The sidrah: First Day Succot

“And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the hadar tree” Leviticus 23:40


A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The "yod" - a hand-shaped silver pointer - is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

The etrog, in the mystical Jewish imagination, represents the feminine principle. It’s one of the contenders for the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden (see Genesis Rabbah 15:7.)

Its name derives from the verb ragag, which means “to desire” and its shape evokes the uterus. The etrog represents more than sexual desire, though, it’s about the powerful urge to nurture life.

When we take the lulav and etrog together, we symbolically unite the male and female sexual organs, and life begins. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world, the anniversary of Creation, and the start of the possibility of human life.

But Succot — our most embodied festival — heralds a new chapter in the story, one where Adam and Eve embark on the adventure of independent life after their expulsion from Eden. The succah evokes the home they built through their own toil, sweat and ingenuity. And the sexual imagery of the lulav and etrog hints at their conceiving children and the existence of a new process: procreation.

Cain and Abel were the first people to be born of human parents. And therefore the first possessors of a belly button!

Much is made of the pitam, the stalky stigma that marks the place where the etrog plant was pollinated. But the other end of the etrog, the oketz, is even more interesting. This small barely-there indentation marks the spot where the etrog fruit was attached to the tree — the etrog’s belly button!

Every etrog has an oketz, just as each of us has a navel. For none of us could live, had we not once been tethered to a life-giving force that sustained us until we were able to achieve independent existence. At the very centre of our body is our pupik (Yiddish for belly button), a touching and quaint souvenir of the nourishing and nurturing we enjoyed gestating inside our mother’s body.

The feminist theorist Mieke Bal talks about the navel as a universal and democratic feature of all humans, stating simply that each of us was born of woman.

In talking about Rembrand’s paintings Bal theorises: “The navel then, is a metaphor for an element, often a tiny detail, that hits the viewer, is processed by her or him, and textualises the image on its own terms.”

Bal perceives the “navel” of a piece of art or literature as a hint that subtly communicates with the sensitive viewer or reader.

The etrog reminds me of my embodied existence and my physical connection with my mother and a long line of ancestors stretching way back to the Garden of Eden.

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