“These are the four types of people that make the world,” said Rabbi Uri Goren, of Temple Avodah, holding up a bundled myrtle branch, willow sprig and date palm frond — together called a lulav — in one hand, and a yellow, lumpy fruit, called an etrog, in the other. “We put all of them together,” he said, “to symbolize the fact that all of us together make the Jewish community.”
The four plants are part of the ritual of Sukkot, the eight-day Jewish holiday of the harvest. But according to Goren, while the lulav and etrog are never mentioned in the Torah, the sukkah is. The tent-like structure, which Jews dine in during the holiday, is meant to symbolize the protective cloud that, according to the Torah, encircled the Israelites for the 40 years in which they wandered the desert after receiving the Ten Commandments.
Caryl Katz, who has been an Avodah congregant for 53 years and sometimes leads the Saturday-morning Torah study, said that part of the spiritual significance of constructing and using a sukkah is that it’s a temporary structure. “Its impermanence is to teach us that we are not able to provide our own security and safety,” Katz said, “that we are vulnerable, and that we depend on God.”
Before the Friday-evening service, Avodah congregants gathered in the sukkah. Families milled in and out, chatting and eating from a table of food in the center of the structure, which was assembled by temple members. Parents proudly pointed out the decorations, hung from the ceiling and along the walls, that their children made in Hebrew school.
Held just after the repentance of Yom Kippur, and just before the celebration of Simchat Torah, which marks a return to the beginning of the holy text, Sukkot is sometimes called “the time of our happiness.”
After the festive dinner outside, congregants made their way into the synagogue for Shabbat services. For Jews, who celebrate three eight-day holidays throughout the year, the first day, the final day and the day when the Sabbath overlaps with the feast are considered especially important.
In a short sermon, Goren explained the significance of the traditional Sukkot plants. The date palm frond is odorless and tasteless, he said, which “symbolizes the Jew that doesn’t know anything and doesn’t do anything. The person that doesn’t care at all about the world.”
The myrtle and willow — one odorless, the other tasteless — represent “those who know without doing” and “those who do without knowing,” Goren said. Holding up the etrog, which a member of the children’s choir sitting on the pulpit steps behind him confirmed was both pungent and flavorful, the rabbi said, “This is the Jew that knows what needs to be done and does it.”
How, and why, should the etrog unite with the apathetic date palm frond to form, as the rabbi called it, “the Jewish community?”
“The only way you get people to change is to give them new ways to think,” said Tom Wieder, a congregant and a guitarist in Avodah’s house band, Schleppenwolf. “Working together is sometimes the only way to get those apathetic people to see a new way to be.”
It was a reminder to those in attendance, Wieder said, that while it’s good to participate, “They could maybe do even more.”
Although Sukkot lasts eight days, it is often the Friday night during that period when rabbis discuss the holiday’s meaning — when they have the chance to address both regular Shabbat congregants and those who show up for the holiday.
“I think most Jews know what needs to be done, but don’t do it,” Goren said, adding, “It’s not a surprise to say, ‘Oh, a Jew should, often enough, come to services.’ Everybody would agree in theory. Do we do it? No, not really.
“There aren’t many true etrogs in the world,” he said before encouraging congregation members to meditate on which type of person they were.