HOSHANA RABBA - THE CALL OF THE YEARNING WILLOW
Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald
BREAKING THE BARRIERS
Hoshana Rabba, the seventh day of the Sukkos festival, is filled with customs of both beauty and mystery. The Torah does not refer to it as a day of rest; in our prayers we nonetheless recite some of the passages reserved for major festival days. In addition, this day also climaxes with the ritual of the hoshana (willow). During the Temple period, on each day of Sukkos, large boughs of willow were leaned against the mizbeach (altar) which the kohanim then encircled. On the seventh day of Sukkos, the kohanim encircled the willow-laden altar, not once, but seven times. This grand finale not only gave the day its name, Hoshana Rabba - the Great day of the willow - but as one early commentator put it, tachlis hachag - it represented the essence of the entire festival experience(1).
The midrash finds a striking parallel to the hoshana procession(2). During Yehoshua's conquest of the city of Yericho, the kohanim circled the city once a day for six days. On the seventh day, they circled the city seven times, during which the enemy's walls miraculously sunk into the ground. Similarly, Hoshana Rabba is the culmination of the period of judgment which begins on Rosh Hoshana. On this day, the last vestiges of sin which were not sufficiently atoned for during Yom Kippur are eradicated, and the Jewish people emerge triumphant in victory. We proclaim our jubilation over the destruction of the wall of sin, which formed a barrier to our soul. We recite the festival prayers and wave the lulav just as victors in battle shake their spears after conquering their enemy(3).
Just as walls of Yericho fell, the hoshana possesses the inherent ability to bring the forces of evil crumbling down. Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin reveals that contained in the seeds of the humble hoshana is a tangible reminder of its potent power. If you peel away the outer layer of a willow bud, you will find something which bears the likeness of a skinned and decapitated snake. The snake is a symbol of the forces of evil; the hoshana strips it of its life force(4). Even in our present exile, the Midrash assures us, our modest re-enactment of the hoshana procession retains some of the power of the original service. The shul bimah transforms into the altar, and the chazan holding the sefer Torah is akin to an angel of Hashem(5).
Hoshana Rabba not only removes the barriers of evil; it simultaneously embraces purity and goodness. Rabbi Nosson Wachsfogel zt'l, the Lakewood mashgiach, explained that Rosh Hashana is the time when we are granted access to the Kings palace. Stepping over that portal, one can behold the Kings majesty in great clarity and splendor. Yom Kippur, allows us an even closer proximity of the Kings presence. The verse states, "Before Hashem shall you be purified." (Vayikra 16:30) We are permitted to stand directly before the King himself. But Sukkos, says the Zohar, represents a still closer relationship with Hashem. The three walls of the sukka, corresponding to the human hand, arm and forearm, are a metaphor to the Divine embrace of his beloved(6).
Among the reasons given for the custom of a kallah encircling her chasan seven times under the chuppah, is that it represents the breaking of all barriers. Just as the walls of Yericho fell after being encircled seven times, so too we hope that the newly wed couple will achieve a state of oneness, with no walls dividing them. In a spiritual sense, Hoshana Rabba symbolizes the highest level of closeness between Hashem and the Jewish nation. This ultimate state of connection paves the way for the holiday of Shimini Atzeres, which symbolizes the personal and exclusive relationship between Hashem and His beloved people.
THE BLEMISHED SERVICE
To gain better insight into what gives Hoshana Rabba its remarkable ability, it is worth analyzing the participants in this enigmatic mitzva. The Gemara states simply that it was performed by blemished kohanim: the very group generally disqualified for Temple service(7) It is strange that the singled out blemished kohanim, since other categoies of disqualified kohanim also took part in the ceremony(8) Furthermore, the simple reading of the Gemara implies that the procession was composed exclusively of blemished kohanim, when in fact they were only secondary to the ordinary kohanim who served regularly(9). The answer to these questions lies in the special link that appears to emerge a link between the blemished kohein and his hoshana. Hoshana is the special service of the handicapped kohein.
