The Torah does not provide explicit reasons for every mitzvah (commandment) and, especially for the negative commandments, we do not have definitive explanations why the Torah prohibits wearing mixtures of wool and linen, eating meat with milk, etc. But for positive commandments, Biblical or Rabbinic, most of us can give at least some explanation for mitzvot like shofar, succah, matzah, mezuzah, and candles on Chanukah.
A notable exception occurs on Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Succot, when we beat the hoshanot — the cluster of five willow branches — on the ground. It is a mitzvah act whose reason is not found in the Torah, writings of the prophets, or Talmud, and it is a mitzvah act whose significance most Jews know absolutely nothing about.
If hoshanot was a mitzvah written in the Torah, we would simply accept that God did not reveal the reason for His Divine command. But hoshanot is not a Biblical commandment. It is a practice begun by the prophets well over 2,000 years ago, and a custom the prophets encouraged us to follow.
If the prophets encouraged a new mitzvah act, and a most unusual act (ask anyone who sees willow branches for the first time), they surely gave some explanation of what it means. But the meaning is not mentioned in most sources, indicating that the meaning is either a secret, or else that to them it was self-evident, even if it is obscure to us.
What we do know, is that on Hoshana Rabbah we take branches of hoshanot, also known as aravot, similar to the willow branches we shake with the palm branch during the festival of Succot. We strike the hoshanot on the ground, and we then cast them aside, traditionally on top of Holy Ark in the synagogue, which is an odd place to recycle discarded branches.
A reason for all this is found in the text Eliyahu Zuta, where it is explained that beating the hoshanot and causing the leaves to fall away symbolizes “the falling away of the sparks of Divine Judgment; and we cast it away as an end to the Days of Judgment.” What does that mean? How do hoshanot –willow branches– symbolize Divine Judgment? And how do we have the chutzpah to throw Divine judgment away?
The four species of plants used to celebrate the Succot festival are symbolic of the various Jews comprising the Jewish people: etrog/citron (which has both taste and aroma), lulav/palm branch (taste in the date fruit it produces, but no aroma), hadassim/myrtle (aroma only) and aravot/willow (neither taste nor aroma) — symbolize different types of Jews who possess Torah learning (taste) and good deeds (aroma), one or the other, or nothing at all. All kinds of Jews make up the one Jewish nation, so all four species are united in the mitzvah commonly known as waving the lulav and etrog.
It is a well-known tradition that God judges us on Rosh Hashanah, and His judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur. The verdict, though, is still subject to appeal or modification during Succot until Hoshana Rabbah (the last day of Succot), which is the final day to ask, “Hosha Na,” Please save, and it is the day Divine judgment for the year takes effect.
On Hoshana Rabbah, the final judgment day, we set aside the four species of plants, and we pick up the cluster of aravot — willow branches; no taste, no aroma. It is a symbolic prayer, as if to say: “God, some Jews have learning and good deeds, but I? I confess that I can boast of neither. I am just a willow branch without taste or scent.”
And we call these willow branches by the name “hoshanot” (“please save us”), because admitting the truth — that we are not righteous, that we have nothing to boast about — is the first step to be able to face God and ask him, “Hosha Na,” Please save us.
Then we take these hoshanot, humble branches representing ourselves, and we beat them. The symbolism is clear: “God, yes, we are undeserving. But have we not suffered so much? National tragedy, personal tragedy, physical pain, emotional pain — does this not make us deserving of Your compassion?”
The masters of Kabbalah tell us to strike the branches not on a bench or chair but on the ground. We are saying that we have been humbled, and we admit how low we have potentially fallen. And then we take our branches, and we cast them aside, we throw them away. This is an integral part of the mitzvah, to signal an end to the Days of Divine Judgment.
That means: After humbling ourselves, after admitting our faults and failings; after admitting that we potentially deserve nothing and our only poor merit is our suffering; we then take all those emotions, and we set them aside. Because, if Rosh Hoshanah, Yom Kippur and Hoshana Rabbah are properly lived, they are a deeply moving, cathartic experience. And once it’s over, it must be placed aside, to allow us to move on.
The text Shaarei Ha’avodah teaches that one who wishes to repent must make a new start, as if he possessed no merit and no transgressions. No transgressions we understand, but why no merit?
The answer is: Although our mitzvot are on permanent record in Heaven and not forgotten by God, we, if we hope to overcome our failures, must in our thoughts free ourselves from the past. We cannot allow ourselves to be tied down by what is gone. We go through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot and Hoshana Rabbah. But there is a limit how much time to focus on being under the gun of Divine judgment; so we remove the leaves, and we cast the branches aside.
Some people keep a mental diary of every grievance, every real or imagined wrong that was ever committed against them. They will tell you the terrible things Mr. So-and-so did 40 years ago; and though So-and-so has long ago forgotten or even passed on, these people continue to eat themselves alive with their bitterness.
Others, often the best and most sensitive hearts, do the same thing with feelings of guilt. It takes courage to admit your mistakes, to admit to God and to yourself that you did wrong and that you are undeserving. But if you do admit, if you are saddened and humbled, then take the good from the experience, cast the rest aside, put it out of your mind and go on. It is difficult enough to face the challenges of the present; we do not need the extra weight of a painful past.
Part of the program for recovering alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) is to write down lists of their fears, regrets, failings and people to whom they need to make amends. It is an experience in facing the truth about oneself, a process that may take many months and fill large notebooks (non-alcoholics could try it, too). The recovering alcoholic then sits down for a few hours with a sympathetic listener to share the information in his or her notes, unloading the secret pain and fear by admitting it to another person. (A.A. calls this “The Fifth Step.” Proverbs advises, “If there is worry in a man’s heart, let him speak it out.”)
Many A.A. members choose Catholic priests for their listeners, but one day I received a call from one of them who said: “I was planning to do my Fifth Step with a priest at the local monastery, but since I’m Jewish, I’d prefer a rabbi. Could you spare a space of about three hours next week?” Of course I could not spare three hours, and of course I said yes and did it anyway. At the end of the session, I told him: “You shared so much pain and you wonder, will the pain of the past ever disappear? Perhaps not. But you don’t need to destroy the pain of the past. Instead, why not just leave it here, in this room?
“You brought the negative things out into the light, you had the courage to face them. Now, why not throw your notes into the wastebasket next to this desk? Why not take all those negative feelings, and leave them here? And then, wherever you are, when thoughts of pain, fear and guilt return, you can say: I don’t need to hide from the pain, and I don’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. It does exist, in the past, in a room and in a notebook cast away in a wastebasket. It has its proper place; now let me go on to mine.”
I pray for my friend (that’s how I think of him, though I don’t know his name and have not seen him since) that he should be blessed with success in his recovery. But I wish I had told him that, instead of my wastebasket, there is a better place for his pain. To make a new start, besides, or perhaps instead of, sharing with me, he could share his thoughts with God; beating the branches on the ground, asking “Hosha Na” — please help me — and then casting the branches above the Holy Ark. God can hold the pain for him, and my friend can then go on to face the day at peace with himself and the world. As can I. And you.
Reprinted with permission from ‘What’s Wrong With Being Happy?’
Mesorah Publications, Ltd., Brooklyn, 1994 – www.artscroll.com.
Presented in cooperation with Heritage House, Jerusalem.