Religious communities are mission driven and it is generally a given that those who resist conforming with the program will find themselves judged and perhaps ostracized unless they adopt it. It’s common knowledge that Judaism consists of Torah study and fulfilling mitzvot (commandments). This being the case, one would not be surprised to find that Jews disinclined to learn and perform mitzvot would feel pressure to drop out unless they conform. This not being the case may have to do with a famous Sukkot midrash.
One of the most powerful expressions of Jewish unity is the midrash which compares the parts of the arbeh minim (the etrog, myrtle, palm branch and willow sets used ritually during the Sukkot holiday) to 4 different exemplars of the Jewish community. The etrog represents Jews who study and do, the myrtle those study but don’t do, the palm branch those who do but who don’t study, and the lowly willow, which symbolizes those who neither study Torah nor deign to observe its commandments. The message of unity is found in the fact that the set is invalid and the ritual may not be performed unless all 4 parts are bound together. That is, unless the Jews who refuse to study and observe the mitzvot are included in our religious community, our community is like an incomplete arbeh minim set – invalid and failed.
It’s worth noting that the midrash does not so much as hint that the nonobservant should somehow be persuaded to improve. Quite the opposite; they have a vital role to play just as they are – unlearned and impious. The Talmud relates an episode where an heretical sect sought to thwart a Sukkot Temple ceremony featuring the willow branches. The troublemakers hid the willows under a pile of rocks before Shabbat and this was discovered only after Shabbat had already begun. Extracting the willow branches would incur a violation of the Shabbat rules. The sages were therefore stuck, but their unlearned, nonobservant brethren had no such compunctions. They immediately stepped up, in violation of religious standards cleared the rubble, and thereby saved the day.
Perhaps this story offers a historical reason why the willow symbolizes those who neither study nor observe. Due to their cavalier attitude about the details of religious behavior, these adventitious Jews were able to save the willow ceremony in the Temple. In doing so, they violated the Jewish religion. They also made Jewish observance possible for the others.
Rabbi Mitch Levine