The following story seems to bear this point:
Each year, Rav Hai would ascend from Bavel to Yerushalayim, in order to spend the Sukkos holiday there. On Hoshana Rabba he would encircle Har Hazasim seven times, and then those who accompanied him would recite the songs which Rav Hai had prepared. Before Rav Hai, at a distance of one hundred amos, walked kohanim dressed in capes and gold embroidered silk gowns. After another gap of one hundred amos, followed the rest of the multitude. During the procession Rav Hai was seen laughing and afterwards during the meal, he appeared in a joyous mood.
Upon the conclusion of the meal, Rav Hai was approached and asked, "Rebbi, why did you walk alone when we walked around Har Hazeisim?"
Rav Hai replied, "Each year I go up from Bavel in order that I be able to encircle Har Hazeisim on Sukkos. I purify myself for the occasion and on Hoshana Rabba, Eliyahu Hanavi accompanies me and converses with me. Therefore the assembly keep a distance both before and after me.
"I asked Eliyahu, 'When will Moshiach come?' and he responded, 'When you will encircle Har Hazeisim with the kohanim.'
"So I gathered all the Kohanim I was able to locate, to accompany me to go around, in order that may be there will be one true kohein among them. (Later) Eliyahu said to me, 'You see all the kohanim here, dressed in fancy garments and walking pridefully? None of them are from the seed of Aharon. Save for one sole straggler, who walks behind the rest, who is looked upon with contempt by the others, and is insignificant in his own eyes. He walks with tattered clothing, seeks no honor, and walks in an unassuming manner. He is lame in one leg and on his other side is blind in one eye... This one is the true kohein from the seed of Aharon.
Rav Hai then concluded, "By my life! This is why I have laughed. For among the entire group there was not a single kohein, save for that one handicapped man!"(9a)
It is not clear whether Eliyahu's rejection of the physically fit but haughty kohanim is to be taken in the literal sense or a spiritual one; that they lacked the compassion and humility which were the hallmark traits of Aharon. But one thing is certain. Though the handicapped kohein was unfit to do Temple service, his role in the hoshana circuit held the key to ultimate redemption. Had he not been scorned away to the sidelines, but rather been included in the procession, and had he not been viewed as a freak, but rather esteemed as a true seed of Aharon, Moshiach's arrival would have been imminent.
THE WILLOW - WATER CONNECTION
To further understand this concept, it is worth reflecting on another component of the hoshana mitzva - the hoshana itself. The hoshana is also part of the arba minim, the four species, used on Sukkos. The sages compare the four species to the varied strata of the Jewish people. The esrog which possess both taste and fragrance, represents the Jews who have both Torah and good deeds. The myrtle which has only fragrance, and the lulav which has no fragrance but bears fruit, represent Jews who possess one of the two aforementioned qualities. The drooping willow slumps at the bottom of the flora totem pole; it possesses neither fragrance nor fruit. They symbolize those Jews who have neither Torah scholarship nor good deeds(10).
Who are these hoshana Jews? Perhaps the hoshana symbolizes the class of Jews who desire to serve Hashem to the best of their abilities. But due to poverty, illness, or other unfortunate circumstances, were not blessed with the talents or abilities to accomplish as much as they might. While these people may consider themselves useless and superfluous, the Midrash concludes, 'Says Hakodosh Boruch Hu, "Let all [the four species] be tied together in one bundle, so they will provide atonement one for another."' No less than the species who give fragrance and fruit, the willow also has an irreplaceable quality to offer his more accomplished brethren.
What is the unique quality of the hoshana? The hoshana, also known as aravah, derives from the verse, 'Arvei nachal' - the willow of the river(11). While one fulfills the mitzva with all willow branches, regardless if they grow near river banks or not(12), the Torah describes the arava as the species with an unquenchable thirst for water and optimally thrives where water is abundance. The connection between hoshana and water is further demonstrated by the prayers recited on Hoshana Rabba. With the imminent approach of the rainy season our prayers deal primarily with the vital request for water.
Early commentators write that man's basic emotion of desire derives from the primal element of water. On a physical level, there is a strong association between water and desire; not only does man thirst for water, but even water "desires" to bond with its own elements. At the microscopic level, water molecules tend to attract each other, similarly on a global scale, "All the rivers flow into the sea," all moving bodies of water perpetually flow towards each other to unite as one(13).
