Friday, December 21, 2012

Tanks ‘n Tractors

As the debate over gun control rages in response to Sandy Hook, here's an article I wrote some years back after the Jerusalem terrorist-tractor attack.  It addresses the mystical aspect of swords-into-ploughshares in light of the fast of the Tenth of Tevet.  (Two facts to ponder as you read: In America, there are more Gun Dealers than major supermarkets, and more gun sellers than Mac Donald's restaurants.)

The internet’s down!  And with it the phone.  Tannersville is quiet by night.  It’s a silence about the texture of a goose-down cushion.  Thick.  Soft.  Comfortable.  I want to sink in but find no rest.  Was it the movie “E-lollipop” that began with the protagonist asking a stranger on a park bench, “Does the noise in my head bother you?’?  I am thinking of things hard and loud.  And the noise in my head bothers me.

It could be yesterday that I saw the yellow Caterpillar tractor lurching across a Jerusalem street.  The footage was from a cell phone.  A silent movie.  I imagine the sounds.  The engine-belly, the fork on cars, the fork on flesh, the sound life makes leaving a body, and the wails of terror and grief.  Now, cross-legged on the couch in our summer rental, I gaze into the black beyond the window and review the scene.  My thoughts jump.  I think of the caterpillars we watched as children, seeing them lift-and-crunch from tail to fore as they jerk across a leaf.  And I wonder if, standing beside the white or yellow line painted along the tar of Rehov Yaffo, onlookers felt they’d missed a step as the tractor crunched and swung for death.

I can’t put them together.  The tractor and death.  From the wooden puzzles of my kindergarten years and on, I’ve been taught that tractors support life.  They churn soil and soften it to receive seeds.  They are the backdrop of bread steaming from an oven, of apples in a bowl.  My mind wrestles with a Caterpillar run amok in the Holy City.  I guess one must know how to use one…The people of Gush Katif did.  They tossed a desert into leafy greens.  They drove their tractors across austere sands and behold! – fields of cilantro and parsley fragranced the air…But the neat categories of childhood don’t hold up to the Big People world I live in.  Despite what those puzzles-painted-in-primary-colors would have me think, it was tractors that flung the Jews of Gush Katif, like rocks tossed aside, from the Land.  Bulldozers rendered their homes rubble in the name of life and peace.  And the very tanks manufactured to protect them were turned on those who best knew how to use their metal.

The internet’s down and the contradictions screech within me.  I think of a passage in Ezekiel that talks of iron and alludes to the tanks and tractors of both the world at large and of our inner landscapes.  Prior to the siege placed upon the First Temple, G-d told him, “Take an iron pan and place it upright as a wall of iron between you and the city…and it will be as a siege…a sign for the Jewish people.”[1]  Rashi tells us that the pan served as a metaphor.  It presented G-d’s message that “in this way Jerusalem will be besieged.”[2]  .  It called upon the people to repent.  “If not,” cried the pan, “the Holy City will be surrounded by a wall of iron slotted together of soldiers carrying swords and cloaked in shields.  Return.  For metal is upon you.  Prevent the wall of iron from breaking the walls of the City and of the Temple.”

Ezekiel and the people knew well the destructive power of iron.  They saw it grind the Temple into dust like the homes on the hills of the Gush.  G-d knows how that hurts.  Precisely because of its deathly edge, no iron tools were allowed to be used in the construction of the Temple.  As the Midrash comments on the gold, silver and copper we were asked to bring for the building of the sanctuary, “Iron was not mentioned here, neither in relation to the sanctuary nor the Temple, because it is analogous of the people of Edom, who destroyed the Temple.”[3]  G-d’s aversion was stressed most with regard to the altar, the primary vessel of the Temple,[4] for “the altar was created to lengthen the days of a person and iron was created to shorten the days of man.  One may not raise that which shortens over that which lengthens.  Even more so, the altar brings peace between the Jewish people and their Father in Heaven.  Therefore no cutting or damaging (could) be imposed upon it.”[5]

Each human alive can attest to the destructive power of its strength.  From the hills of Afghanistan to Columbian mercenaries, from pistols fired in gang warfare to Uzis to tanks to air force bombers, no patch of the planet where humans dwell has not heard the sounds of iron shortening life, or watched as its soil is reddened with blood cut loose.  And yet, the metal has a holy face.  The Land of Israel is one who’s “stones are made of iron.”[6]  The very stones that were crumbled to fragments are rich in iron ore.  And they too speak to us in parables.  They remind us that locked deep within our beings is an essential core so strong it can withstand exile.  It is the point of absolute beinghood within each of us that defies definition, which exists because it exists.  It holds us through war.  It supports us in the midst of our madness.  It is the fulcrum of confidence.  The springboard of our drives.  The elemental power of the soul.

