The Secret of the Four Species and the Seven Ushpizin
The holiday of Sukkot is extraordinary. It is a holiday that contains more elements than can possibly be understood. In fact, there are many things that need to be clarified about Sukkot:
1. What is the secret of Sukkot?
2. What is the significance of the seven holy Ushpizin (“guests”) that we invite during Sukkot, rather than during Passover for example, or at any other time?
3. Why does the Torah command us to take these four species: Lulav (date palm leaf), etrog (citron) hadas (myrtle leaf), and aravah (willow leaf)?
4. Why do we celebrate Sukkot after the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
We shall attempt to explain all this as best possible. It is written in the Torah, “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day pri etz hadar [fruit of a goodly tree]” (Leviticus 23:40), and the Midrash adds: “Thus it is written, ‘You will make known to me the path of life, the fullness of joys in Your Presence, the delights that are in Your right hand for eternity’ [Psalms 16:11]” (Vayikra Rabba 30:2). What is the connection between these verses? The Satmar Rebbe raises the question in his work HaKountrass, namely what is the relationship between “And you shall take for yourselves…” and “You will make known to me…”? In my humble opinion, the key to a long life that we request of G-d occurs by the study of Torah and the performance of the mitzvot, for the Torah is an elixir of eternal life (Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan 34:10), as it is written: “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18). Consequently the Holy One, blessed be He, asks the Children of Israel to take the etrog, for the numerical value of the word etrog (including the kollel) is the same as the word torah, such that taking hold of the etrog is equivalent to taking hold of the Torah. Through the lulav, whose numerical value is that of chaim (“life”), we will draw upon ourselves a long life of Torah. This is indicated by the verse: “It is a tree of life [=lulav] to those who grasp it [=etrog].”
In fact the Midrash speaks of the verse, “U’lekachtem [And you shall take] for yourselves on the first day pri etz hadar.” This alludes to the Torah, for the Torah is also called lekach, as it is written: “For I have given you a good lekach [teaching], do not forsake My Torah” (Proverbs 4:2). This is what constitutes, “You will make known to me the path of life,” for by taking the etrog and the lulav, we merit walking on the path of life. It is also what constitutes “the fullness of joys,” for the Torah gives us joy in abundance, as well as “in Your Presence,” for by the Torah we will be constantly before G-d. Thus we arrive at “the delights that are in Your right hand for eternity,” for G-d will always be at our side so that we refrain from sinning or do anything other than obey His laws.
To go into more detail, we may add that the four species allude to various degrees of Torah study and the service of G-d. As we have already said, the etrog alludes to the Torah, meaning to the written Torah (the word etrog evokes tariag – 613, the number of mitzvot in the Torah). The lulav in itself alludes to the life of Torah, and the word hadas has the same numerical value as sod (“secret”), which alludes to the secrets of the Torah and the oral Torah. Above all, the aravah alludes to the sweetness and appeal of the Torah. We thus fully understand why it is during Sukkot that we invite the holy Ushpizin (Zohar III:103a). It is because during the three months of Elul and the holidays of Tishri, we evoke the merit of the Patriarchs, awakening Divine mercy upon ourselves through their merit. Hence afterwards we do not forgot them, and during Sukkot we invite them into the Sukkah in order to show them that they defended us for good reason, since we accomplish what we have promised to do: We incline in the shade of the Sukkah, we take the four species, and we connect ourselves to the Torah and its appeal.
This is why we invite only seven Ushpizin, a number that corresponds to the seven days preceding Yom Kippur (between the end of Rosh Hashanah and the start of Yom Kippur). It may also be that this contains an allusion, for the word Elul plus the nine days of Teshuvah (outside of Yom Kippur itself, which is not included) has the numerical value of 76. Furthermore, the initials of the seven shepherds – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David – also have the numerical value of 76. This is why we invite them to defend us and plead our case.
Concerning this subject, I saw in the Chiddushei HaRim of Ger that when a man enters the Sukkah, it is considered as if he has performed all the mitzvot of the Torah. This is quite understandable considering what we have said, for the Sukkah alludes to humility before G-d, and as we know the Torah is acquired through humility (Perkei Avoth 6:6; Taanith 7a). In addition, during Sukkot we take the four species – the etrog alluding to the 613 mitzvot, the lulav to life, the hadas to the secrets of the Torah, and the aravah to the Torah’s sweetness. Therefore during Sukkot it’s as if we took it upon ourselves to perform all the mitzvot of the Torah, for we take the etrog in our left hand, thus breaking the kelipah (impurity) found on the left, and we strengthen ourselves in the Torah and its 613 mitzvot.
The book HaKountrass by the Satmar Rebbe also asks why we take the lulav precisely during Sukkot, rather than during another holiday. Furthermore, if I may pose the question, why do we celebrate Sukkot precisely after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? In my humble opinion, it is because in our prayers we are primarily asking G-d to give us a long and good life, and that He forgives our sins. This is why He asks us, after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to perform a deed that favorably evokes our memory before Him. This deed involves the Sukkah, for as we have said the Sukkah alludes to humility before G-d. Someone who sins during the entire year is as if he became boastful before G-d. Now as we know, G-d cannot live with such a person (Sotah 5a), as it is written: “Every haughty heart is the abomination of the L-RD” (Proverbs 16:5) and also, “One with haughty eyes and an expansive heart, him I cannot bear” (Psalms 101:5). This is why words and thoughts are not enough; repentance also requires action – an act of submission. Thus when we build a Sukkah and enter it, we demonstrate our humility before G-d.
This is the meaning of the Sukkah: When we leave our homes and enter into the Sukkah, we show that we are leaving our pride and moving towards humility, which brings about the forgiveness of our sins. If we also want a long life, G-d commands us to connect to the lulav, whose numerical value is that of the word chaim (“life”) as well as to the other species, for even an ordinary person who is lacking integrity can repent. This is why we attach the lulav to the Sukkah, and also why we shake it, for in this way we also shake our accusers and rid ourselves of them until Hoshana Rabba, when we are definitively inscribed for a good life.
In reflecting upon this, we understand the difference between Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabba: On Yom Kippur we mortify ourselves by fasting, and on Hoshana Rabba we mortify ourselves by not sleeping (since we do not sleep on that night). Now as we know, food, drink, and sleep are great pleasures, ones that enable us to live. Thus when we distance ourselves from them, it’s as if we annulled the physical for the sake of the spiritual, an act that draws us toward eternal life.