The spiritual source of water's insatiable desire perhaps derives from the second day of creation, when Hashem separated between "the waters below the heavens to the waters above the heavens"(14). From that time onwards, the earthly waters possessed an irrepressible urge to join with the upper waters, so that it may bask once again in close proximity of Hashem's presence. As the Midrash says, when Hashem divided the upper and lower waters, the lower waters cried to Hashem, "Why are we different from our companions, that we were distanced from Your heavenly throne?" Hashem promised them they will become elevated through the sacrificial offerings, such as the water libation on Sukkos(15).
Like the rush of running water, the pure human heart denied access to certain areas of Divine service, also flows with a deep longing to bridge that gaping void(16) No one represents this ideal as much as the handicapped kohein. Kohanim forego physical comfort and security, receiving no share in the inheritance of the land of Israel, so they can devote themselves exclusively to Divine service. So imagine the pain of an idealistic young kohein who had always dreamed of performing the Temple rites, excelling in both his studies and fear of Hashem, only to develop a serious deformity upon reaching adulthood. He had renounced the physical world, only to find his spiritual world barred to him as well. He accurately represents not just a hoshana, but a farklapta (beaten) hoshana at that.
The young kohein's handicap may have deflated his confidence and shattered his dreams. But his longing and desire remain unaffected by his disability. Throughout the long course of the year he eagerly anticipates the Sukkos festival. Finally the moment arrives, and the infirm kohein is permitted to briefly join his physically fit brothers as they circle the altar. He cherishes that priceless moment for the rest of the year, perhaps more than anyone else. The service is his. Though the handicapped kohanim comprised but a small minority, the Gemara rightfully calls it the service of the handicapped kohein.
Our earthly hoshana service mirrors a similar, but magnificently more exalted, enactment in heaven. The Avudraham writes that the seven circuits we make on Hoshana Rabba in shul correspond to the seven heavens. The Gemara also tells us that the highest heaven is named Aravos upon which resides Hashem's throne of glory(17). Not surprisingly, the heavenly Aravos is also a place of an abundance of water(18), and there is stored the precious "liquid" that Hashem is destined to use to resurrect the dead(19).
The earthly inhabitants below long to be reunited with Hashem's presence above. Above, those feelings are reciprocated. The Mishna states that when the kohanim circled the altar during the hoshana procession they would say, "Ani Vahu hoshia na, Ani Vahu bring salvation now!"(20). Ani Vahu is part of one of the mystical names of Hashem and alludes to the verses "And I (Ani) was in the diaspora," (Yechezkel 1:1) and "and he (Vahu) was bound in chains" (Yermiyah 40:1). The Midrash expounds the words Ani and Vahu as both referring to Hashem. The prayer in effect is for God; who Himself (so to speak), requires salvation(21).
This Midrash is generally understood as expressing Hashem's pain, felt as a result of Israel's suffering. When the Jews are in exile, the Almighty Himself also shares in their plight. However the apparent difficulty with this approach is that this proclamation was recited as part of the Temple service! When the Jewish people resided peacefully in their land with the holy Temple in their mist, why should G-d express anguish? In that ideal state, what salvation does He lack?
Perhaps Hashem's continual longing is for the fulfilment of mankind's ultimate destiny: the era of the future redemption. At that time Hashem will lavishly pour the rain which will revive the dead(22), and the earth will be filled with Divine knowledge like water covering the oceans(23). Until that perfect state is actualized, Hashem - metaphorically - feels bound and in exile. The auspicious timing of the Kohanim's proclamation demonstrates the integral role the hoshana plays in transforming that vision into a reality.
A unique quality of the willow tree is that it does not branch out horizontally, as do most branches, but rather, sends forth a single shoot which extends further and further outwards. These branches also tend to gravitate vertically. Certain species of willow grow vertical branches which continously climb upwards, while the branches of the mature weeping willow grow downwards, giving the impression of a cascading waterfall. If we are correct in our assertion that the willow is the physical equivalent of yearning, then its growth represents a direct focused movement reaching from earth out to heaven.
