Will There Be Lulavim?

The avodah [service] of the Aseres Yamei Teshuvah [the Ten Days of Repentance, the High Holy Day Period] is almost entirely internal. On Rosh Hashanah, for instance, the principle mitzvah of the day is the blowing of the Shofar, the primary fulfillment of which is through listening. The blowing of the Shofar triggers a host of mental associations connected to the day – a summons to judgment, the blasts heralding the arrival of a king.

The Shofar also recalls the original act of Divine inspiration when Hashem breathed into Adam’s nostrils the cheilek Eloka mi’ma’al (the Divine soul). In the process, we are taken back to the original moment of Creation – “the first of Your acts” – and invited to consider anew the purpose for which Adam and each of us was created: to use his Divine soul to reveal Hashem.

On Yom Kippur, we refrain from certain physical activities. But the primary purpose of the “afflictions” of the day is to put us in a particular frame of mind – i.e., to lift us above the physical world to the point that we view the yetzer hara as something external to us, just as it was at the moment of Creation. Temporarily freed from the dominion of the Satan (the Talmud notes that the gematria [numerical value] of HaSatan is 364), we are better able to engage in the real work of the day, the recognition of how we have distanced ourselves from Hashem through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Yet the purely internal avodah of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not complete by itself, no matter how piercing our insights or intense our emotions. Rabbi Noson Weisz puts the matter forcefully in one of his weekly articles on the parashah. Intense emotion – even the desire for teshuvah of Yom Kippur — can easily become a form of “entertainment.” Anything that lifts us momentarily out of the realm of the humdrum and routine is by nature “entertaining.” But no matter how uplifted and inspired we may be during those “entertaining” moments, we will quickly revert the next day to our previous selves unless the uplift is translated into concrete action.

Verbal confession and expressions of regret do not alone constitute the full teshuva process. The character traits that caused us to sin in the first place must be uprooted through physical expressions of the opposite traits. The ultimate goal is nothing less than a total restructuring of our personalities in accord with the golden mean described by the Rambam (see Ohr Somayach to Devarim 31:17).

The Jewish calendar gives expression to this need to concretize the inspiration and insights of the Yomim Noraim. The days between Yom Kippur and Sukkos are marked by a flurry of activity: the building of the sukkah; the search for the four species. And Sukkos itself might be described as the sanctification of our normal physical activities. Our most mundane activities — eating, drinking, and sleeping – all become mitzvos when done in the sukkah – part of the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah.

The evenings of Chol HaMoed [the Intermediate Days of the Festival] are filled with dancing and singing at reenactments of the Simchat Beis HaShoeva that took place in the Temple. The special joy of the Chag is, in part, brought about by that intense physical activity of singing and dancing.

AND UNLIKE, ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR, Sukkos has a specific physical mitzvah – the taking of the four species. This year, however, it is far from clear whether there will be an adequate supply of lulavim at non-extortionate prices for all those eager to have their own set of the dalet minim [four species] for the Chag. Every day brings new reports concerning whether Egypt, the major supplier of lulavim worldwide for the past two decades, has granted any export licenses for lulavim this year, and whether those licenses, if granted, went exclusively to a non-religious supplier, who now holds a monopoly in the lulav market.

This much is certain, as I write four days before Yom Kippur, the bustling markets for the four species are far quieter than normal for this time of the year, and the usual spate of advertisements for sets of the dalet minim are largely absent from shul walls.

No one quite expects a return to the situation in Europe of previous centuries in which there was only one set of dalet minim for each shtetl, and even in larger cities, there might be only a few sets in each shul. From the point of view of Jewish unity, at least, that might not be such a bad thing. (Rabbi Dessler points out that Jewish unity is one of the major themes of Sukkos. The mini-exile of going into the sukkah described by the Yalkut is a partial corrective for the sinas chinam that led to our Galus.)

When everyone shares one set of dalet minim, there is no room for kinah or kavod. And we would all be spared the moment of panic in shul every morning when we take out our dalet minim and ask ourselves, “Is my esrog beautiful enough, my lulav long enough, are my aravos wilted compared to those of my fellow shul-goers?”

Far more likely than a complete absence of lulavim is that prices will rise steeply, and many families will find themselves with fewer sets of dalet minim than in years past. And minor children, who have grown used to receiving their own sets, will do without.

It will take many months to unravel all the twists and turns of this year’s lulav saga, and given the number of players, it is doubtful if any one person will ever have the full story.

My own perspective is limited to that of the friend from whom I purchase lulavim every year. Already last year, when I went to pick out my lulavim, he told me that he had been unable to transport his lulavim from Egypt to Israel through the same channels as years past due to a late ban issued by the Egyptian Minister of Agriculture on cutting the branches from date trees. (Most of the larger importers of lulavim from Egypt had already shipped their lulavim by then.) My friend warned then that we were in for a disaster this year if that ban was not rescinded.

Approximately six months ago, I heard from my friend again. He had learned that Egyptian and Israeli agriculture ministry officials were scheduled to meet to discuss the ban, and was busy trying to ascertain the outcome of those discussions. He was directed to the Israeli consulate in Cairo, and called every day for two weeks. Each time, he was told that the relevant official was on vacation. If and when the relevant consular official ever returned from vacation, he did not respond to the messages that had been left for him.

That failure was crucial. My friend kept me abreast of these developments because he was eager for me to use my contacts with Agudath Israel of America, which sponsors my office, in the hopes that Agudah might use its influence in Washington D.C. to bring American pressure to bear on Egypt. That was by no means a far-fetched thought. The intervention of Rabbi Moshe Sherer with Congressman Stephen Solarz, then the chairman of the House Foreign Relations subcommittee dealing with Turkey was crucial in securing Turkish agreement in the early 1980’s to allow Jews fleeing Iran to pass through Turkey. In a similar vein, it was thought that Egypt would think twice before turning down a request from a well-placed congressman or senator sitting on a crucial committee dealing with the Middle East. (The Egyptian ban, of course, had domestic American implications as well, since many of the lulavim sold in America are also imported from Egypt.)

Without some official confirmation of an ongoing Egyptian ban on all cutting and export of lulavim, however, Abba Cohen, head of Agudath Israel’s Washington office, could not start contacting legislators. If the rumors of the ban turned out to be untrue, or if the Egyptian decision had been reversed in discussions with Israeli officials, Agudath Israel’s reputation for always presenting a well-researched brief would suffer. Confirmation of the ongoing Egyptian ban, however, was never forthcoming from Israeli officials.

Worse, less than two months before Sukkos, an Israeli agricultural ministry official informed MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni that Egypt had issued permits for the cutting and export of half a million lulavim, a claim that was almost certainly unfounded at the time. As a consequence, another opportunity to employ the Washington card was missed.

When it finally became clear that the ban was real, and had not been circumvented in one way or another, Agudath Israel’s Washington office put on a full court press on legislators, the Egyptian embassy, and the Israeli embassy. Even the partial success of those efforts was enough to demonstrate how much more could have been achieved with more advance notice.

What lesson should we draw if many find themselves without lulavim this Sukkos, or if the prices have skyrocketed because some shady character managed to secure, by hook or by crook, the only permit for export from Egypt? Anger at the Israeli government for its generally lackadaisical attitude to the possibility that Jews around the world would be unable to celebrate with their dalet minim this Sukkos is natural.

But I will not spare myself a share of the blame for not having responded to my friend’s warnings with a greater sense of urgency and for failing to pursue more aggressively other channels of information about the Egyptian ban. The main lesson to be learned is the danger of the prevalent attitude that things will somehow work themselves out and/or someone else will take care of it.

Published in today’s Hamodia,

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