We all have it.  The trick is to direct that iron core in the right direction.  One might well call it The Art of War – or for that matter the Art of Peace.  “She has an iron will.”  “He’s made of steel.”  Is it good or bad?  Is iron life or death?  Our sages say, “Any sage who is not tough as iron is not a sage.”[7]  G-d calls us a “stiff-necked nation.”  Bulls-eye!  We’re obstinate and tough.  But our “stiff-neckedness” is at core a chutzpa of holiness that has borne us through the hatred of nations from the ancient Hittites to the father of two from Tzur Baher in Eastern Jerusalem who drove a tractor for death.  Is steel good or bad?  Is iron life or death?  Depends.  The orientation is at my disposal.  The outcome really lies within my hands and heart.

The “art” of the matter is to catch the process at the outset.  The Holy City was besieged on the 10th of Tevet.  The walls were breached a half a year later on the 17th of Tamuz.  And the Temple was destroyed within a mere three weeks of that.  The remedy to prevent the demolition and devastation was to hear the message of the pan put forth before the siege.  If we’d listened and really gotten the prophecy of Ezekiel, we’d have converted the danger and death that hovered above us to light.  We could have activated the essential force of our souls, our steel will, and built a new world from the struggle.

I watched this battle within myself this past week.  I’ve been angry at a friend for a while now.  Despite my attempt to dialogue, the connection still felt rotten and full of the dark red stuff that clogs relationships in their down faze.  I could have reminded myself of Ezekiel’s pan.  I could have put a post-it-note “Tanks ‘n Tractors!” on my fridge door.  But no!  I festered in the mess.  Then I whipped out my sword.  And promptly cut an email to “Friend” that had zilch to do with what was really going on.  I was all bulldozer on Rehov Yaffo, tank on an enemy turf.  What I needed to do was go back to the beginning and catch the anger, activate my Essential Iron Core and be big enough to say, “I’m so sad you’re not in my life anymore.  I miss you.  Can we reconnect?”

The hurt was the desire to connect with someone else.  It almost always is.  That, or the real inner longing to bond with G-d.  If I can find that point then I can build the rubble into a Temple.  It’s not just patching together the old, not just “making do” with what’s left and building a shack of debris.  To heal you have to go back to the beginning.  To halt the destruction of the ninth of Av, you have to go back to the tenth of Tevet, back even to Ezekiel’s pan.  If you can get back there, you can change the direction of the future.  At ground zero, I can touch my metal, activate my inner essence and find the strength to say, “I’m hurting”, or “Can you help me with this?”, or “I don’t know.”  I catch the core of who I am before a hurt compels me to unsheathe my sword.  And from there I build the Third Temple.

There’s no building a world without steel.  King Solomon himself set aside vast amounts of iron, all in anticipation of building the Third Temple.  The call of the hour is to ensure that the steel be that of healing and building rather than a blade which shortens human life.  You start with an iron pan on a hilltop outside of Jerusalem.  If ignored, the metal dish forebears the sound of sword upon sword, battle calls, the roll of tanks and cries that cut into the heart and the heart of heaven.  Jerusalem is ravished.  Caterpillars roll across the road, blades hungry for blood.  Bulldozers rip homes and shuls from the ground, and military brass dump families into hotel rooms for the night, or month – or decade.  But if the people hear the song of the prophet and the sound of the pan resonating across the valleys, then the iron builds.  We grow bold and strong.  We are put in touch with why we are here.  And we realize that we have enough steel within ourselves to build a brave new world. 

