Uncovering Your True Self: Personality Types and the Four Species

Simplicity. We all say we crave it. But do we respect it?

Although we might profess to value the proletariat, to celebrate simplicity, to refrain from cultural and intellectual elitism, I’d bet few of us walk that talk.  How many people do you know who’ve named their kid after the local postman, or delivery man, or maid who cleans the night shift?  Forget about actually naming after someone of limited income, status, emotional sensitivity, intellectual prowess or fame!  How many of us give the “simple” folk in our lives the time of day?!  A warm good morning.  A sincere, “How are you?”  We’re in strong need of a remedy for our “attachment-to-fame disorder.” 

He wasn’t the first of the Rebbeim to hold “simple” folk in such high esteem.  The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidut, is renowned for his appreciation of and love for the ordinary Jew.  Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson writes in his memoirs, ““It was this love for the common man that was, and remained, the real basis of the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.  He did not seek for high scholarship amongst Jews.  He valued more the heart.  The Jew who could read his prayers in Hebrew, even if he did not know the translation, the mere fact of his sincere utterance of these holy words in Hebrew, was a source of satisfaction to the Almighty in heaven, the Baal Shem declared.”[1]


The seventh day of the holiday of Sukkot provides much food for thought on the supreme value of “simplicity.”  We’re prompted to think about the worth of the naïve and guileless among us.  Hoshana Rabba, as it’s called, encourages us to let go of our attachment to all that is slick and sophisticated, to look beyond the “talented, special” ones among us and to instead pay attention to the straightforward, possibly naïve, yes…simple folk.  And it does this all through a practice involving willow branches.

In Temple times, the people would take willow branches from a place below Jerusalem called Motza.  Throughout the holiday of Sukkot, they placed them at the sides of the altar so that their tops bent over it.  Then they would sound the shofar.  They did this once every day of Sukkot and seven times on Hoshana Rabba.

Today in memory of this mitzvah, we circle the bimah in shul as was done in days gone by around the altar in the Temple.  And on Hoshana Rabba, we take five willow leaves, bind them together, say a special prayer and beat the bundle on the ground.

There’s no blessing for the latter, no fanfare.  Seemingly the act does not have sufficient “value” for us to make a blessing.  We simply take the lowly willow, beat it, and toss it on to the ark.

The willow certainly has a bad rap.  The Midrash[2]correlates the four species of Sukkot with four types of Jews.  The Etrog which has flavor and fragrance corresponds to those Jews who have both Torah and good deeds.  The palm fronds have taste but no fragrance just like those Jews who have Torah but not good deeds.  The myrtles by contrast have fragrance but no taste.  They correspond to those Jews who have good deeds but lack Torah.  And “this willow has neither taste nor fragrance…(like those) who have neither Torah nor good deeds.”

You really don’t want to be a willow person!  Or do you?  Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson states that the willow is “indicative of simple people whose fulfillment of the commandments is with simple faith.”[3]

This comment brings out a profound depth of the Midrash and explains the inner content of the willow.  Superficially the Midrash seems to be implying that only the Etrog has both the advantage of Torah knowledge and good deeds.  The three other species it would seem are lacking one or both of
these.  The Rebbe clarifies and qualifies this understanding.  He is of the opinion that “all Jews are equal” when it comes to bothlearning and action.  All four categories of Jews alluded to in the four species fulfill both Torah and Mitzvot.

His reading of the Midrash makes a lot of sense.  Think about it just a little.  The lulav-Jew is immersed in study.  But as our sages say, true learning brings one to action.  So if the said Jew is learning in the way study is meant to happen, he or she is also fulfilling the actual commandments.  Similarly with regard to the myrtle-Jew.  This is the person who’s doing good deeds.  That by necessity implies knowledge!  You have to know what Torah requires in order to fulfill its requirements.  By the same token, the willow-Jew doesstudy and does act.  This person is part of the same bundle of folks who are like citrons, palms and myrtles.  The willow persona is one of a totality of individuals whose lives are bound up with the Torah and its commandments.  The identifying feature of this person, says the previous Rebbe, is that all they do is permeated with simple faith.

It’s a beautiful reading of our people and the Midrash.  But it leaves us with a question: If they’re all endowed with both qualities, why then make distinctions and overtly imply that there’s a definite continuum from the “have-alls” to the “have-nots”!?

