The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 30:12) writes that the esrog – which has both a taste and a fragrance – symbolizes Jews distinguished for Torah study (which is absorbed in the mind and gives intellectual satisfaction, analogous to food which is absorbed by the body and satisfies the palate) and good deeds (which, like fragrances, are pleasant but do not effect lasting change).
The lulav has a taste but no fragrance, symbolizing Jews distinguished for Torah study but not good deeds; hadassim have a fragrance but no taste, symbolizing Jews distinguished for good deeds but not Torah study; and arovos have neither a taste nor a smell, symbolizing Jews distinguished for neither Torah nor good deeds.
From this Midrash, it’s clear that the esrog is the choicest of the arba minim. If so, though, why is the beracha for the mitzvah “al netilas lulav” rather than “al netilas esrog”?
The reason usually given is that the lulav is the tallest of the four minim. But that itself requires explanation. Since the physical world reflects its spiritual source, the lulav cannot be taller than the other minim unless it’s superior to them in some fashion. But if the lulav symbolizes Jews who are only distinguished for Torah study, how could it be superior to the esrog, which symbolizes Jews who are distinguished for Torah study and good deeds?
The answer is that Torah study has a great advantage over all other mitzvos. Generally speaking, performing a mitzvah expresses a Jew’s obedience and subordination to Hashem as his body and soul become an extension of the Divine will. Yet, he remains a separate existence from Hashem, not fully united with Him.
When studying Torah, however, a Jew understands and absorbs into his mind Divine wisdom and the Divine will to the extent that they become one with him. His physical brain absorbs and envelops G-d’s Torah until his mind becomes a “Torah mind.” And since Hashem’s wisdom and will are united with Hashem Himself, he actually becomes a single entity with Hashem (see Tanya, chapter 5).
Thus, a Jew whose primary distinction is Torah study has an element of superiority even over one distinguished for both Torah study and good deeds. The Torah student might be lacking somewhat in good deeds (although he of course performs his obligations and performs some good deeds or else he would be missing the entire point of studying Torah), but he compensates for this lack by his deep involvement in Torah, which leads to a profound, longer lasting unity with Hashem than what is attained by the “esrog” Jew. And that’s why the lulav is the tallest of the arba minim. It reflects this aspect of spiritual superiority.
We may ask: Since the lulav’s special quality is expressed in the taste of its fruit (the date), why aren’t we required to take the fruit itself instead of its leaves?
The Rebbe explains that Torah study has two aspects: 1) back-and-forth discussion, presenting and disputing various logical suggestions before arriving at a final result, and 2) the result itself. The result is comparable to the fruit of the tree, while the back-and-forth discussion is comparable to the leaves, which “protect” the final result from logical challenges.
Human nature is to derive pleasure from arriving at a final result (before that point, one is bothered by not yet understanding the subject and achieving one’s goal). So that’s why we take the date-palm’s leaves instead of its fruit: The pleasure of arriving at the final logical result can be a source of false pride over one’s intellectual accomplishment. We should realize that the Torah is much greater and more profound than our limited understanding. As high as we reach, our understanding is no more than the externality of Hashem’s Torah – signified by the lulav, the date palm’s leaves and external aspect.
We wish everyone a very happy Yom Tov.
(Based on teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)