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The Aravah vs. the Rasha


The following is an excerpt from Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva by R’ Judah Mischel (241-242).

For a number of years, Rav Adin Steinsaltz taught a weekly Gemara class that was attended by a wide range of academics and members of the “cultural elite.” A wide range of people joined the learning, including many who were not particularly traditional or observant of mitzvot. At one point, a renowned professor approached Rav Steinsaltz and expressed interest in joining the study group. As his introduction, there was something the fellow wanted to share: “She’teida – Just so you know, I eat basar lavan, bacon, every Shabbat.”

Without so much as batting an eye, Rav Steinsaltz asked, “Every week?”

“Yes, Rabbi. Every Shabbat,” the professor replied.

Rav Steinsaltz began to probe, “Why davka every Shabbat?”

Said the newcomer, “Well, I have a busy week. Most days I barely have time to breathe, let alone spend time with family at home. But then the weekend comes, my wife and I sit down together over a cup of coffee, and I fix a great breakfast of my favorite – bacon and eggs.” Then he added, as if testing the Rav, “It’s the most special time of the week for me.”

Rav Steinsaltz smiled thoughtfully and responded, “The Torah instructs us to honor Shabbat as the most special time of the week, with the finest delicacies. It’s surely not my way, but nu nu… I suppose there is some merit in honoring Shabbat with bacon than not honoring Shabbat at all!” 

The Midrash says that the four species of the Lulav represent four different types of Jews:

  • The etrog has a good taste and a good fragrance. It represents a person with both wisdom (Torah learning) and good deeds.
  • The hadas (myrtle) has a good fragrance but is inedible. It represents a person who has good deeds but lacks wisdom.
  • The lulav (date palm) is edible but has no smell. This represents the person with wisdom, but without good deeds.
  • The aravah (willow) has neither taste nor smell. It represents a person with neither good deeds nor Torah learning.  

This imagery leads me to the following question: Why at the Pesach seder do we look to exclude the rasha, who seemingly is an Aravah-type person, yet on Sukkot, we include him?

Perhaps the following from Rav Soloveitchik can provide an explanation (from Chumash Mesoras HaRav, originally found in Derashot HaRav, p. 127-129). The Torah tells us that this Jew without Torah or good deeds is exhibiting only an external deficiency:

Beyond the surface, deep in the soul, the aravah has the same potential as the other species. The difference is that the other species had the opportunity to develop, to actualize themselves, to build on their strengths, while the aravah has not…It is interesting to note that while the other species take part in only one mitzvah, the lowly arava participates in two mitzvos on Sukkos: as part of the four species and also in the aravah ceremony in the Temple. The entire ritual on Hoshana Rabba revolves around the aravah. On Sukkos, all Jews must be brought into the Beit Hamikdash. Those represented by the etrogim, hadasim and lulavim were already there on Yom Kippur; only the aravah was missing. Sukkos is dedicated to the inclusion of the aravah into the Beit Hamikdash as well.

On Pesach, the rasha excludes himself, therefore we follow his lead. But when it comes to the aravah, while he might be a rasha and might not have any Torah or good deeds, at least he is not against joining together with the rest of klal yisrael and being bound together with them. Therefore, we welcome him with open arms on Sukkot.

Based on this, I think we can say that Sukkot teaches us to focus on and celebrate the positives. This aravah Jew may superficially be devoid of any Torah learning or religious observance, he may even be eating bacon that he cooked on Shabbat! But in the words of Rav Steinsaltz, “I suppose there is some merit in honoring Shabbat with bacon than not honoring Shabbat at all.” Rav Steinsaltz was able to see this aravah Jew before him and focus on the positive, focus on the fact that deep down, the aravah Jew wants to join in our service to G-d, even if outwardly he is currently lacking. That’s why we accept the aravah, to teach us that we need to focus on the positive.

Chag Sameach