This article was originally published on

[1] Ezekial 4, 3
[2] Rashi’s explanation of the verse.
[3] Terumah 25, 3
[4] See Rambam’s opening discussion on the laws of the Bait HaMikdash
[5] Yitro 20,22 and the commentary of Rashi, from the Mechilta.
[6] Ekev 8, 9
[7] Ta’anit 4, 1

Monday, December 17, 2012

I Found the Panorama Button!

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

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Thursday, December 13, 2012

How the Light Gets In

Leonard Cohen's remarkable song seems very much in sync with the Festival of Lights.

The birds they sang at the break of day, "Start again", I heard them say, Don't dwell on what has passed away, Or what is yet to be. Ah, the wars they will be fought again, The holy dove, she will be caught again, Bought and sold and bought again, The dove is never free. Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in. We asked for signs, the signs were sent, The birth betrayed, the marriage spent, Yeah, the widowhood of every government, Signs for all to see. I can't run no more with that lawless crowd, While the killers in high places say their prayers out loud, But they've summoned, they've summoned up a thundercloud, And they're going to hear from me. Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in. You can add up the parts, you won't have the sum, You can strike up the march, there is no drum, Every heart, every heart to love will come, But like a refugee. Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in. Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack, a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in. That's how the light gets in, That's how the light gets in.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Is Israel an Apartheid State?

As someone who witnessed the horrors of Apartheid, I feel compelled to speak up.  Come hear what I have to say, and join in the conversation.  I will be addressing the rally tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday 20th November 2012) at 1pm.
Looking look forward to seeing you there,




I have been asked to change the focus of my address and speak on behalf of Mira Scharf, Chabad representative to New Dehli, India, one of three victims in the attack on Kiriat Malachi.  Aharon Smagda and Yitzchak Amselam were also killed by the rockets.  Remarkably, their death coincided with the anniversary of the murder of Rivky and Gabi Holtzberg hy"d in Mumbai in 2008.

Mira Scharf Hy"d

Mira's Funeral

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Teleconference this evening in response to murders in Israel

The apartment building hit in today's attack

Today is the anniversary of the murder of Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg hy"d.

Today Mira Sharf, a young woman of 30 and mother of three children who conducted Jewish outreach in India, was also murdered.  She was not the only one.  Aharon Smagda and Yitzchak Amselam were also murdered.  And Mira's husband and child are in critical condition.

Today is the New Moon of the Hebrew month of Kislev.  It is known as the month of light.

Join me on a teleconference call in response to today's events and in honor of the New Moon.  Make it an affirmation of life.  Let's commit to conquer the darkness with light.
The Sharf family
We will speak about having how to sustain faith in face of suffering and our relationship with the Land of Israel.

You will also have a chance to share your thoughts.

Please join me in honor of Mira, Aharon and Yitzchak.

Let's connect, support and inspire each other.

You can sign up for the call here.

There are only 100 spots available.  I hope you'll be able to join me.
Shimona Tzukernik
The Kabbalah Coach

Monday, November 12, 2012

Are you a Fallen Heiress?

My friend Sandy is the founder and sole member of The Fallen Heiress Club.  The child of a wealthy business man and a mother who was a movie star – or at least looked like one – she grew up in silence and boarding homes with the richest kids in the neighborhood.  Today, she wears the remnants of their wealth around her neck in the form of antique pearls.  They are apricot colored and in places chipped.  Her other necklace is strung with aquamarine fish which move on her neck as if floating in sleep. 
After her folks died within weeks of each other, the lawyer who handled their estate took the money and left her to her bereavement and a sixties-era search for meaning.  At the time she drove a red Porsche, arrived in New York wearing a floor length yellow sari and couldn't care less about what she no longer had.  She feels differently today.
I once asked Sandy if I could join her club.
"No," she said emphatically.  "You were never rich enough, and you're not poor enough now."
She's right.
I've thought of myself as having plenty, and I've experienced myself as being without.  But truth be told neither of those two perceptions had much to do with the external reality of my life.  Emotions, not facts, generally drive our responses to money; and our assessment of our personal financial situation often reveals little of what the facts on the ground are.  Instead they reveal much about our inner state and way of relating to the world.  Sandy’s hit it on the nail.  I might feel as if I fit the criteria to join her club but the facts belie the feeling because, as with most folks, my relationship with money is about more than what it appears to be on the surface.
A while ago my friend Ru sent me a great excerpt from, “Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure” by Paul Auster.  He captures the notion that money is always more than it appears:

