It was almost a month ago when I noticed a woman wearing a bright yarmulke as I pulled into the parking lot of my usual Starbucks. I’m not going to lie. There was some part of me that had the gut feeling of an eye roll or groan. I wasn’t proud of that reaction. To be honest I don’t even know where it came from other than something that has seeped into me from my time in the Orthodox community.
When I entered I thought I saw the woman in front of me in line. I couldn’t be sure as she wasn’t wearing a yarmulke. We both continued on in the usual coffee shop procedure; waiting, ordering, then waiting again for the drink to be ready. All the while, I wanted to reach out to her. But I didn’t want to offend and I didn’t even know what I wanted to say. Finally the barista called out, “drink for Keilah!” The woman grabbed the drink and was on her way out.
Then the words jumped out, “Excuse me, Keilah?”
She turned to me, “Yes?”
“Hi. I’m Ben. Question for you. Were you wearing a kippah when you walked in?”
Seeing my yarmulke she likely suspected I was from the more observant side of town. Cautiously she answered, “…Yes.”
My follow up, “Why did you take it off?
What would follow would be a 10 minute conversation where two Jews from different styles of observance learned about each other without judgment or assumption. I was sad to learn that when Keilah goes places with more observant Jews wearing her kippah, often times she is confronted, told that she is being inappropriate. Though I don’t know the specific halachas (Torah laws) of wearing a yarmulke, a woman keeping her head covered, gender specific clothing, or any other considerations that might inform her dress or what someone thinks gives them the right offer tochacha (rebuke) to such a person, I believe that we happen to be living in a time of disunity. And maybe making a connection might be more important than being right.
The 4 Species
One of the most bizarre mitzvahs in all of Judaism is performed during the holiday of Succos. The shaking of the lulav and esrog is particularly a spectacle when you see grown men in black suits with full beards carrying around large green stalks and a bumpy lemon. But the mitzvah actually contains four different plant species, the date palm branch (aka the lulav), the esrog (a bright yellow/green fruit), the hadassam (round myrtle leaves) and aravah (long willow leaves). The mitzvah is to bring the four together and wave them in all directions; front, right side, back, left side, up, and then down, always returning the four back to our heart between each shake.
There are tomes of symbolism and Kabbalistic spiritual meaning I could rattle on about concerning this mitzvah. But one in particular I think is appropriate pertaining to the story above. There is a midrash that comments that the four species represents four types of Jews. The esrog has taste and a pleasant smell. The fruit of the date branch has taste but no smell. The hadassam has smell but no taste. And the aravah, no taste and no smell. What do these represent in our people? The midrash says that taste corresponds to a Jew with Torah and spirituality while the pleasant smell symbolizes maasim tovim, good deeds. By bringing the four species together, we are reminding ourselves that in order to be a whole people, we need unity despite what level any of us may hold.
Today I met up with Keilah for coffee. I learned she is a Rabbi at an organization known as Ikar. Ikar’s founder Rabbi Sharon Brous, felt years ago that she either found Jews that were spiritually connected or concerned with social justice. But no organizations united the two. So she decided to build one that essentially set out to accomplished the spirit of this Succos mitzvah. I may not agree with every approach Ikar takes or every person who comes to their events, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have a profound respect for their mission.
Rabbi Moshe Cohen asked concerning the aravah, “What Jew exists that has absolutely no Torah and no good deeds?” It’s an impossibility. So who is the midrash talking about? My own personal answer is that the aravah doesn’t refer to an actual Jew with no Torah or maasim tovim, but who we perceive to lack them. We can’t know what a person actually thinks or does. So to the people we think have no Torah and good deeds, we should bring them close and see them for who they really are.
It is an idea in Torah that the Jewish people are a microcosm for the world. It is no illusion that the world is more divided than it has ever been. Tribalism and us-vs-them mentality dominate the tone while victory is far more valued than truth and justice. It is said that many holidays embody the spirit of coming together. But Succos seems to have that embedded in every facet of the chag. Building a Sukkah with help from a neighbor, emphasis on hospitality, getting out of your usual and familiar work space, and of course message of the four species.
What better time is it to approach a fellow Jew and, without judgment or trying to tell them what you think, actually learn about a perspective you might find unfamiliar? If you don’t agree, fine. Learn why they find their perspective so important. And maybe you’ll find you’ve been following a halacha you know nothing about! You still don’t have to agree with them, but at least now you have clarity on why you don’t. But most importantly, as another favorite Rabbi of mine once said, “No one cares what you know, if they don’t know that you care.” This Succos, may we all be able to get out of our comfort zone and make a new connection.