Esrog: The Symbol of Jewish Beauty
A woman in her seventies had a heart attack and was taken to the hospital. While on the operating table she had a near death experience. She had the opportunity to ask Hashem, “Is my time up?” Hashem answered directly, “No, you have another 23 years, 2 months and 8 days to live.”
Given that, the woman decided to stay in the hospital after her recovery so that she could obtain a face-lift and liposuction. To complete her makeover, she even had someone come in and change her hair color and brighten her teeth. After all, she thought, since she had so much more time to live, she might as well make the most of it.
After the operation, she was released from the hospital. While crossing the street on her way home, she was struck by a car. Arriving at Hashem’s door, she demanded, “I thought you said I had another 23 years? Why didn’t you pull me from out of the path of the speeding car?” Hashem answered: “I would have, but I didn’t recognize you.”
This week, Jews around the world will universally take the exact same four species. Whether of Ashkenazic or Sephardic descent, or from North America, South America, the Eastern Hemisphere or Western Hemisphere, all Jews understand the biblical command to take a pri eitz ha’dar to mean that they are obligated to take an esrog. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of varieties of citrus fruit – oranges, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and the list goes on. How do we know that a pri etz hadar, a beautiful citrus fruit, is specifically an esrog?
The Talmud (Sukka 25a) draws the conclusion that a pri eitz ha’dar is an esrog by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, ha’dar. The Gemara concludes it is the esrog tree, because the word “hadar” in truth has two meanings, beautiful and to dwell. They therefore interpret the pasuk to be referring to a fruit that is dar ba’ilan, “dwells continuously all year on the tree.” The esrog, alone fulfills the requirement of constant dwelling. Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains that while most other fruits are seasonal, the esrog grows, blossoms, and produces fruit throughout all the seasons. It braves the cold, withstands the heat, remains firm and upright in the wind, and stubbornly persists in surviving the storm. The esrog is truly dar, it dwells consistently and constantly. In fact, the Hebrew word dar is very similar to the English word endure.
In other words, by having the same word, hadar, mean both beautiful and endure, the Torah is communicating the Jewish definition of beauty. Beauty is not about the superficial and purely aesthetic. Beauty is not that which is temporary and fleeting. Many other trees and their fruits fit that narrow definition. Rather, true beauty, says the Torah, is the esrog, the ability to endure and withstand the winds around us. Beauty is having an indomitable spirit, to live with determination, to not veer from the path, abandon the mission, or stray from our convictions.
Beauty is not skin deep. It is found in the spirit of endurance, the tenacity and resolve to continue with our convictions intact. The Torah mandate of V’hadarta pnei zakein is usually translated as “honor and stand up for the elderly.” The root of v’hadarta is dar. We respect the elderly for their beauty. Their skin may show the test of time, their joints may have the wear and tear of decades, they may be slow or infirm, but their strength to endure demonstrates an unsurpassed beauty, worthy of respect and admiration.
Shai Agnon, the great Israeli Nobel laureate whose image adorns the 50-shekel note, lived in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot and was a neighbor of a famous elderly rabbi from Russia. One year, prior to Sukkos, Agnon met his rabbinic neighbor at the neighborhood store selling esrogim. There Agnon noticed how meticulous his neighbor was in choosing an esrog. Even though he was a person of limited means, the rabbi insisted on purchasing the finest, and by extension most expensive, esrog available. After examining many specimens, the rabbi finally chose the one he wished and paid for it.
Walking home with Agnon, the rabbi emphasized to him how important it was to have a beautiful, flawless esrog on Sukkos, and how the beauty of the esrog was part of the fulfillment of the Divine commandment for the holiday. On Sukkos morning Agnon noticed that the rabbi was without an esrog at the synagogue services. Perplexed, Agnon asked the rabbi where his beautiful esrog was.
The rabbi answered by relating the following incident:
“I awoke early, as is my wont, and prepared to recite the blessing over the esrog in my sukkah located on my balcony. As you know, we have a neighbor with a large family, and our balconies adjoin. As you also know, our neighbor, the father of all these children next door, is a man of short temper. Many times he shouts at them or even hits them for violating his rules and wishes. I have spoken to him many times about his harshness but to little avail.
“As I stood in the sukkah on my balcony, about to recite the blessing for the esrog, I heard a child’s weeping coming from the next balcony. It was a little girl crying, one of the children of our neighbor. I walked over to find out what was wrong. She told me that she too had awakened early and had gone out on her balcony to examine her father’s esrog, whose delightful appearance and fragrance fascinated her. Against her father’s instructions, she removed the esrog from its protective box to examine it. She unfortunately dropped the esrog on the stone floor, irreparably damaging it and rendering it unacceptable for ritual use. She knew that her father would be enraged and would punish her severely, perhaps even violently. Hence the frightened tears and wails of apprehension.
“I comforted her, and I then took my esrog and placed it in her father’s box, taking the damaged esrog to my premises. I told her to tell her father that his neighbor insisted that he accept the gift of the beautiful esrog, and that he would be honoring me and the holiday by so doing.”
Agnon concludes the story by saying: “My rabbinic neighbor’s damaged, bruised, ritually unusable esrog was the most beautiful esrog I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
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