Ours won! Ours won!
During the Sukkot festival, we are commanded to take the Four Species. It would seem that the minimalist halakhah requires us merely to take up the etrog, lulav, myrtle and willow branches and recite the appropriate blessing. However, already in the Mishnah (Sukkah 3:9) we find mention of the practice of shaking them. The Gemara (Sukka 37b) explains the manner in which they should be waved, citing, inter alia, the words of R. Hama bar Ukba:
In the West [i.e., the Land of Israel] they learned thusly: R. Hama bar Ukba said in the name of R. Yossi son of R. Hanina: [One shakes it] back and forth – in order to stop foul winds, up and down – in order to stop foul dew.
In the “studies” section of his commentary, R. Adin Steinsaltz brings an idea in the name of the Jerusalem Talmud: Why is it shaken? In order to shake the power of the accuser.
That is to say: we shake the Four Species in order to overcome certain forces of nature and other forces that could hurt us.
The struggle between those evil forces which might harm us and the possibility of overcoming them is also described in the following midrashic tale:
Abba Yosi of Tzitor would always sit and study by a certain spring. A spirit that was found there revealed itself before him and told him: Do you not know that I sit in your company these many years and have never done you evil, great or small? Your wives also come here each morning and evening to draw water and they are unharmed, but now you should know that there is an evil spirit [here] which harms people.
Abba Yossi asked the spirit: What shall we do?
The spirit told him: Go warn the townspeople and tell them: Anyone who has a hoe or a rake should come here tomorrow “when the day grows,” they should look at the surface of the water and when they see a whirl in it they should strike it with an iron tool and say: Ours won! Ours won! They should not leave until they see a drop of blood on the surface of the water. So did Abba Yossi. (Vayikra Rabba 24:3)
Can the concepts appearing in this midrash involving evil spirits and the possibility of gaining victory over evil spirits in the manner described in the story speak to modern people? Can we connect them to the custom of shaking the Four Species and find in them significance for Jews of our generation?
Modern people are also sometimes threatened by various and sundry threats. Sometimes the physical survival of the individual and the security of the public, the community or the nation face a real threat.
It seems that there exist many strategies for judging the balance of power, gathering needed intelligence, and choosing the most effective means for the neutralization and achievement of “victory” over real threats. For instance, a strategic assessment can consider the chances of beating the enemy in battle, the cost to be paid for victory, and first and foremost it must define the meaning of “victory” in the particular case, i.e., to determine what is to be gained by battle and what are the chances of its achievement.
Similarly, it may happen that when all options are considered, intelligence and strategic assessment will lead to the conclusion that military action has no advantage over other means (negotiations, mediation, and international pressure) for the removal or mitigation of the threat.
It should be supposed and hoped for that if the events of the recent war are investigated seriously by an independent body, we will know to what extent those in charge assessed the threat accurately, clearly defined the goals of realistic “victory,” considered all available options, and chose the best and most effective course of action to achieve their defined goals. In light of the calls for the establishment of a state commission of inquiry, it may be assumed that much of the public feels that the conduct of the war was flawed. Beyond the real and present danger, one sometimes feels threatened by a demonic force which floods him with potentially paralyzing fear. In contrast to the actual threat, here the source of the danger is undefined, making it impossible to develop a rational strategy for vanquishing the threat based on the assessment of information.
In the midrash quoted above, Abba Yossi of Tzitor asks the “good spirit” what should be done in order to overcome the “bad spirit” that might hurt the townspeople. The good spirit suggests something that sounds like a magical rite. However, the story can bear a different reading.
Abba Yossi of Tzitor sat by the spring and studied. It is not surprising that he was connected to the “good spirit.” A person who studies is in touch with the positive and constructive parts of his soul; through study and observation of the spring he can find the way to overcome his destructive elements, his “evil spirits.” The “weapons” needed for doing battle against the evil spirit are not really instruments of war; it seems that the cry “Our’s won!” is what decided the outcome of the struggle. Here we have an inner conflict with the forces of evil that can overcome a person or a society. Such evil elements can be beaten by emphasizing the good, by cultivating faith in the ability of the good to gain victory over evil, and by struggling for that faith.
I think that Agnon’s story “From Foe to Friend” suggests an interesting way to conduct this struggle.
In the beginning of the story, the author finds himself in a desperate conflict with a wind [ruah – which also means spirit]. He tries various means to deal with it, but “I saw that I cannot conduct a discussion with someone stronger than me, so I left.” Thus, the story continues with an endless and Sisyphean struggle against the wind that has been designated as his enemy. Finally
I took some strong boards and beams and large stones and plaster and cement, and I hired good workers and oversaw them day and night. My wisdom endured, and I deepened the foundations. The house was built.
When the house was standing, the wind came and knocked on the shutters.
I asked: “Who is knocking on my window?”
It calmed and said: “A neighbor.”
I said to it: “What does one neighbor ask another on such a stormy night?”
He laughed and said: “A neighbor comes to congratulate his neighbor on his new house.”
I said to him: “Is it his custom to enter through windows like a thief? Come, knock on my door.”
The wind said: “I am your neighbor.”
I said: “You are my neighbor, come inside.”
He said: “But the door is locked.”
I said to him: “The door is locked; it seems I locked it.”
The wind answered, saying: “Open up.”
I said: “I am afraid of the cold, wait until the sun comes out and I shall open it for you…”
I took a hoe and tilled the earth…not many days passed before the seedlings I had planted became trees with branches. I made a bench for myself and sat in their shade.
One night the wind came and hurled itself against the trees.
The trees hurled themselves against the wind.
The wind became dispirited, he turned and left.
From then on, he brings a nice fragrance from the mountains and from the valleys… and I love him with a complete love. It is even possible that he loves me as well.
This story contains an echo of the definition of the valiant in Avot De’Rabbi Natan (chapter 23):
Who is the most valiant among the valiant? He who makes his enemy love him.
I think that while shaking the Four Species this year, we should reflect upon the deeper meaning of the difficult internal battle which can help us overcome the evil spirit of hatred, bigotry, and aggressiveness which can gain control of us. We should change “a foe into a friend” and then we shall be able to announce whole-heartedly and with great conviction: “Our’s has won” – our original faith and values have won.
Pinchas Leiser, the editor of Shabbat Shalom, is a psychologist