The inner meaning of the Midrash though is that whilst we are all equal when it comes to our connection to the Torah and our abundance of good deeds, there is a difference in the manner and quality of the way in which we both study the Torah and enact the commandments.

We access Torah through intellectual pursuit.[4]  So according Rabbi Schneerson’s interpretation when the Midrash refers to someone as having “Torah” it implies someone who has superior intellect.  Good deeds on the other hand emphasize the advantage of the emotional attributes which drive our actions.  So having “Mitzvot” in the language of the Midrash is indicative of a person with emotional intelligence.

This throws new light on the difference between the four species.  They are each connected to both Torah and good deeds.  It’s just that they do it differently!  The etrog folk have both high IQ’s and profound emotional intelligence.  Contemporary culture might call them “Renaissance Men.”  In Torah terminology, they would be called “Adam” – a term reserved for those who have mastered both mind and heart.  The lulav personas are the Harvard grads.  They’re the Torah scholars who soar on the wings of reason and intellectual exploration.  Myrtle people are highly skilled at identifying and managing both their own and others’ emotions.  They’re likely to be in the helping professions, empathize with others and know how to make them comfortable.  They’re skilled at applying the Torah to daily life.  Last but not least are the willow members of society.  These are the “simple” folk[5] who form the bedrock of society – good, honest, sincere people whom we might be dismissive of but whom we feel awfully comfortable being around!  These are Jews whose fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot lacks both the advantage of intellect and emotion.  Their access to study and fulfillment of mitzvot is permeated with a simple and pure faith.

Through looking at the four species in this light, it becomes clear that there’s a special aspect to the willow that surpasses the other species.  The tree gives no fruit and the leaves give off no fragrance.  Yet it is precisely in that “blandness” of being that we recognize the presence of something beyond.  The willow’s minimalism is indicative of the inner point of the Jewish soul which is indivisible and thus empty of discernable distinctive qualities.  We all have this point within us but it is most felt in the “simple” unlettered and emotionally unadorned individuals.  The Baal Shem Tov states that the “simplicity” of the common people is synonymous with the essential simplicity and unity of G-d Himself.  It is precisely in the unaffected and possibly naïve individuals that G-d’s presence is to be felt most.[6]


This special quality of the “willow” folk is reflected in the physical qualities of the willow itself.  The mitzvah to “take for (ourselves)” the four species is comprised precisely of these four because each encapsulates the theme of unity and oneness.

The etrog is an evergreen tree and the fruit “lives on the tree from year to year.”  Not only does it not shrivel, wilt or die with the change of seasons – it actually grows.  In this way, all four seasons of the year are united through the individual fruit which remains on the tree throughout the year.  The lulav frond has many leaflets that come together in one tip.  Myrtle leaves surround the stem in groups of three, all of which meet at one point.  And willows are called achvana, a “brotherhood,” because they grow together in groups, or be’achva.

The world we live in is characterized by the very opposite of unity.  In fact, the Hebrew word for “world” is olam, and is etymologically related to the word he’elemwhich means “concealment.”  As such the world manifests division and plurality.  If anything on this physical plane does in fact express something of unity then it’s an indication something of the original, supernal Unity that is the source of everything is shining through that object.  In other words, the “ego” of the object is less manifest and its source is more revealed.

This concept is evident in the four species.  Each of them displays unity albeit in different ways.  As such one doesn’t experience their natural “ego identity” which exists simply by virtue of being of this world.  Rather, one is touched by their nullification to their source.  This existential subordination brings about a revealed unity even on the physical plane.

Yet even within the four species themselves there exists a difference in the nature of that unity.  When it comes to the etrog, lulav and myrtle one notices that the unity we’re talking of exists within each plant at an individual level.  The leaves of this particular palm or myrtle and this particular etrog display something of oneness.  But that unity is not connected to other plants of the same species.

Conversely willows grow in groups, in “brotherhood” with one another.  The fact that in this physical world willows grow in unison, expressing unity, is because they are subordinate to their source more so than the other three species.  It is precisely the willow which surrenders its “ego” – or sense of being an independent existence outside of G-d – that reveals the one and simple supernal root of reality within the concealment of creation.  That’s why even its name reflects unity.