The willow's growth parallels the yearning soul. The Ramchal writes that the Hebrew word for hope - kivuy - derives from the word kav, a line(24). In a spiritual dimension, hope draws a line which connects oneself to the object of one's longing. Hashem's hand, in a manner of speaking, is always readily outstreched, anxiously waiting for man to reach out towards Him as well. Just as the willow reaches out heavenwards, the yearning plea of the kohanim, "Hoshana - Save us now!," has the potential to stretch forth a line which can break all barriers, which can unite heaven and earth and herald the final redemption(25).
THE EXALTED ARAVA
Hashem is reffered to as Yosheiv Tehillos Yisroel, that is, enthroned, literally "sitting" upon the praises of Israel. Similarly Hashem is called Roichev B'arovos(26) - His glory is upheld by the 'arava Jews,' by those who lack the satisfaction of postive accomplishment, but look up expectantly towards Him. The verse says, "Not in the strength of the horse does He desire, nor in the loins of man does He favor. Hashem favours those who fear Him, those who hope to His kindness"(27). Rabbi Tzodok Hakohen explains that a horse personifies work and action, and symbolizes one who serves Hashem without respite with his valiant deeds and love. Though this level is exalted, it does not represent Hashem's ultimate desire. "Not in the loins of man does he favour", refers to one who serves Hashem utilizing the ultimate sign of human strength, by conquering one's evil inclination. Hashem does not desire this most of all; this is still not the highest level of perfection(28).
Rabbi Tzodok Hakohen explains that there lies a drawback in accomplishment, namely that it is sometimes tinged with egotistical gratification. The lack of accomplishment, is therefore sometime a purer form of service! As the verse concludes "Hashem desires the one who fears Him, one who awaits His kindness." Though this person has no personal achievement to show, his relationship with his Maker can be on the highest level.
Rabbi Dan Segal once visited Rabbi Shnuer Kotler zt'l when he was seriously ill, shortly before his passing. Rav Dan shared with him the following vort. In the beginnig of Parshas Vayashev, it says that "Yaakov settled"(29). Rashi cites a Midrash which comments that this verse signifies that Yaakov sought to dwell in tranquility. Said the Holy One, Blessed is He, "Is it not enough what is awaiting the rightous in the World To Come, that they seek to dwell in tranquility in this world as well?" Immediately, the ordeal of Yosef's kidnapping sprung upon him.
Rav Dan asked, Hashem is kind and generous; why can't He give the righteous a little pleasure in this world, as well? And what do you think Yaakov wanted with his leisure anyhow, to enjoy a vacation? His desire for tranquility was to enable him to better serve Hashem, without distraction. As our sages say, during the years he mourned the absence of Yosef, his spirituality suffered terribly as result. His spirit of prophecy left him and he was unable to accomplish spiritually what he wished to attain.
The Midrash explains that what Hashem was telling Yaakov was, "How do you know that I would derive more satisfaction from your sublime prayers and Torah study? Perhaps I have more nachas from your struggle in living a life without prophecy? And the little Torah and prayer under those conditions is dearer to me than all the sublime levels you would have been able to attain with prophecy."(30)
Rabbi Shnuer Kotler nodded and told Rav Dan a story of his own, which he once heard. There was once a chasid who came before his Rebbe crying that he lived alone in the forest chopping wood for his livelihood and was unable to pray with a minyan each day. He expressed to the Rebbi how he wished he would have the opportunity to daven with a minyan. The Rebbe told him lovingly, "How do you know Hashem wants you to daven with a minyan? Maybe Hashem has more satisfaction from the fact that you want to daven with a minyan, but are unable to do so."
This is the quality of the arava Jew.
The four species of the lulav must unite, for each has a unique and irreplacable quality to offer the Jewish people. That is, the quality of humility, and more specifically, the quality of wishing that he could serve Hashem more than he is. That feeling is itself is a great attainment.
The arava, humble willow, teaches a deep lesson in the idea that Rachmana liba baei - Hashem desires the heart. For while the willow appears lowly, it is truly quite exalted. Like a truly humble heart, in this world it is beaten to the ground; but in the World of Truth it ascends to the highest heaven(31).
1 Sefer Hamanhig, Hilchos Esrog, 38.
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