Who knew a palm frond and a willow could be so interesting

A ritual can appear ludicrous if you don’t understand the meaning of it. But sometimes you have to experience something for the obvious to enter your skull.

It was a sort of moody Sunday afternoon, overcast though the clouds were passing swiftly across the sky. Why were they in such a hurry?

I was in my typical spot for this time of day on Sunday: the slope of Dolores Park. The black blur down the hill from me was my dog Fred running to catch the ball. I know why he was in a hurry.

But I didn’t feel like going anywhere, surrounded by a magnificent view of the city and lush trees and plants everywhere. The sun shone through a break in the clouds onto flowers nearby, and for a minute I felt like I was in an impressionist painting.

As my mind wandered, it occurred to me that it was the middle of Sukkot. I hadn’t done anything; there were no palm fronds in my backyard. But this afternoon, nature had found a way of reminding me of what the holiday was about — a celebration of the vitality of nature and my not taking it for granted.

That’s how we celebrated Sukkot at my temple growing up — we built a sukkah, hung fruit from it and had a nice barbecue. The congregation president was good with the grill.

But here in the park were the fruits of a different kind of harvest — the chance to relax in a beautiful place with my dog — an “American dream” interpretation of the holiday’s intent.

So imagine my surprise as I looked down the hill and spotted an actual sukkah standing there. This was enough to get me down the slope to see who was responsible.

Turns out Chabad of Noe Valley was finishing up a Sukkot party in the park. Adults were dismantling the sukkah; little kids in yarmulkes were chasing my dog.

Rabbi Gedalia Potash whisked me over when he saw me lingering on the periphery. I happily accepted the rabbi’s invitation to shake the lulav — something I had never done before.

Now I have to be honest. Earlier in the week, when I had learned that my friend’s housemate had spent $50 on these two ritual items, I scoffed. Why would one need to buy an imported exotic fruit to celebrate? Couldn’t you, in the spirit of Alice Waters, substitute some locally grown fruit and plants?

What did I know?

The rabbi looked around and borrowed someone’s cap to serve as my kippah while I said the prayer with the ritual items. First I said a blessing for Sukkot, then a Shehechiyanu.

This would have just been an interesting way to celebrate the holiday without any deeper meaning — if Potash hadn’t offered a compelling interpretation to go with the prayers and waving of the etrog and lulav.

First of all, the rabbi explained, the lulav was made of the palm, the myrtle and the willow. The lulav has taste but no smell, the myrtle has smell but no taste, and the willow has neither. Taste represents knowledge and smell represents righteous action. The lulav was only complete when Jews who fell into each of these categories were united and accounted for in community.

This was interesting. And so was the rabbi’s explanation of Sukkot: as the celebration of God’s joke — not a joke in the mean-spirited sense, but in the fun, unexpected spirit. That God’s agreement with the Jewish people at Yom Kippur is an unexpected blessing one should always acknowledge and not take for granted.

The obvious was seeping in.

One thing that has always made me happy to be Jewish is the sense that we are a religion based in good-natured arguments. While not everything that Potash said resonated with me, I thought his interpretations were vivid and compelling. Another rabbi may offer differing yet also compelling arguments about similar topics. But now I appreciate the rituals of Sukkot without any sense of mystification or awkwardness.

And who knows? Maybe next Sukkot I’ll shake the lulav again.

Jay Schwartz plays the trap drums in San Francisco, where he lives with his wife and canine. He can be reached at [email protected].

columnist wanted

Think you can write punchy columns about yourself and the Bay Area Jewish community? We’re looking for a new columnist who can add poignancy, humor, pathos and spirituality to The Column on a rotating basis. Send samples to [email protected].