The willow’s unusual display of unity also says much about the unique qualities of simple faith.

At a purely physical level, although the etrog, palm and myrtle are in actuality chosen because of their manifestation of unity, one could make a mistake.  Their respective flavors and fragrances draw attention to themselves.  As such they conceal the simplicity and unity that underlie them even though that simplicity is even more transcendent in its root than the quality that draws our attention.  One might mistakenly think they’ve been selected for the mitzvah not because of their unity but because of their benefits.

The willow by contrast has nothing special about it at all.  And being that there’s nothing to draw our attention, nothing to mask its clear-cut identity, the oneness of the willow radiates outwards.  There’s simply no way to make a mistake as to why it’s included in the group.  The only reason it could be there is because of this notion of oneness.

The same thing applies to us as individuals.  Those of us who are “rich” in intellect and emotion face a challenge.  Our gifts inevitably conceal our simple faith.  We lose access to the simplicity and innocence that exists within us and are instead swept up by our abilities, seduced by our gifts.  We lose access to the very essence of who we are.

It is precisely in the “simple folk” who are bereft of intelligence and “specialness” that “essential supernal unity and simplicity” shines.


Given all the above, we can now understand the greatness of Hoshana Rabbah particularly as it was practiced in the Temple and as it is practiced today.

The willows of Hoshana Rabbah are of an even higher level than those of the four species.  The latter are bound together with three other plants each of which reveals something of G-d singular Oneness and simplicity but each of which at the same time is remarkable for something distinctive.  As a result, the willows associated with the group is somewhat compromised.  It’s simplicity is not entirely pure because by association it is connected with other distinctive attributes.

The willows the Jews placed around the altar in the temple however was entirely plain.  It was not bound with anything.  No other species lent it “importance” and it had no notable features of its own.  As such they served as visual, physical analogies of pure and unadulterated simplicity.[7]

The practice of placing the long willow stems around the altar is not explicitly stated in the Bible.  It is a law that has been passed down to us from Moses as he received it from G-d at Mount Sinai.[8]  These kinds of commandments are connected to profound levels within the soul.  There are dimensions within us that are connected to G-d through overt instructions.  They are fed by all the deeds laid out in the Bible and their corresponding commentaries.  Beyond these dimensions, there is a point within us where our essence touches that of G-d.  It is a place where we are so connected that we don’t need to be overtlycommanded to do something in the Written Law.  This point manifests its bond with G-d through the commandments that were received by Moses at Mount Sinai and passed down to us across the generations.  It is a point of simplicity within the soul itself.

Today’s practice of the willow touches even one step deeper.  We take five willows which correspond to the five dimensions of severity.  Holding them we say a prayer, bang them on the ground and then throw them over the ark in shul, or the lintel if we’re at home.[9]  It is a custom that was instituted by the prophets.  So it’s neither a law explicitly stated in the Bible nor one received from Moses.  At the surface it’s “just a custom” – of minimal significance.  However in actuality Jewish custom is rooted in the very essence of our souls and collective consciousness.

Certain practices were revealed to us by the prophets.  But they didn’t come at the people in a heavy-handed way.  They simply took on to act in a particular way and the people followed of their own accord.  In this sense, Jewish custom reflects the Jew’s ability to intuitively sense the cosmic means of connection to G-d that are available.  It is for this reason that our sages tell us that “Jewish custom is Torah.”  The overt meaning is that we cannot dismiss these practices because they take on the status of actual law.  The deeper reading is that as a people we have the power to “create” Torah through collectively intuiting the patterns of conduct that bind us with G-d.

