Lulav: Spine of Israel

We don’t really make as much use of the four species during Succot as we could. The Gemara (Succa 41b) relates that in ancient times, the custom of the men of Yerushalayim was to take their lulavim everywhere, and carry it while they went about their daily business. They would take it to shul, hold it during Sh’ma, carry it while visiting the sick and comforting the bereaved, etc. But why ? What would be the purpose of taking a lulav to visit the sick?
The only time they would relinquish their lulavim more than temporarily would be when they entered the House of Study; then, they would give it to their son or some other person. As Rashi explains, we are afraid that since he is engrossed in his learning, he will accidentally drop the lulav. But should we not be afraid that the same thing might happen while he walks in the street, or goes to visit the sick ? Why must he give his lulav to another person in the Bet Midrash ?
And the Gemara continues with a story that, as the persecution of Rome intensified after the destruction of the Bet HaMikdash, four great Tannaim, Rabban Gamliel, R. Yehoshua, R. Eleazar ben Azaria and R. Akiva all traveled in a ship on Succot – and only Rabban Gamlielhad a lulav, and one that cost him 1000 zuz, and they each took turns holding that lulav. But why is this important – why would we think they would not have a lulav on Succot ?
No doubt the people of Yerushalayim were on a high level, but there is more to their persistence with the lulav than their love of the mitzva. Rav Soloveitchik explained that the lulav is a symbol of the nitzchiyut – the eternity – of the Jewish people – our indestructibility. The lulav resembles the spine of the human being – straight, durable and resilient. Therefore, in the Gemara’s tale, only Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi, carried a lulav with him – but each one held it, in order to strengthen each other, to lift each other’s spirits, and to ensure that they should lose heart as a result of the churban and the harsh decrees that followed.
Jews are stubborn – like the lulav – and that stubbornness, despite its occasional downside, also affords us the strength to persevere, even in the face of personal difficulties. So when they went to visit the sick or comfort the bereaved, they carried their lulavim with them. When a Jew needs to be strengthened, because of illness or grief, the men of Yerushalayim would carry their lulavim as a sign that all difficulties can be overcome – that just as we as a nation overcome our troubles, so too the individual can overcome his as well.
The men of Yerushalayim carried their lulavim everywhere – on the streets (where we encounter challenges everyday), during the recitation of the Sh’ma (as a sign of our unbreakable faith in G-d), during davening (where we need strength and courage to resist distractions and worse), and to visit the demoralized. The lulav invigorates us – and is only unnecessary in one venue – the House of Study. There, a Jew is revived by the living Torah – there a Jew does not need any props – even holy props. The Torah itself strengthens us – Chazak Chazak v’nitchazek.
On Shmini Atzeret, we put away our lulavim – because the accumulation of Torah and mitzvot, tefila and good deeds for the last seven weeks gives us the power to sustain ourselves – in the face of rabid and maniacal enemies, and in the face of personal ordeals. On Shmini Atzeret, we stand alone – like the lulav– but with the Torah, and we comfort ourselves that our lives have improved over these Days of Awe, because we have grown closer to G-d, and closer to understanding what He asks of us.
And in so doing, we merit the true blessings of Yom Tov as the catalyst for spiritual growth, and return to our lives grateful for all the good G-d has done for us, and will do for us, in the present and the future.

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