The Ultimate Etrog

by Jared Eaton, Simchat Yisrael, West Haven, CT

Chag Sameach! After the often grueling experience of Yom Kippur, it’s a wonderful change of pace to gather with our families and communities to celebrate the festival of Sukkot. We harvest tree branches, pick gourds, string up lights, and build our sukkahs, our temporary homes for this happy week.

But building sukkahs is not the only way in which we celebrate Sukkot. We also observe a few other lesser known rituals. Among these traditions is the waving of the lulav and the etrog, collectively known as the Four Species.

The etrog is a citrus fruit, similar to a lemon, which grows in the Land of Israel, and the lulav is a kind of a wand made up of palm, myrtle, and willow branches.

Talmudic tradition teaches that these four species, with their different characteristics, represent the diverse nature of all of Israel. The sages equate a good taste with Torah learning and a pleasing scent with good deeds. They argue that in order to be a complete and fulfilled Jew, one must possess both of these qualities in abundance.

The Rabbis’ distinction between Torah learning and good deeds calls to mind the distinction made by New Covenant luminaries such as the Apostle Paul and Yaakov between faith in Messiah Yeshua and the living out of that faith through good works. Some may argue that Paul emphasized faith over works—“For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law” (Romans 3:28)—while Yaakov upheld the opposite opinion—“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). But both men would certainly agree that mature believers must have faith and works to truly live up to the example set by our Messiah Yeshua.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who, in a very astute allegory, compared Messiah Yeshua to “The Ultimate Etrog.” The etrog, with its pleasing scent and good taste, represents one with both Torah learning and good deeds, or in my New Covenant interpretation, Faith and Works. And indeed, who better embodied the qualities of the etrog than Yeshua, who taught and walked in perfect faith in his Father and lived a life exemplified by kindness and compassion and service to those who needed his help the most?  Yeshua truly is our Ultimate Etrog.

But if Yeshua is the Ultimate Etrog, who might be the ultimate representatives of the other three species? Consider the palm. It has a good taste (the date) but no scent, representing a person who has faith but no works to back it up.

How many Yeshua-believers fall into his category? How many of us claim to be followers of Yeshua and study the Scriptures, but don’t act out our faith in our everyday lives? How many of us have Jesus fish bumper stickers but still cut people off in traffic and curse other motorists? How many of us wear our tzitzit and our kippot out in public, but walk by without making eye contact with the hungry homeless person looking for a kind word and a little compassion?

Yaakov would not think highly of such a “palm-leaf believer.” When I think about who might be the “Ultimate Palm Leaf” Isaac comes to my mind. Loath as I am to pick on a beloved patriarch, Isaac is no one’s favorite Bible hero for a reason.

The Scriptures portray a man of great faith and spiritual merit, but have little to say about Isaac’s actions. In every story in which Isaac plays a major part, things are happening to him, not because of him. He wordlessly acquiesces to his binding. His father’s servant finds a wife for him while he stays home. He is manipulated by his sons and his wife in his old age. Rather than take an active part in his own story, Isaac remains a passive character, letting life happen around him.

Yeshua, on the other hand, was decisive and proactive. He sought out opportunities to live out his convictions and the way he lived his life was a testimony to his faith. If we are to follow him, we need to be active players in our own stories.

In contrast with the palm leaf, the myrtle branch has a good smell but no taste, representing a person with good works but no faith.

It’s entirely possible to do good, without being good. I think of the quote from the controversial central character of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Jordan Belfort: “See money doesn’t just buy you a better life, better food, better cars . . . it also makes you a better person. You can give generously to the church or the political party of your choice.”

I can only imagine what the apostle Paul would have to say about Belfort’s idea of what makes a person “better”. What kind of a person are you if you donate $100,000 to cancer research but do it with money you made from cheating your clients? Are you really a better person if you fund an orphanage but come home and treat you own family with contempt?

These myrtle-branch believers may have a sweet smell, but anyone who gets close enough would find out that their taste is bitter.

For my example of the “Ultimate Myrtle Branch” I thought of the prophet Jonah. Jonah may be the most successful prophet in all of the Bible. Other prophets were met with scorn and persecution and saw their words fall on deaf ears, but Jonah’s message to the Ninevites was met with a city-wide call to repentance and the rescue of an entire nation. If we were to judge a man solely on the good he has done in his life, Jonah would be counted amongst the greatest in the kingdom.

And yet we read the book of Jonah as a cautionary tale. In spite all of his amazing gifts and talents, Jonah has a terrible attitude throughout his story. He scorns the task God has charged him with, he takes no responsibility for his calamity inside the fish and he repeatedly complains and wishes for death after he finally grudgingly does his job.

While his works are great, his faith in God’s plan is vanishingly small. Contrast his attitude with Messiah Yeshua’s. As much as Jonah might have disliked God’s plan, no one had a more bitter cup placed before him than Yeshua. Messiah knew that his road led to the cross, yet he went willingly and without complaint, even in the face of temptation to take an easier road. Yeshua had faith in his Father’s plan, and if we are to follow him we need to have similar trust to back up our good works.

Last and certainly least among the four species we have the willow branch. A plant with no taste and no smell, representing a person who lacks both faith and good works.

Sadly, the world seems to be full of willow branches. America has seen a dramatic decline in religious belief in recent decades, while the number of people claiming no religious affiliation or belief has risen inexorably. Indifference seems to be the default setting for humanity, as individualism is valued over community and the pursuit of material gain is valued over compassion for our brothers and sisters.

When I think of the “Ultimate Willow Branch” it’s easy to go for a traditional biblical villain. Pharaoh or Haman or Herod are all easy targets.

But I don’t think that most people who fall into the willow-branch category are inherently evil. Most willow branches just don’t know how to be any better than they are. They’ve never been given the opportunity to be anything but a plain old tasteless, odorless willow branch.

That’s why my choice for the ultimate willow branch is the tiny character of Zacchaeus. Not a great and mighty villain. Just a little, petty knave.

For those who need reminding, Zacchaeus’s story can be found in Luke 19. Zacchaeus was a tax collector who was very much disliked in his community. He was considered a sinner and a cheat and a collaborator with Rome. Truly a man with neither faith nor good works to his name.

And yet when Yeshua walks past Zacchaeus, he doesn’t see a willow branch. He sees a man who has the potential to become an etrog. Yeshua had every reason to ignore Zacchaeus, to treat him as a lost cause. But just as we don’t toss away the willow branches on Sukkot, but instead bind them together with the other four species that they all may bless each other, Yeshua saw the good that was inside of Zacchaeus and called him to become more than he was.

By the end of the story, Zacchaeus has pledged himself to make restitution for his past misdeeds and to continue to do the good works for which he has been made. Yeshua proclaims that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house because his faith has allowed Messiah to save that which had been lost.

This Sukkot, we are all challenged to enter our sukkahs and reflect on which of the four species we might be. But we can take comfort in the knowledge that no matter where we are in our faith walk, whether strong in works, faith, or neither of the above, Yeshua is always calling to us and giving us the opportunity to be more than we are today. With Messiah’s help, anyone can change their species.

Chag Sameach!