Growing up in Cleveland a quarter century ago (has it been that long?!) I accompanied my father to Jacob’s Judaica store to purchase the four species for Sukkot. The back of the store, down a few steps, was the designated Sukkot area. Men were crowded into the small space, examining specimens of Etrogim and holding up lulavim to examine the posture of their spines. The Hadassim were scrutinized carefully to determine that the three leaves on each segment of the branch stemmed from the same level. There were white boxes stacked up, each containing a citron fruit wrapped in flax to preserve its freshness and to prevent bruising from handling. Each box had a price written on it, reflecting the quality of the fruit inside. The price of the Etrog would cover the entire set, as the other species were thrown in after the purchase of the Etrog. $55 was the price I remember that we paid for a fair set back then, although I could be mistaken. There were nicer sets that sold for $65 and passable sets sold for $45.
We were told stories about the difficulty of procuring an Etrog in war ravaged Europe in the previous century. Poverty stricken families would save up their pennies to afford a nice Etrog for Sukkot, and sometimes entire communities had to put their resources together in order to obtain one kosher set for the entire community. Great sacrifices were made to fulfill this Mitzvah in parts of the world where it was not easily done. These stories were fables for me. In Shul on Sukkot there was a forest of Lulavim swaying during the recitation of Hallel. There were no shortages, and you needn’t break the bank to purchase a nice set of the Four Species.
In Israel those stories grew even more surreal as the markets buzzed with Sukkot business in the days and weeks leading up to the festival. Special markets crop up every year with a sea of Etrogim, covering the entire spectrum of shades from avocado green to lemon yellow, and every imaginable size and shape. Prices vary in the extreme, according to the quality and pedigree of each Etrog. Tens of thousands of Palm trees contribute to the array of Lulavim made available for the finicky connoisseurs, which Jews become during this season. Buckets full of myrtle branches sit in water, waiting to be chosen along with two others and then used for the Mitzvah. Kids quickly become seasoned salesmen as they seize the opportunity to sell willow branches that complete the set of four species. No one is left without an opportunity to purchase a set.
In small communities in the US the smorgasbord is more limited. Often you must place a blind order on a set that was pre-certified as kosher by inspecting rabbis and experts. The experience of feasting the eyes on hundreds of specimens in not possible without traveling to a larger city, but Mitzvah is fulfilled nonetheless.
New Zealand has an impenetrable wall of bio-security around it. (Australia does too, but the Jewish community is large enough that they can get around many of the obstacles.) No plant matter is allowed into the borders of the country without special permits and strict supervision. Two months prior to Sukkot we must place our order and communicate with customs officials. When the species arrive they are inspected and quarantined by customs and may not be removed from the shul building, which is required to post signs to that effect. After Sukkot we must return every last leaf to custom agents for their destruction, and we can finally remove the signs indicating that there are bio-hazards in the building. The community functions during the festival sharing the few sets that remain kosher after customs apply their magical touch. Never have I encountered such difficulty and sacrifice to obtain a set of four species. I can only now relate to the tales of my youth, when an Etrog was a tremendous luxury, procured at great expense and effort.
The Tur (Orach Chaim 625) explains that Sukkot relegated to the Autumn, when people normally vacate their summer lodging and return to their warm homes in anticipation of winter. Specifically at this time of the year Jews are bidden to leave the warmth of their homes and dwell in the Sukkah, to demonstrate that they are doing this for the sake of the Mitzvah and not for their own enjoyment and comfort. This has always made for good drasha material as long as our location was in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere, however, it is the beginning of spring, ostensibly the time of year when people would prepare to move out into their summer huts. There would be nothing unique about building a Sukkah during this time of the year! Thank goodness this season is the windiest season in Wellington. It is next to impossible to keep the Schach on the Sukkah throughout the week of Sukkot. The Sukkah itself needs to be bolted solidly to the ground or a building wall to ensure it doesn’t blow away. No one in their right mind would choose this time of the year to live in the open if it wasn’t for the Mitzvah. The Tur’s logic remains true at least for this part of the southern hemisphere.
A Mitzvah has great inherent value even if there is no difficulty in its fulfillment. The spiritual metabolism of a Mitzvah achieves its role regardless of the effort involved. Whether one uses an electric sparker to light the fireplace or one toils for an hour with a tinderbox to coax a spark, the fire will give the identical warmth. However, there is another dimension to each Mitzvah, and the value of this additional dimension is commensurate to the effort expended in its fulfillment. The relationship one has built with the Mitzvah and through the Mitzvah is much deeper when it is fulfilled with sacrifice. Challenge in a Mitzvah must be seen as opportunity, enhancing manifold the value of its fulfillment. One cannot compare the quick waving of the lulav and Etrog on the way out to work to the sacrifice involved in making a special trip to the shul on the way to work, entering the “quarantined area” to seize this special opportunity of engaging in this Mitzvah. Seen purely as a mere fulfillment of the Mitzvah, the two acts are identical. The waving of the lulav in shul fulfills the exact Mitzvah one would have snatched at home. But the relationship aspect is different as the distance between heaven and earth.
Sitting in the Sukkah in warm weather, made even nicer by a light, cool breeze, is a perfect fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Sukkah. But wrapped in shawls and a heavy winter coat to cut the chill of strong cold winds shows the commitment to a Mitzvah and fosters a powerful relationship with the Creator of the world and the Commander of the Mitzvah,