The Four Species: the Quality of Unity and Mutual Responsibility

Our sages compared the Jewish people to the Four Species (etrog – citron fruit, lulav – palm branch, hadas – myrtle branch and aravah – willow branch).  They explained [1] “Just as the etrog has a good taste and smell, there are Jews who are both learned in Torah and do good deeds. Just as a date palm has a good taste but no smell, there are Jews who are learned in Torah but don’t engage in good deeds. Just as a myrtle has a good smell but no taste, there are Jews who are not learned in Torah but do good deeds. Just as a willow has no taste and no smell, there are Jews who are not learned and do not do good deeds. G-d said: I will tie them all up in one bunch and they will atone for each other. When you do this, I am exalted.”

The Unity of the Jewish People

These words of our sages express the profound idea of the unity and mutual responsibility that should exist among the Jewish people. In another place the sages said that the entire Jewish people are “responsible for each other” [2]. The concept of “mutual responsibility” among Jews is paramount, and has a real, profound place in our worldview.

When Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai wanted to teach us a chapter in mutual responsibility, this is how he described it: “This may be compared to people who are in a ship and one of them took a drill and began to drill underneath himself. His friends told him ‘What are you doing?!’ and he replied, ‘None of your business! I’m just drilling underneath myself!’ They answered him, ‘You will cause the whole ship to sink!’ [3]

This midrash describes the Jewish people as a group in a ship. People traveling in a ship are isolated from the rest of the world by the vast sea surrounding them. Each one is responsible to ensure that the ship stays intact so they can reach safe shore. 

Imagine one of the passengers suddenly starts drilling a hole in the floor of his room, and all the other passengers hear the drilling noise and burst into his room to check what’s happening. When they see the man drilling the hole, they yell at him to stop. But he pushes them off: “None of your business. I’m just drilling underneath myself!”

It’s a ridiculous claim when it involves a ship. Just opening a hole in the floor of one room will cause the whole ship to be swamped with water. He can’t just think of himself, he has to think of the whole ship and all those in it.

The Jewish people in all its diasporas throughout history was like this ship. Scriptures says about the Jewish people [4] that “they are a nation who dwells alone.” Jewish communities no matter what nation they lived among made a great effort to maintain the unity of their community and their institutions. Their ambition to maintain the Jewish people’s unity derived from the feeling of mutual responsibility and their feeling that the Jewish nation has a lofty role on the stage of history.

Jewry’s sensitivity for every Jew whoever and however he is, is extremely powerful. When we hear of a Jew’s success in any field, we right away become filled with happiness and satisfaction, and see it as a source of pride for the entire nation. 

And when we hear of a tragedy that befalls a Jew somewhere, we right identify and feel sorrow. Many of us will even do something to show our identification with the tragedy. Some will read chapters of Psalms or learn mishnayot. Rabbis in their lectures will mention the event and others will try to comfort the mourners by sending a letter of solace to encourage them. 

It makes no difference who the Jew is or how he behaves. All of them are beloved and wanted. The main thing is we are expressing our feeling of identification and are thereby strengthening our people’s unity and mutual responsibility.

[1] Vayikrah Rabbah 30:12.
[2] Sanhedrin 27b.
[3] Vayikrah Rabbah 4:6.
[4] Bamidbar 23:9.


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