The Beauty of the Arava

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


            On the seventh day of Sukkot, the celebrators in the Temple turned to the altar which they had been circling, and said as they were leaving: "Yofi lekha mizbeach!" – "Beauty unto you, altar!" (Sukka 45a). Ostensibly, this refers to the altar's special decoration in honor of Hoshana Rabba – long branches of arava (willow) were laid all around it. Yet this exclamation gives us pause. The arava is the simplest and most lacking in visual distinction of all the four species used on Sukkot. How did it, more than any of the others, come to be used, and noticed, for its aesthetic properties?


            In order to understand this, we may have to sharpen our focus as to the aesthetic quality featured on Sukkot. We of course are familiar with the idea of "hadar" (beauty) required in the etrog and the other minim. But, interestingly, the innate beauty of each element, in and of itself, is not sufficient. We require (lekhatchila) that there be an eged – the species need to be combined in a single unit. This the ultimate hadar – the majesty inherent in harmony, the way in which one element offsets another in order to create a pleasing, striking, overall effect.


            Now, the arava is the one branch which would never have been chosen for its inherent beauty. By itself it is not eye-catching in the least. Its entire significance is in its association with the others. Together with them, it creates the harmonious whole, to which it adds its own contribution. The simple green leaves create their aesthetic effect in combination with the lulav and hadasim.


            Likewise, when decorating the altar, the aim is not to adorn it with a beautiful object, but to create an overall pleasing appearance. The arava will not detract by drawing undue attention to itself, but will fulfill the function of setting off the altar with refreshing greenery.


            From this point of view, the lowly arava may be seen as embodying a central message of Sukkot. For this unassuming characteristic of the arava extends beyond the realm of outward appearance. Of all the species, the arava is the most water-dependent. It is called arvei nachal in the Torah, and is in constant need of water in order to grow. Its lack of self-sufficiency is evidenced, therefore, in its biology as well as in its appearance. It therefore stands to reason that the arava is a major presence when we beseech the Almighty for our own sustenance, and for rain in particular. 


            Turning to the word "arava" itself, we notice that the name's linguistic root means "mixture." Clearly, this tree has nothing to commend it on its own, and is constantly aware of its need to "mix" with others. All of its beauty and value come from its context. Halakhically, one of the things invalidating an arava is jagged edges on the leaves. The term for this blemish is "ke-masor" – like the teeth of a saw. The saw-edge goes against the essence of the arava, which is combination and unity, not division.


            In fact, there is a discussion among later authorities whether the arava has any clear identity at all. The Gemara, of course, gives various signs to identify the tree; but unlike the other minim, there are those who theorize that in the case of the arava, it may be possible to use any branch that has those specified physical qualities, such as eucalyptus. This view is not accepted halakha le-ma'aseh, but the very possibility does indicate something about the nature of the arava – a branch whose essence is not to be found in its own identity, but in its ability to blend in and contribute to its surroundings.


            The term arava also has a geographic connotation. It is usually a forbidding plateau, whose usefulness is not as a habitat, but as an artery for passage. Yeshayahu says (chapter 40): "Make way for the Lord! Straighten a path in the arava for our God!" Here again, the word is being used for an entity whose importance lies in its contextual function - connecting different places.


            On a deeper level, the Gemara in Chagiga (12b) tells us that there are seven reki'im (firmaments), and that the seventh, uppermost one – the one closest to God Himself - is called aravot. For this reason God is referred to as rokhev aravot – the rider of aravot. The self-effacing nature of the arava, the feeling of lack of sufficiency and of yearning, is a prerequisite for one who wishes to be close to the Creator.


            But at this point it is may be possible to observe a transformation in the nature of the arava. We spoke of the inherent feeling of lack, which generates yearning. Yearning - for what? The self-evident answer is, for life itself. This connects with the prayer for rain, as we mentioned. But if we pay attention to the content of the hakafot on Hoshana Rabba, we notice a major change in the seventh hakafa, the one associated most clearly with the arava and with the seventh firmament. Whereas until then the emphasis had been on the motif of water, now the dominant idea is fire.


            It appears that yearning for life has metamorphosed into yearning for that which is beyond life, which indeed can only be attained if life is forfeited. This is also a feeling that is sometimes uniquely associated with the personal characteristic of simplicity and straightforwardness, symbolized by the arava. The author of the Tanya speaks of the capacity of the simplest Jew to give up his life for God. A well-known story comes to mind of the simple Jew, Reb Mann, who came to the Shakh in Vilna and offered to give up his life to save the community from a blood libel. While the Shakh, the learned halakhic authority, needed time to weigh the pros and cons, Reb Mann simply went ahead and did the deed. During the Crusades, as well, Jews gave up their own and their families' lives instinctively, and left subsequent rabbis the task of sorting out their actions from the halakhic point of view.


            By the time we have reached the seventh raki'a, our prayers have almost pierced their ultimate destination. In the seventh hakafa, we need the merit of the arava-like figures of Jewish history in order to overcome the final hurdle. The fire of self-sacrifice is needed to bring down the waters of life.


            May the Almighty hear all our prayers.