Rabbi Soloveitchik on Ari Fuld zk”l and the Willow Jew

“The lion has roared, who will not fear” (Amos:3:8). “אַרְיֵה שָׁאָג, מִי לֹא יִירָא”

The Shelah Hakadosh (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz 1555-1630) suggests that this verse hints to this precise time of year. The word lion, aryeh, should be read as an acronym:

Alef = Elul, Resh = Rosh Hashanah, Yud = Yom Kippur, Heh = Hoshanah Rabah

א= אלול, ר = ראש השנה, י = יום כפור, ה = הושענא רבה

(opening to Masechet Rosh Hashanah).

The sacred soul of Ari Fuld zk”l was brutally and tragically taken from us during our most sacred season. Ari’s passionate roar, defending the Jewish nation, was heard each day during a lifetime of dedication and devotion to the Jewish homeland. His roar was heard most profoundly, across the globe, on that fateful day when he rose like a lion and pursued his vicious enemy who was bent on murdering other innocent Jews.

The precious days of Sukkot conclude when we take in our hands branches of willow on the morning of Hoshanah Rabah. A curious ritual.

The well known midrash relates that each of the four species symbolize different kinds of Jews (Vayikra Rabbah 20). The Etrog is a Jew that is saturated with Torah and mitzvot. The Lulav symbolizes the Jew of Torah but lacking in good deeds. The Myrtle contains many mitzvot but lacks true Torah knowledge. Finally the Aravah, the willow, is lacking is both areas of Torah and mitzvot.

Therefore it is unexpected that only the aravah, the willow, is used for two mitzvot during the holiday of sukkot. The only one of the four species afforded this honor. First, of course, as part of the four species and then it stands alone on Hoshanah Rabah as the ‘mitzvah of the aravah.’

In truth, this unique ritual echoes the observance of the Temple on Hoshanah Rabah two thousand years ago. Very high aravah branches, over 20 feet tall, were cut and then carefully placed on each side of mizbeach, the large outer altar. The Jews gathered in the courtyard would then circle the aravot and the mizbeach seven times.

Why is the aravah, the willow, given special honor as we close out the festival?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l suggests that although the aravah, the willow branch, symbolizes the Jew that lacks substantive Torah and Mitzvot,  such a Jew may still contain other majestic attributes. Consider the Jew who has been moser nefesh, who has sacrificed and possibly even given the ultimate sacrifice, giving their own life, for the sake of Heaven. How many Jews have made great sacrifices, and even have given their lives for the sake of their most precious principles of our faith. The willow leaning on the altar represents the Jew that has surrendered something of great value for the sake of a noble cause, for the sake of the commandments, for the sake of love for Hashem.

Ari Fuld, was an ‘Etrog Jew’, saturated with Torah and Mitzvot, but unlike many ‘Etrog Jews’, Ari was also a ‘Willow Jew” who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Mizbeach Hashem, the Altar of God, giving every ounce of his being, literally, for his beloved people and beloved Land. Ari’s memorable line: “If life is easy you are not living it right”, was a reflection of his inner being that  battled for truth and for justice.

Millions of people watched the now indelible footage of Ari in his last moments pursuing the terrorist. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited the family following the tragedy he remarked in amazement how Ari was able to access his last drops of blood in order to jump over a wall and cut down the killer. Ari’s brother Doni responded at the funeral, “Prime Minister, I think you may have been mistaken. It was not the last drop of blood; he no longer had blood running through his veins. At that point it was his neshama, his soul, that powered him in his last moments.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasized one important detail regarding the manner the willows were placed on the mizbeach: ve’rashehem kafufim al gabei hamizbeach (Sukkah 45a), ‘the tops of the aravah were bent over the altar.’ When we watch that gut wrenching video of Ari on that heroic day, the clip comes to a close and we see Ari leaning against the wall and taking his last breaths. The image of the willow leaning on the mizbeach in the Beit Hamikdash now takes on new meaning. The tall aravah, with its head bent over the altar, this is the posture of a tall man, a great man, who has gave every ounce of his strength and all his might for the sake of Heaven.

One who dies “al kiddush Hashem”, sanctifying God’s name, is given immeasurable reward. In the vernacular we say that such a person goes directly to heaven. The Talmud describes seven levels of heaven (Chagigah 12a). What is the highest level of heaven? The Talmud names each strata. Amazingly, the highest strata is called aravot, which means willows. The Kabbalah teaches that this place in heaven symbolizes the space of bittul, selflessness, the place where one puts everything aside for the sake of Hashem. This is the willow. Intentionally it nullifies itself so that it can fill itself with one goal: Namely, to be in service to the Creator.

Following the aravot ceremony, when the pilgrims who visited Jerusalem on Sukkot began to exit the area of the Temple, they cried out: “How beautiful you are, O Altar” (Sukkah 45a). With tears still flowing from our own eyes we cry out with these same words about you Ari: How beautiful is your mizbeach. How glorious was your life of loyalty and self-sacrifice for the sake of Torah, for Am Yisrael and for Eretz Yisrael. Each of us want our lives to reflect the daring, devotion and holiness which permeated yours. You lived each moment. Your life will never be forgotten. You continue to inspire a nation.

Yehi Zichro Baruch, May your life be an eternal blessing.

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