Parshat Chayei Sara
Sarah, Mother of the Jewish People, passes on at age 127. After mourning and eulogizing her, Avraham seeks to bury her in the Cave of Machpela. As this is the burial place of Adam and Chava, Avraham pays its owner, Ephron the Hittite, an exorbitant sum. Avraham sends his faithful servant Eliezer to find a suitable wife for his son Yitzchak, making him swear to choose a wife only from among Avrahams family. Eliezer travels to Aram Naharaim and prays for a sign. Providentially, Rivka appears. Eliezer asks for water. Not only does she give him water, but she draws water for all 10 of his thirsty camels. (Some 140 gallons!) This extreme kindness marks her as the right wife for Yitzchak and a suitable Mother of the Jewish People. Negotiations with Rivka's father and her brother Lavan result in her leaving with Eliezer. Yitzchak brings Rivka into his mother Sarahs tent, marries her and loves her. He is then consoled for the loss of his mother. Avraham remarries Hagar who is renamed Ketura to indicate her improved ways. Six children are born to them. After giving them gifts, Avraham sends them to the East. Avraham passes away at the age of 175 and is buried next to Sarah in the Cave of Machpela.
The Dust of Greatness
“Come, blessed of G-d” (24:31)
About three hundred years ago, in the 1960’s there was a TV hairspray commercial whose slogan was, “The closer you get, the better she looks!” Judging by the model's hairdo, this particular hairspray made motorcycle crash-helmets redundant. (Could be they were pitching their sales at Hell’s Angels?)
It always struck me that the closer you got to the rich and the beautiful, the less and less better they looked.
Unlike the denizens of Hollywood, to whom proximity usually reveals nothing but larger and larger flaws, the privilege of spending time with a true Torah Sage demonstrates the closer you get — the better they look.
Recently we experienced the passing of one of the greatest Rabbis of our age, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, zatzal. Listening to the eulogies of this extraordinary man reminded me of the time I met Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zatzal. The meeting cannot have lasted more than five minutes. My grasp of Hebrew at the time was negligible. However, when I left the room I felt like a different person. It was nothing he had said. He had barely looked at me. It came from merely being in his presence. I left his room with the dust of greatness on me.
The four species of Succot — the palm frond, the etrog, the willow and the myrtle — represent four kinds of Jewish people. The etrog has a beautiful aroma and it tastes good. The etrog symbolizes a Jew who has both Torah and mitzvot. The palm tree yields dates, which taste good, but the tree has no aroma. This symbolizes the Jew who has Torah but no mitzvot. The myrtle has a beautiful aroma, but it has no taste. This is the Jew who has mitzvot but no Torah. And finally, the willow, which has neither taste nor aroma. This is the Jew who has neither Torah nor mitzvot. Without this willow, however, one cannot perform the mitzvah of the four species – and without the “willow-Jew” the Jewish People is not the Jewish People. It is not Klal Yisrael.
The willow is essential to the wholeness of the Jewish People. By itself, however, it has little or nothing to recommend it. Why then is the lowly willow accorded a special day of its own during Succot on Hoshana Rabba? Why does the willow, the least auspicious of the four species, have its own day? There is no ‘Etrog Day’ or ‘Lulav Day’ during Succot. What is so special about the willow that it merits its own special day?
Everything in this world recognizes itself by its opposite. A pigmy can never understand what small is until he meets a Watussi giant. And someone on a low spiritual level can only recognize where he is when he meets someone great.
When Lavan saw Eliezer he mistook him for Avraham Avinu. Eliezer was no Avraham Avinu, but to Lavan he was a spiritual giant. Through his encounter with Eliezer, Lavan recognized his own lowliness, and in doing so he was elevated to a point where his words had the power to change reality. For when Lavan said, “Come, blessed of G-d,” Eliezer emerged from the curse of being a descendent of Canaan, and became in truth a baruch, “blessed.”
The same is true of the willow. By being bound together with the other species and recognizing its lowliness, it is elevated to the point that it has a power of its own, distinct from its role of completing the four species. The discovery of true self that comes through self-effacement and humility makes the willow worthy to have its own day in the festival.
Few things can be more depressing than realizing exactly how low we are spiritually, how far we are from where G-d wants us to be, how far we are from where we ourselves want to be.
And, yet, that “willow moment” can unlock the key to true spiritual power.
- Sources: based on the Kotzker Rebbe quoted by the Shem MiShmuel in his essays on Hoshana Rabba