-d’s world incarnate to all the four corners of the earth; Rosh Hashana becomes G-d’s Truah in response to our plaints to Him, G-d’s herald to creation of ultimate divine affirmation. On Yom Kippur, where the slave cannot eat or drink, or buy in stature or cleanliness, or even procreate, G-d elevated us to heavenly host and the one time slaves abide in the glimpse of the world to come, the heavenly court. Sukkot leads with the etrog that we don’t really wander we do not live aimlessly but return to the Garden of Eden. Imagine all of life’s continuous hidoor – G-d’s glory. On Yom Kippur, we are not commanded to stay awake all night, but we are on Shavuot because as G-d does not sleep nor slumber as He watches over Israel, neither do the angels sleep in their continuous praise of G-d.
Still we wonder why Sukkot is called “ach sameach”- overriding joy. The answer, I believe, is the deepest want in our religion we live! We survive yom hadin, the judgment day, days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the days of tremble. We have come to the other side. Judaism has a message: we are given a second chance. That is the hidden meaning of the word ‘Rosh Hashana.’ “Shana” means change, and “shana” comes from the word “sheini” – the number two. Rosh Hashana and changing, a promise of a new opportunity, we have fleeted that we are anew and G-d has given His teshuva, His answer; on Sukkot we celebrate for the world. Thanksgiving of life, leading to the dance of life with the Torah on Simchat Torah. This is how we have come out of the confinement and hopelessness of Egypt. This is the culmination of all our great holidays. The Rabbi’s tells us that the sukkah is a reenactment of the ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory, that led us to the promised land. Every Jew lives in that cloud on Sukkot. That is the holiness of the people of Israel.