Abarbanel On Succot
Abarbanel offers several insights into the holiday of Succot and the succa itself. First of all, the temporary nature of the succa is a reminder of our temporary life on earth. The seven days of the festival correspond to the seven decades of the average lifespan. The number of bulls which were brought as sacrificial offerings decreases with each day of the festival. This is to remind us that each passing decade brings us closer to the inevitable end, and encourages us to make the best use of our time to develop our spiritual potential. The first and last days of the festival represent the first and last decades of life. In the first decade — the years of our youth — we revel in the delights and pleasures of the physical world. This is to remind us that we are not prohibited from enjoying those delights. However, in the last decade we are enjoined to make the physical world secondary to spiritual accomplishments. The eighth day, the separate festival of Shemini Atzeret, reminds us that if we have merited living into an eighth decade we have attained a special level of holiness and spiritual purity.
Abarbanel offers a unique insight into the deeper meaning of the four plant species which we use on Succot. The Torah prescribes that the citron, palm branch, willow and myrtle be held together on the first day of Succot. (According to Rabbinic law they are held together on the intermediate days of the festival as well.) Each of these species, as they are named and described by the Torah, hints at the sweetness and pleasures of the physical world as previously indicated by the first decade of life. The citron is described as the “fruit of a beautiful tree” — which is pleasing to the eyes of all who gaze upon it. The palm tree is also beautiful and pleasing to the eye. The myrtle is described as the “branches of a braided tree”. The Hebrew word “avot” is normally translated as “braided” since on each branch there is a series of three leaves that grow closely together like a braid. Abarbanel, however, states that the word ‘avot’ is actually derived from the word ‘aveit’ which means fat or corpulent, and is a reference to the beautiful, dense arrangement of the leaves on each branch. Finally, the Hebrew word for the willow, “arava” has the same root as the word “arav” which can mean pleasant and sweet. After describing the four species the Torah states immediately that “You shall celebrate it as a festival for G-d.” This is a clear indication that the pleasures and delights of the physical world are to be enjoyed only according to the parameters of the Torah in order to serve G-d properly.