1. I read the assigned passage from Israel Bettan’s Studies in Jewish Preaching. On pages 20-21, Bettan refers to a midrash of Leviticus 23:40, which discusses four plants that the Israelites are to use during the Feast of Tabernacles. The quotes will be from Bettan’s book.
The first plant is the “fruit of goodly trees”. According to the midrash, this plant is “both palatable and fragrant”, and thus represents the Jews who are learned in Torah and do good deeds. The second is the “branches of palm-trees”, which “though palatable is lacking in fragrance”. It represents Jews who are learned in Torah, and yet lack good deeds. The third plant, the “boughs of thick trees”, is fragrant but yields no delicious fruit, and it symbolizes Jews who have good deeds but not much Torah knowledge. The fourth plant, the “willows of the brook”, lacks both fragrance and delicious fruit, so it depicts Jews who “are destitute of good deeds as well as of Torah”.
According to the midrash, “when these four types merge into one united body, even as the four kinds of plants combine to form one complete ceremonial object, the shortcoming of the one is redeemed by the strength of the other, and the preservation of the whole is assured.”
At Harvard, Professor Jon Levenson said that this was one of his favorite midrashim. I remember him saying that it shows one doesn’t have to be “born again” to please God. I doubt that I can go with that and be a Christian in good standing, but I do feel that the midrash is a beautiful description of community—which allows people to edify one another, to fill in each other’s “gaps”, to quote Rocky Balboa. It reminds me of I Corinthians 12, which talks about the various members of the body of Christ, and how they need one another.
But what about the Jew who has both Torah learning and good deeds? Why would he need the other Jews, the ones who have deficiencies? Maybe so he can avoid self-righteousness and practice service and compassion. Which should we be more interested in: patting ourselves on the back, or passing along our wisdom so it can help somebody else?
2. I read more of Lee Levine’s Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity. On page 93, Levine states that Herod avoided “figural representations in his palaces and public buildings (within Jewish Judea) and also demanded circumcision before allowing female members of his family to marry non-Jews”. Herod was notorious for being scrupulous about the rituals of the Torah, while ignoring the love-aspect. There was a saying that it was better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son. The reason was that Herod did not kill pigs to eat them, for he observed kosher. Yet, he had some of his sons put to death.
I wonder what kind of plant he would be…