My father was tight; my mother was extravagant.  She spent; he didn’t.  The memory of poverty had not loosened its hold on his spirit, and even though his circumstances had changed, he could never quite bring himself to believe it.  She, on the other hand, took great pleasure in those altered circumstances.  She enjoyed the rituals of consumerism, and like so many Americans before her and since, she cultivated shopping as a means of self-expression, at times raising it to the level of an art form.  To enter a store was to engage in an alchemical process that imbued the cash register with magical, transformative properties.  Inexpressible desires, intangible needs, and unarticulated longings all passed through the money box and came out as real things, palpable objects you could hold in your hand.  My mother never tired of re-enacting this miracle, and the bills that resulted became a bone of contention between her and my father.  She felt that we could afford them; he didn’t.  Two styles, two worldviews, two moral philosophies were in eternal conflict with each other, and in the end it broke their marriage apart…For the life of me I could never understand how such a relatively unimportant issue could cause so much trouble between them.  Money, of course, is never just money. It’s always something else, and it’s always something more, and it always has the last word.
This association between money and feelings is captured in an ancient teaching.  “Who is wealthy?” the sages ask.  And answer, “One who is happy with his portion.”  I can hear the groan – not that line again!  But it’s a cliché because it’s true.  Despite our delusions, having more doesn’t equal being more content.  It’s learning to live life on G-d’s terms which brings both inner peace and happiness.  And once we’ve got that down, we feel wealthy; we experience a real sense of abundance.  Wealth happens on the inside.

This truth is communicated in an abundantly clear way in a commentary on the Biblical story of the Golden Calf.  It’s the archetypical symbol of making an idol (out) of gold.  If only for a moment, the Jews in the desert bought in to the “fact” that Money is Love – or Meaning, or Happiness, or Whatever.  The delusion constituted a prime failure of being.  So big was the fall that it took something cosmic on our part to heal.  As part of the restoration, the People of Israel had to build a sanctuary; an Embassy for the Divine one might call it.  The project was funded by the people themselves.  Twice they donated a half coin of the standard currency towards its construction (which came to ten ge’ira each time) and once they gave a varying gift of any amount they chose.
The reasoning behind this is profound.  The people were spiritually, mentally and emotionally engaged in the whole process.  They also gathered around the idol as they danced and laughed; ate and drank in celebration.  And each one (excluding the women and Levites) gave of their money to its construction.  In other words, they served the calf with their souls, their bodies and their wealth.  The donation of the two coins and the personally designated gift offering were each an act of repair targeting these three dimensions which needed fixing.
Start with the spiritual component.  Your soul has ten innate abilities – three ways of thinking and seven emotional capacities.  That goes for every one of us whether intelligent or dull, loving or strict.  It makes no difference at a soul level if you’ve got a genius IQ or can’t wrap your head around numbers; or whether you’re a visionary dreamer or a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy.  Your soul comes from G-d.  And so does your neighbor’s.  At our core, we’re the same.  As such, to repair the damage done by serving the Calf with their souls, each person had to give ten ge’ira corresponding to the universal ten powers of every human being’s soul.  A uniform amount for the entire nation.
Their service of the idol was physical too.  The people got up and laughed and danced and celebrated.  Regarding our bodies, the sages of the Talmud teach that, “There are three partners in a person – the Holy Blessed One, the father and the mother.”  As mentioned, G-d gives us the ten soul powers.  In addition to that, each parent contributes five physical components: the white of the child’s bones, sinews and nails for example from the father; and the red of the flesh, blood and the black of the eye from the mother.  Every person’s body is formed in the same way.  Each human body, athletic or clumsy, strong or weak, has uniformity to it whether you’re male or female; a newborn or aging; a triathlete or confined to a wheelchair.  Thus just as with the atonement at a spiritual level, so in this case the atonement was the same for everyone, ten ge’ira corresponding to the ten building block we each inherit from our parents.
However when it came to rectifying worshiping the Calf with their wealth, the course of action changed.  “Donate whatever you’d like,” they were told.  Why not a third half shekel?  Because this time they were fixing up having served the idol with their wealth, and wealth is a subjective reality!  It would be meaningless to say, “Let the rich give more and the poor less.”  Who’s to say whether someone’s rich or poor?  By definition that’s something which is determined on the inside.  And so G-d invited the people to give whatever they desired – in accordance with their subjective experience of their own financial status.
On the one hand, Sandy’s right.  When it comes to the facts I was never rich enough and thank G-d never that poor.  At another, doesn’t what we’re saying mean that membership in Sandy’s club is open to all of us?  If you ever simply felt like a million bucks and then plunged into despair about how lacking you are then it’s my guess that you qualify.  If in your own head you’re Down-and-Out; a Fallen Heiress; a Nouveau Riche; a Millionaire, then at the level we’re talking of you probably are.
The remarkable thing about which club you belong to is that the one you belong to in your head can have a whole lot to do with the one you connect with in the physical world.  But that’s another topic altogether.

