Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Four Divine Species

The midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:9) offers a startling and puzzling commentary on the four species that we take on Sukkos (esrog, lulav, etc.). I'd like to suggest an interpretation that is inspired by, but significantly different from, the ideas of R. Zvi Dov Kanotopsky in his amazing book of holiday sermons, Rejoice In Your Festivals (p. 187ff.).

The midrash bases its comments on Lev. 23:40: "And you should take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of goodly trees (esrog), branches of palm trees (lulav), and boughs of thick trees (hadassim), and willows of the brook (aravos)." The midrash says:

"The fruit of goodly trees" (esrog) -- this is God, about whom it is written "With glory and majesty You are clothed" (Ps. 104:1).

Click here to read more"Branches of palm trees" (lulav) -- this is God, about whom it is written "The righteous will blossom like the palm tree" (Ps. 92:13).

"Boughs of thick trees" (hadassim) -- this is God, about whom it is written "He was standing among the myrtles" (Zech. 1:8).

"Willows of the brook" (aravos) -- this is God, about whom it is written "Extol Him who rides the clouds, whose name is the Lord" (Ps. 68:5).
It is difficult to understand how these four species of plants can all represent God. I'd like to suggest that rather than implying something about God, each of these four species represents a method of discovering God -- whether through formal proofs, arguments or simple open-eyed observation.
  1. The esrog is a beautiful fruit and the verse quoted above refers to the beauty or majesty of God. This refers to the Teleological (or Design) Argument, the idea of looking at the beauty and complexity of the world and seeing in it the implication that someone must have created it.

  2. The lulav is a palm branch and the associated verse teaches about the origins of righteous -- like a palm tree and everything else, they grow from a seed and blossom. This hints to the Cosmological Argument, in which you look at what currently exists and question what caused or created it. This series of questions eventually leads you to a First Cause or Creator, namely God.

  3. As R. Kanotopsky points out (p. 192), the verse associated with hadassim refers to God's punishing the wicked while protecting His hadassim, i.e. the righteous of His people, Israel. This refers to the Argument from a Miracle, i.e. history -- looking to the survival of the Jewish people throughout its long and turbulent exile and finding that God is the most plausible explanation for this historical phemonenon.

  4. R. Kanotopsky (ibid.) explains the verse associated with aravos as hinting to God's clouds of glory, i.e. His revelation and giving of the Torah. This refers to the Argument from Revelation. The immediate experience of God's presence and the historical memory of that event serves many as the greatest argument for God's existence.

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