The Willow's Lament
By Rabbi Juan Mejia
The humblest of the four species of the holiday of Sukkot is certainly the willow. The last species mentioned in the Torah (Leviticus 23.40), this lowly plant also does not find much favor among the rabbis of writing in the ancient commentaries who note that, without a pleasant smell or pleasing taste, the willow represents those Jews who have neither Torah or good deeds. For those who have ever owned a set of the four species, the willow is also a practical nightmare. While the etrog, thelulav and the myrtle keep their integrity and pleasant form throughout the festival (and even beyond), the willow starts to wither and lose its leaves almost immediately.
Some people place their willows in water, some others make a bed of foil and keep it in the fridge at all times, except when it joins its three flashier companions in prayer. Some others, in larger Jewish communities, simply buy several sets of willows during the holiday to replace this quickly wilting, unassuming, unfragrant, and foul tasting branch.
Like a squeaky wheel or a leaky faucet, the willow seems destined to be the annoying and problematic participant in an otherwise grand and beautiful festival full of lush greenery, of bright fruit and of joy; zeman simchateinu, "the time of our joy," as our rabbis call it. However, a lulav cannot be a lulav without willows. In order for the whole to work, this peripheral and unassuming element needs to be present.
Furthermore, as in an act of poetic justice, after seven days of celebration, the willow takes center stage in the festival of Hosha'nah Rabbah. The highlight of this day, which some sages compare in holiness to Yom Kippur, is the moment when willow branches are struck against the ground. One of the many symbolisms attached to this custom is that the willows represent the frailty of our lives.
This frailty is one of the main topics of the festival of Sukkot; from our dwelling in rickety booths under the stars, to the reading of Ecclesiastes who bluntly tells us that everything in life is passing and fleeting. However, the willows at Hosha'na Rabbah carry a glimmer of redemption in their frailty; in the same way that we might now be leafless and wilting, God will renew us in the future and we shall be fresh and green. Willows, as we know, are never far from the water that sustains them.
Throughout Jewish history many communities have been the models for erudition, wealth and power: the etrogim, lulavim and myrtles of our people. As well there have been many peripheral and unassuming communities growing at the edges, merely surviving; the countless willows of our nation. And yet, like in our reading of Hosha'nah Rabbah, sometimes these willows have miraculously sprouted green and strong and have shaded the entire Jewish people under their branches.
According to tradition, the Golden Age of Spain was started by four rabbis redeemed from slavery from Barbary pirates. The Ashkenazi community has its obscure origins in a small band of merchants living in the hinterlands of the Roman Empire. The American Jewish community started with the arrival of a handful of Sephardic refugees to New Amsterdam. Although the willows may be small and wilting, it is future potential which has given our people throughout time the strength and hope for redemption and renewal.
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