Join us for "Business, Blessing and Balance," a 3-part teleseminar designed to reawaken your purpose and passion in life and at work.  With Shimona Tzukernik and Naomi Shapiro Salberg.  Register here.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Uncovering Your True Self: Personality Types and the Four Species

Simplicity.  We all say we crave it.  But do we respect it?

Although we might profess to value the proletariat, to celebrate simplicity, to refrain from cultural and intellectual elitism, I’d bet few of us walk that talk.  How many people do you know who’ve named their kid after the local postman, or delivery man, or maid who cleans the night shift?  Forget about actually naming after someone of limited income, status, emotional sensitivity, intellectual prowess or fame!  How many of us give the “simple” folk in our lives the time of day?!  A warm good morning.  A sincere, “How are you?”  We’re in strong need of a remedy for our “attachment-to-fame disorder.” 

He wasn’t the first of the Rebbeim to hold “simple” folk in such high esteem.  The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidut, is renowned for his appreciation of and love for the ordinary Jew.  Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson writes in his memoirs, ““It was this love for the common man that was, and remained, the real basis of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.  He did not seek for high scholarship amongst Jews.  He valued more the heart.  The Jew who could read his prayers in Hebrew, even if he did not know the translation, the mere fact of his sincere utterance of these holy words in Hebrew, was a source of satisfaction to the Almighty in heaven, the Baal Shem declared.”[1]

The seventh day of the holiday of Sukkot provides much food for thought on the supreme value of “simplicity.”  We’re prompted to think about the worth of the naïve and guileless among us.  Hoshana Rabba, as it’s called, encourages us to let go of our attachment to all that is slick and sophisticated, to look beyond the “talented, special” ones among us and to instead pay attention to the straightforward, possibly naïve, yes…simple folk.  And it does this all through a practice involving willow branches.

In Temple times, the people would take willow branches from a place below Jerusalem called Motza.  Throughout the holiday of Sukkot, they placed them at the sides of the altar so that their tops bent over it.  Then they would sound the shofar.  They did this once every day of Sukkot and seven times on Hoshana Rabba.

Today in memory of this mitzvah, we circle the bimah in shul as was done in days gone by around the altar in the Temple.  And on Hoshana Rabba, we take five willow leaves, bind them together, say a special prayer and beat the bundle on the ground.

There’s no blessing for the latter, no fanfare.  Seemingly the act does not have sufficient “value” for us to make a blessing.  We simply take the lowly willow, beat it, and toss it on to the ark.

The willow certainly has a bad rap.  The Midrash[2] correlates the four species of Sukkot with four types of Jews.  The Etrog which has flavor and fragrance corresponds to those Jews who have both Torah and good deeds.  The palm fronds have taste but no fragrance just like those Jews who have Torah but not good deeds.  The myrtles by contrast have fragrance but no taste.  They correspond to those Jews who have good deeds but lack Torah.  And “this willow has neither taste nor fragrance…(like those) who have neither Torah nor good deeds.”

