An English translation of a drasha given at Kehilat Yedidya on Sukkot 2021
I’ll begin with a story. Actually, I’ll begin with the same story that Pinchas Leiser told on Rosh Hashanah. His story was about the way the great Hasid Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Berditchev chose a shofar blower one year. There were three candidates and Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak interrogated them about the kavanot—the intentions they had—when they blew the shofar. The first said that his intention was to confuse Satan. The second said that his intention was to rouse the higher spheres to have mercy on the Jewish people. The third said simply that he had ten hungry children at home. The rabbi from Berditchev chose the third one.
Pinchas interpreted the story in the standard way. When he blew the shofar, the third candidate focused his intentions on his ten hungry children. But the story can be understood differently. It could be that the third candidate meant that he did not have any intention at all when he blew the shofar. He had other things to worry about. So he simply blew.
Many years ago, when I became more observant, I found it very difficult to connect to the commandment of the lulav and etrog on Sukkot. Unlike other mitzvot, like the shofar and the Seder, I had no warm memories or nostalgia from my home with regard to the four species. My parents did not buy them and we did not regularly attend synagogue on Sukkot. When I came to Israel and joined a halachic community, I had a problem. I enjoyed going to buy the palm branch, myrtle, willow, and etrog. I enjoyed smelling them and admiring their beauty. But the ceremonies of waving them in different directions and parading them around the synagogue were not only strange but actually put me off. There was something in it that seemed foreign to the Judaism I knew.
People tried to explain it to me. They gave me reasons—te’amim—for these practices. Halachic reasons, kabbalistic reasons, historical reasons. None of them worked for me.
Consider another story. An alien from another planet arrives on earth and wants to understand the creatures who live here. He talks with people and realizes that they have something they call “music.” This music, he grasps, is very important for humans from all lands and all cultures. People tell him that there are songs and melodies and concertos that are very meaningful for them. But the alien has a hard time figuring it out. What is music, he asks, again and again and again? People sing and play for him and he says, okay, but what does it actually mean? How does music express an idea, or an emotion?
I didn’t make up the story about the alien. It comes from the thinker and novelist George Steiner, from his book on the philosopher Martin Heidegger. (Yes, I know that Heidegger was a Nazi and that Steiner was a Jew who hated Judaism. Let’s set that aside for the moment.) Steiner argues that music is profoundly meaningful for us, but that the meaning it bears cannot be verbalized, cannot be put into words. Steiner relates that someone once asked the great composer Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a piano piece of his that he had just played. Schumann did not answer with words. He simply sat down and played the piece again.
Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak would certainly have liked Steiner’s story and Schumann’s action. Who more than a Hasid understands that there are things that are very important in our lives that cannot be expressed in words but only in a niggun—a wordless melody—or in an action.
The Berditchever, I suggest, chose the third candidate to blow the shofar not because his intention was directed toward his starving children as he blew, but precisely because he had no intention at all. He simply blew the shofar without any pretention of being able to say why he was doing so. The act stands on its own. And if an alien were to show up at synagogue and ask him the meaning of the shofar blast, the third candidate would simply blow the shofar once more.
This, I think, lies the secret of taking the lulav and etrog in hand. It is a mitzvah of great meaning, but a meaning that can’t be put into words. And if an alien comes and asks you what your intention is when you pick up and wave around and parade with your palm frond and myrtle and willow branches and etrog Sukkot, here is your answer: pick them up and do the same again.