The Breath of the Etrog

Shabbat Chol HaMoed Sukkot 5782

Sukkot seems easy to explain to anyone, Jewish or not. We build temporary dwellings called sukkot to remind ourselves of the sukkot our ancestors built while wandering in the desert, or perhaps in memory of the sukkot we built while harvesting our land. Either way, for us today the sukkah reminds us of the fragility inherent in life. It is intended to be susceptible to the forces of nature, not to protect or separate us from them as we do with our permanent houses, but to remind us that we, too, are part of creation.

More difficult to explain is the ritual inside the sukkah. God commands us to take a palm, willow and myrtle branch, and then to combine that with fruit of a hadar tree, which our sages understood to be a “good” tree, because they believe we should translate hadar as an adjective to the word eitz, tree, instead of assuming it refers to a specific tree. They conclude that we should use an etrog, a fruit that was apparently well known even then.

Therefore we take the palm, willow, myrtle branch which we call the lulav and combine with the etrog to fulfil the mitzvah of “nitlat lulav,” of waving the lulav. Most of us have eaten some incredible fruits in our days, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, bananas, dates, and so much more. Thus we might be tempted after Sukkot to open up this “fruit from a good tree” to taste its sweetness only to be very disappointed. An etrog contains almost no edible fruit at all. Cut into it and you will find mostly pith, good for flavoring liquor and jam but hardly useful for anything else.

The beauty of an etrog isn’t it’s size, shape or color, it’s the smell, the essence, the bumps, and the constant reminders from the rabbi imploring us not to touch the pitom, the little piece sticking out. According to researchers, smell is the sense most closely connected to memory. The smells of perfume can remind us not only of our late grandmother but a particular memory that was hidden away in our brains. Smells of food cooking can feel as though our parents are wrapping us up in a blanket, and smells of a room, even this sacred sanctuary, can elicit memories of joy and sadness and of tradition. Yet for all its power, smell, of course, can not be seen and it can be tremendously difficult to explain a smell to someone.

In a Netflix documentary called “Somm,” about the journey of four sommeliers to achieve the highest level, we find them using any and all terms to describe the scent of wine, from specific berries or spices to the peculiar “cut hose” or “fresh jar of tennis balls.” For those in the practice, apparently, one must constantly smell as many items in our world as possible in order to more precisely identify and explain what their olfactory glands are telling their brains.

The most important part of the Etrog isn’t what’s inside, but rather how it transforms us through its presences in our ritual. A similar connection can be made about our belief in the divine. The divine, by Jewish definition, is ineffable, that which cannot be detected by our senses, even smell. This week, during Sukkot, our special Torah reading finds Moses asking God to “behold Your glory.[1]” God responds, “I will make all of my goodness pass before you and I will proclaim the name YHVH…” But you cannot see my face, for humans cannot see my face and live.” Here God reveals Godself to Moses not through miracles or signs, as God has done in the past, but just simply as the presence through a divine word.

We don’t know how to pronounce YHVH. Every time we encounter the word in our prayers or Torah we substitute the word Adonai, which means “my Lord.” We believe that this word was only said once a year by the High Priest in the innermost chamber of the Temple where the very tablets were kept. According to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center, the word YHVH is not only untranslatable but unpronounceable as a word. Instead, he suggests, “If one tries to pronounce it, what comes is simply a Breath. Its brilliance as a Name of God is that It alone, Breathing alone, is “spoken” in every human tongue. All the myriad names of God have breath as their root and nurture. And not only human languages but also every grass and tree, every frog and leopard. The interbreathing of oxygen and CO2 between animals and vegetation is what keeps all Earthly life alive.[2]

Perhaps Moses felt God’s presence on that mountain simply as the breath of God, the same ruach Elohim in Genesis 1:2 that blew across the chaotic void of our earth before creation began. Rabbi Waskow connects futher the idea that the divine name YHVH connects not only all humans but all of creation. When we dwell in sukkot we cannot help but feel more connected to our natural world.

On Sukkot we often study Ecclesiastes, including the phrase “a time to tear down and a time to build up.” Sukkot is the final moment of tearing ourselves down before we begin to build ourselves up again. Writing on ReformJudaism.org, Cantor Liz Sacks reminds us that we have been tearing down our protective layers both in preparation for and during the High Holy Days, forcing ourselves to confront that which we might prefer remains hidden. Now, shortly after the final blast of the shofar and the break-fast, we tear down our physical protection as we dwell in the sukkah.

The secret of the Etrog isn’t that it’s the best fruit for us to eat, far from it, but that when we breath in its sent, when it shares its divine breath with us, we know that even when all is torn down and we are most vulnerable, even when life is quite bumpy, that we can still find sweetness and joy.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Haporeis sukkat shalom aleinu,

Blessed are You Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, may you spread your shelter of peace over us all.


[1] Ex 33:18

[2] https://forward.com/opinion/letters/453772/letter-gods-name-is-a-breath/