You really don’t want to be a willow person!  Or do you?  Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson states that the willow is “indicative of simple people whose fulfillment of the commandments is with simple faith.”[3]

This comment brings out a profound depth of the Midrash and explains the inner content of the willow.  Superficially the Midrash seems to be implying that only the Etrog has both the advantage of Torah knowledge and good deeds.  The three other species it would seem are lacking one or both of
these.  The Rebbe clarifies and qualifies this understanding.  He is of the opinion that “all Jews are equal” when it comes to both learning and action.  All four categories of Jews alluded to in the four species fulfill both Torah and Mitzvot.

His reading of the Midrash makes a lot of sense.  Think about it just a little.  The lulav-Jew is immersed in study.  But as our sages say, true learning brings one to action.  So if the said Jew is learning in the way study is meant to happen, he or she is also fulfilling the actual commandments.  Similarly with regard to the myrtle-Jew.  This is the person who’s doing good deeds.  That by necessity implies knowledge!  You have to know what Torah requires in order to fulfill its requirements.  By the same token, the willow-Jew does study and does act.  This person is part of the same bundle of folks who are like citrons, palms and myrtles.  The willow persona is one of a totality of individuals whose lives are bound up with the Torah and its commandments.  The identifying feature of this person, says the previous Rebbe, is that all they do is permeated with simple faith.

It’s a beautiful reading of our people and the Midrash.  But it leaves us with a question: If they’re all endowed with both qualities, why then make distinctions and overtly imply that there’s a definite continuum from the “have-alls” to the “have-nots”!?

The inner meaning of the Midrash though is that whilst we are all equal when it comes to our connection to the Torah and our abundance of good deeds, there is a difference in the manner and quality of the way in which we both study the Torah and enact the commandments.

We access Torah through intellectual pursuit.[4]  So according Rabbi Schneerson’s interpretation when the Midrash refers to someone as having “Torah” it implies someone who has superior intellect.  Good deeds on the other hand emphasize the advantage of the emotional attributes which drive our actions.  So having “Mitzvot” in the language of the Midrash is indicative of a person with emotional intelligence.

This throws new light on the difference between the four species.  They are each connected to both Torah and good deeds.  It’s just that they do it differently!  The etrog folk have both high IQ’s and profound emotional intelligence.  Contemporary culture might call them “Renaissance Men.”  In Torah terminology, they would be called “Adam” – a term reserved for those who have mastered both mind and heart.  The lulav personas are the Harvard grads.  They’re the Torah scholars who soar on the wings of reason and intellectual exploration.  Myrtle people are highly skilled at identifying and managing both their own and others’ emotions.  They’re likely to be in the helping professions, empathize with others and know how to make them comfortable.  They’re skilled at applying the Torah to daily life.  Last but not least are the willow members of society.  These are the “simple” folk[5] who form the bedrock of society – good, honest, sincere people whom we might be dismissive of but whom we feel awfully comfortable being around!  These are Jews whose fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot lacks both the advantage of intellect and emotion.  Their access to study and fulfillment of mitzvot is permeated with a simple and pure faith.

Through looking at the four species in this light, it becomes clear that there’s a special aspect to the willow that surpasses the other species.  The tree gives no fruit and the leaves give off no fragrance.  Yet it is precisely in that “blandness” of being that we recognize the presence of something beyond.  The willow’s minimalism is indicative of the inner point of the Jewish soul which is indivisible and thus empty of discernable distinctive qualities.  We all have this point within us but it is most felt in the “simple” unlettered and emotionally unadorned individuals.  The Baal Shem Tov states that the “simplicity” of the common people is synonymous with the essential simplicity and unity of G-d Himself.  It is precisely in the unaffected and possibly naïve individuals that G-d’s presence is to be felt most.[6]


This special quality of the “willow” folk is reflected in the physical qualities of the willow itself.  The mitzvah to “take for (ourselves)” the four species is comprised precisely of these four because each encapsulates the theme of unity and oneness.

The etrog is an evergreen tree and the fruit “lives on the tree from year to year.”  Not only does it not shrivel, wilt or die with the change of seasons – it actually grows.  In this way, all four seasons of the year are united through the individual fruit which remains on the tree throughout the year.  The lulav frond has many leaflets that come together in one tip.  Myrtle leaves surround the stem in groups of three, all of which meet at one point.  And willows are called achvana, a “brotherhood,” because they grow together in groups, or be’achva.

