Judaism: If I Am Here, Waving My Lulav, Sitting in the Sukkah
The sayings of Hillel are often catchy and always complex. An example is found in the Talmud (Suk. 53a). Articulating his happiness at participating in the observances of Sukkot, he said, “If I am here, everyone is here”.
It can’t be a declaration of selfishness or egotism, suggesting that nobody else matters, since the same Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, who am I?” (Pir’kei Avot 1:14). Something to do with the whole community must have been on his mind, but what?
The key words are clearly “I” and “everyone” – but in what sense? Hillel’s words may have been the origin of the famous statement of the Kotzker Rebbe, “If I am I, then you are you – but if I am not I, then you are not you”. Enshrined in the word “I” is my distinctiveness, my uniqueness, my personality.
If I run away from what I am in search of a different background, a different way of life, I am no longer me. If I want to abdicate from the real facts, to escape my limitations, to say, as children sometimes say to their parents when they resent something they are told, “I wish I had a different mother and father”, “I wish I had a different family”. It is like a lulav saying, “I wish I were an etrog”, or an etrog saying, “I wish I were a lulav”. It is like a leopard wanting to change its spots.
Hillel may be telling us, “You can only be you: I can only be me.” Society is made up of people who have their own identity, their own place, their own role. They can make minor adjustments and improvements, but unless they show a basic degree of self-acceptance there can be no stability in society. If I and you are each ourselves and in our right place in the world, then I am I and you are you.
My late father was an auctioneer for a while and his auction catalogues bore the words, “The goods are sold with all faults if any”. That’s who we all are – individuals with all faults if any. If I am here, the real I, then you are here, the real you... and so is everyone.
Waving the Lulav
In an additional comment on a Talmudic passage, the Tosafot (Suk. 37b) gives it a messianic connotation. It sees the waving lulav as a symbol of the wind blowing through the plants and trees, quoting the words we know from the Shabbat evening service, “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing before the Lord when He comes to judge the earth” (Psalm 96:12).
In similar fashion, the Midrash asks why God instructed Israel to wave the lulav and says that when God took Israel out of Egypt (Psalm 114) “the mountains skipped like rams”; similarly, when the time comes for Him to bring redemption to all mankind, the mountains and hills will leap forward in their delight and all the trees of the forest will sing with joy.
We shake the lulav to show our yearning for the messianic age and to remind God of His promise. This is one of the reasons why Sukkot is called in rabbinical literature he-chag, the festival, because it not only reminds us of our history, when little ramshackle huts protected our ancestors from the buffeting of the elements, but it foreshadows our future, when all mankind will sit in unity in God’s universal sukkah and call upon the One Eternal God, and every part of the universe will acclaim the grandeur and power of its King.
Q. Can I fulfil the obligation of sitting in the sukkah by sitting in a sukkah that belongs to the synagogue?
A. In the Talmud (Suk. 27b), Rabbi Eliezer says that just as I must have my own lulav and the three accompanying species (the Torah says in Lev. 23:40 that the lulav etc. must be lachem, “for yourself” or “yours”), so the sukkah must be yours (l’cha: Deut. 16:13).
The sages do not agree with this view. They accept that the lulav must be yours on the first day of the festival and if you use someone else’s they must give it to you at that point, the sukkah need not be your personal property since the Torah states, “All citizens amongst Israel shall dwell in sukkot” (Lev. 23:42) – i.e. in theory all Israelites share a sukkah. Although they cannot fit in to the one sukkah at the same time, they can – again theoretically – enter one after the other. If this is so, what do we do with the word l’cha in relation to the sukkah? We use it to exclude a stolen sukkah. Maimonides follows this view (Hilchot Sukkah 5:25) as does the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 637:2).
Though not all authorities concur with this ruling, a sukkah held in partnership belongs to all the partners and hence the members of a synagogue can say that the shule sukkah belongs to them all. This argument is one of many good reasons to ensure that every Jew is a synagogue member.