According to Midrash, the four minim used on Sukkos symbolize four different types of Jews. The delicious tasting and fragrant esrog represents those with Torah and good deeds; the hadas, with its fragrant scent but no taste, represents those who have good deeds but no Torah study; the lulav, with its tasty fruit but no scent, represents those who study Torah but do not engage in good deeds; finally, the aravah, with no taste or scent, represents those who lack both good deeds and Torah study.
If there was a multiple choice question asking which of the four species doesn’t belong, aravah would be the obvious answer. It’s hard to see, as the Sefas Emes (5640) notes, why the aravah, being that it lacks any distinction, counts as a min at all.
The means of our observance of Sukkos reflects the dialectic nature of our avodas Hashem, as we discussed last year based on the Ishbitza (here). On the one hand, we have the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah, which can be observed passively, with no effort, even by just falling asleep within its walls. On the other hand, the mitzvah of lulav is accomplished through na’anuim, actively waving its branches around. Sukkah represents the ananei hakavod, Hashem’s clouds glory which surrounded the Jewish people, protecting them in a way which they could never accomplish through their own efforts. Lulav is likened in the Midrash to a sword, waved by armies in celebration of their victory. Lulav represents where we are, what we have accomplished. Sukkah represents where are going, the levels we have not yet achieved, Hashem’s helping hand.
Even within the particulars of these mitzvos the same dialectic can be found. The dispute whether sukkah represents the ananei hakavod or actual huts is not a machlokes about metziyus – both must actually have existed – but rather a dispute about where to place the focal point of our celebration. Is sukkos about our willingness to follow Hashem’s command and enter the desert to live in humble huts, or is about the shield of protection that Hashem afforded our ancestors?
Esrog, lulav, and hadasim, representative of those with good deeds and/or Torah, are about what we have achieved. The Sefas Emes writes that these minim represent Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov. The aravah represents David HaMelech, who said of himself, “Ani tefilah,” I am prayer. The aravah’s shape resembles the lips, the conduit for our words of tefilah. Prayer is not about what we have done or can do, but about what we need Hashem to help us achieve.
When one cannot call upon the merit of good deeds, when one lacks the ability to study Torah and cannot call on the merit of scholarship, there still remains, “tefilah l’ani ki ya’atof,” the simple prayer which the poor man can wrap himself in to appear before G-d. Says the Sefas Emes, the name aravah is the same as the world arov, pleasant, because there is nothing more pleasant to G-d than listening to the prayers of those who have nothing else to offer. For this reason on the climax of the days of judgment, Hoshana Rabbah, we focus our attention not on the lulav, the esrog, or the hadasim, but rather on the aravah.
This is why the aravah belongs. No matter how many milestones we hit, the aravah reminds us that there is always more to strive for, more that we need Hashem to help us to achieve. No matter how strong our sukkos mamash, we should never forget the ananei hakavod without which our little huts would be blown away to nothing.