The world we live in is characterized by the very opposite of unity.  In fact, the Hebrew word for “world” is olam, and is etymologically related to the word he’elem which means “concealment.”  As such the world manifests division and plurality.  If anything on this physical plane does in fact express something of unity then it’s an indication something of the original, supernal Unity that is the source of everything is shining through that object.  In other words, the “ego” of the object is less manifest and its source is more revealed.

This concept is evident in the four species.  Each of them displays unity albeit in different ways.  As such one doesn’t experience their natural “ego identity” which exists simply by virtue of being of this world.  Rather, one is touched by their nullification to their source.  This existential subordination brings about a revealed unity even on the physical plane.

Yet even within the four species themselves there exists a difference in the nature of that unity.  When it comes to the etrog, lulav and myrtle one notices that the unity we’re talking of exists within each plant at an individual level.  The leaves of this particular palm or myrtle and this particular etrog display something of oneness.  But that unity is not connected to other plants of the same species.

Conversely willows grow in groups, in “brotherhood” with one another.  The fact that in this physical world willows grow in unison, expressing unity, is because they are subordinate to their source more so than the other three species.  It is precisely the willow which surrenders its “ego” – or sense of being an independent existence outside of G-d – that reveals the one and simple supernal root of reality within the concealment of creation.  That’s why even its name reflects unity.

The willow’s unusual display of unity also says much about the unique qualities of simple faith.

At a purely physical level, although the etrog, palm and myrtle are in actuality chosen because of their manifestation of unity, one could make a mistake.  Their respective flavors and fragrances draw attention to themselves.  As such they conceal the simplicity and unity that underlie them even though that simplicity is even more transcendent in its root than the quality that draws our attention.  One might mistakenly think they’ve been selected for the mitzvah not because of their unity but because of their benefits.

The willow by contrast has nothing special about it at all.  And being that there’s nothing to draw our attention, nothing to mask its clear-cut identity, the oneness of the willow radiates outwards.  There’s simply no way to make a mistake as to why it’s included in the group.  The only reason it could be there is because of this notion of oneness.

The same thing applies to us as individuals.  Those of us who are “rich” in intellect and emotion face a challenge.  Our gifts inevitably conceal our simple faith.  We lose access to the simplicity and innocence that exists within us and are instead swept up by our abilities, seduced by our gifts.  We lose access to the very essence of who we are.

It is precisely in the “simple folk” who are bereft of intelligence and “specialness” that “essential supernal unity and simplicity” shines.


Given all the above, we can now understand the greatness of Hoshana Rabbah particularly as it was practiced in the Temple and as it is practiced today.

The willows of Hoshana Rabbah are of an even higher level than those of the four species.  The latter are bound together with three other plants each of which reveals something of G-d singular Oneness and simplicity but each of which at the same time is remarkable for something distinctive.  As a result, the willows associated with the group is somewhat compromised.  It’s simplicity is not entirely pure because by association it is connected with other distinctive attributes.

The willows the Jews placed around the altar in the temple however was entirely plain.  It was not bound with anything.  No other species lent it “importance” and it had no notable features of its own.  As such they served as visual, physical analogies of pure and unadulterated simplicity.[7]

The practice of placing the long willow stems around the altar is not explicitly stated in the Bible.  It is a law that has been passed down to us from Moses as he received it from G-d at Mount Sinai.[8]  These kinds of commandments are connected to profound levels within the soul.  There are dimensions within us that are connected to G-d through overt instructions.  They are fed by all the deeds laid out in the Bible and their corresponding commentaries.  Beyond these dimensions, there is a point within us where our essence touches that of G-d.  It is a place where we are so connected that we don’t need to be overtly commanded to do something in the Written Law.  This point manifests its bond with G-d through the commandments that were received by Moses at Mount Sinai and passed down to us across the generations.  It is a point of simplicity within the soul itself.

Today’s practice of the willow touches even one step deeper.  We take five willows which correspond to the five dimensions of severity.  Holding them we say a prayer, bang them on the ground and then throw them over the ark in shul, or the lintel if we’re at home.[9]  It is a custom that was instituted by the prophets.  So it’s neither a law explicitly stated in the Bible nor one received from Moses.  At the surface it’s “just a custom” – of minimal significance.  However in actuality Jewish custom is rooted in the very essence of our souls and collective consciousness.

Certain practices were revealed to us by the prophets.  But they didn’t come at the people in a heavy-handed way.  They simply took on to act in a particular way and the people followed of their own accord.  In this sense, Jewish custom reflects the Jew’s ability to intuitively sense the cosmic means of connection to G-d that are available.  It is for this reason that our sages tell us that “Jewish custom is Torah.”  The overt meaning is that we cannot dismiss these practices because they take on the status of actual law.  The deeper reading is that as a people we have the power to “create” Torah through collectively intuiting the patterns of conduct that bind us with G-d.

Thus the custom of the willows of Hoshana Rabbah as we practice it today reveals the very root and essence of our soul.  The willow, devoid of flavor, devoid of fragrance, reflects that point of undifferentiated unity and simplicity within each of us.  When we access this place within us, the lowly willow suddenly becomes the most radiant of all the plants of Sukkot.  At that moment, we can forgive ourselves for all we’re not and celebrate ourselves for the untouchable and indescribable essence of who we are.  And then we’re able to look at others differently too.  We are able to see the wonder of a water-carrier.

The “Labels”
The Saint
The Egoist
The Sage
The Intellectual
The Intuitive
The Drama Queen
The Mute
The Oracle
Body Part
Parallel in the Tree of Life
Sense fed by the plant
Taste and Smell
Neither taste nor smell
Advantages according to overt meaning of Midrash
Learns Torah and does good deeds
Learns Torah
Does good deeds
Has neither Torah nor good deeds
A deeper reading of the Midrash
Has both the advantages of Torah and good deeds
Learning brings to action.  Thus although this Jew focuses on learning, that in and of itself implies doing
Performs the required deeds thus must have knowledge of the what and how of Torah
Included in the same prestigious group of individuals who are imbued with both Torah and good deeds and by extension has both as well
Personality types and
strengths of the individuals
Highly intelligent and emotionally gifted
Excels in intellectual arenas
High in emotional intelligence
Imbued with guileless, pure and simple faith.  “Blandness” touches one’s essence
Physical qualities of the Species that reflect Oneness
Lives on the tree from year to year.  All four seasons of the year are thereby united
All leaves come to one unified point
All the groups of three leaves come to one point at the stem
Are called achvana, “fraternal,”  because they grow beachva, ”together”
The Up and Downside of Each Type (Inverted for the Willow)
Essence point of the soul is concealed by the sparkling mind and personality
Essence point of the soul is concealed by the gift of intelligence
Essence point of the soul is concealed by gift of emotional intelligence
No revealed gift and therefore the essential, unified and “simple” point of the soul is manifest
G-d said, “Bind them all together and they will atone for each other.”

This article was originally published on

[1] Rabbi Y.Y. Schneerson, Memoirs Vol 1
[2] Vayikra Rabbah, 30:12
[3] Yom Tov shel Rosh Hashana 5710
[4] Each of us receives the Torah as an inheritance.  Our wanting the Torah, having a tradition of studying it in our nuclear family and the like have nothing to do with the fact that it belongs to you by virtue of your birth.  The Torah belongs no more and no less to anyone one of our people (which may explain why we get in to such heated arguments over its meaning at times and each feel we have the correct reading of an issue at hand.)  Nonetheless, absorbing the Torah into our own consciousness requires mental exertion.
[5] Anashim peshutim in Hebrew.
[6] It is interesting to note that the spheres of  Netzach, “Ambition,” and Hod, “Humility,” are called “willow leaves.”  This is because they have no unique flavor but are rather extensions of the higher soul powers of love and awe.  Nonetheless, just as the willow has a uniquely superior advantage over the other three species, they are rooted in an even higher source both love and fear.  (See Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim 27:4)
[7] In this light, it is interesting to note that for the four species one needs at least three moist leaves to fulfill the mitzvah.  In fact we take three stalks each of which must have leaves that meet in twos at the stem.  The minimum requirement for the Temple practice of the willow was one stem with one leaf.
[8] Halacha le’Moshe miSinai
[9] Some people throw them onto the roof of the Sukka at home.