Thus the custom of the willows of Hoshana Rabbah as we practice it today reveals the very root and essence of our soul.  The willow, devoid of flavor, devoid of fragrance, reflects that point of undifferentiated unity and simplicity within each of us.  When we access this place within us, the lowly willow suddenly becomes the most radiant of all the plants of Sukkot.  At that moment, we can forgive ourselves for all we’re not and celebrate ourselves for the untouchable and indescribable essence of who we are.  And then we’re able to look at others differently too.  We are able to see the wonder of a water-carrier.
The “Labels”
The Saint
The Egoist
The Sage
The Intellectual
The Intuitive
The Drama Queen
The Mute
The Oracle
Body Part
Parallel in the Tree of Life
Sense fed by the plant
Taste and Smell
Neither taste nor smell
Advantages according to overt meaning of Midrash
Learns Torah and does good deeds
Learns Torah
Does good deeds
Has neither Torah nor good deeds
A deeper reading of the Midrash
Has both the advantages of Torah and good deeds
Learning brings to action.  Thus although this Jew focuses on learning, that in and of itself implies doing
Performs the required deeds thus must have knowledge of the what and how of Torah
Included in the same prestigious group of individuals who are imbued with both Torah and good deeds and by extension has both as well
Personality types and
strengths of the individuals
Highly intelligent and emotionally gifted
Excels in intellectual arenas
High in emotional intelligence
Imbued with guileless, pure and simple faith.  “Blandness” touches one’s essence
Physical qualities of the Species that reflect Oneness
Lives on the tree from year to year.  All four seasons of the year are thereby united
All leaves come to one unified point
All the groups of three leaves come to one point at the stem
Are called achvana, “fraternal,”  because they grow beachva, ”together”
The Up and Downside of Each Type (Inverted for the Willow)
Essence point of the soul is concealed by the sparkling mind and personality
Essence point of the soul is concealed by the gift of intelligence
Essence point of the soul is concealed by gift of emotional intelligence
No revealed gift and therefore the essential, unified and “simple” point of the soul is manifest
G-d said, “Bind them all together and they will atone for each other.”

This article was originally published on www.TheJewishWoman.org.

[1] Rabbi Y.Y. Schneerson, Memoirs Vol 1
[2] Vayikra Rabbah, 30:12
[3] Yom Tov shel Rosh Hashana 5710
[4] Each of us receives the Torah as an inheritance.  Our wanting the Torah, having a tradition of studying it in our nuclear family and the like have nothing to do with the fact that it belongs to you by virtue of your birth.  The Torah belongs no more and no less to anyone one of our people (which may explain why we get in to such heated arguments over its meaning at times and each feel wehave the correct reading of an issue at hand.)  Nonetheless, absorbing the Torah into our own consciousness requires mental exertion.
[5] Anashim peshutim in Hebrew.
[6] It is interesting to note that the spheres of  Netzach, “Ambition,” and Hod, “Humility,” are called “willow leaves.”  This is because they have no unique flavor but are rather extensions of the higher soul powers of love and awe.  Nonetheless, just as the willow has a uniquely superior advantage over the other three species, they are rooted in an even higher source both love and fear.  (See Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim 27:4)
[7] In this light, it is interesting to note that for the four species one needs at least three moist leaves to fulfill the mitzvah.  In fact we take three stalks each of which must have leaves that meet in twos at the stem.  The minimum requirement for the Templepractice of the willow was one stem with one leaf.
[8] Halacha le’Moshe miSinai
[9] Some people throw them onto the roof of the Sukka at home.

The Butcher and the Bone (Or When NOT to Say, “I’m Sorry”


There are more people who won’t talk to me – nay look at me – than I care to think.  Truth be told, even one is too many.  No?  Well I have a handful.  But not for lack of trying to repair the breeches.  I’ve apologized.  In one case, make that fourteen conciliation attempts.  Now it wouldn’t be nice if I just blurted out and told you everything.  So I’m going to knead these women up into one person.  I’ll call her…I’m tempted to say “Pinkellafant”, akin to the proverbial white elephant we allow to sit on the living room rug while we peek round its chunky hips and make pleasant conversation.  But that doesn’t feel comfortable.  You see, I really like her.  For all the cold shoulders, I do.  So I’ll call her Penelope instead.

We were friends for over a decade.

On the evening of our fall out, I needed to get out of the house for a bit.  The apartment felt sticky to my soul.  “Penelope!” I thought, and off I went.  Outside it was even stickier but at least there was space.  On my way across the street, a cop car idled by and pulled into action just behind my shoulder.  The siren hit me with a slap.  Maybe I should have paid attention and gone indoors.  But I just kept right on walking.  I knocked on Penny’s door.  No answer.  I knocked again.  No-one.  So I called her on the cell.  Often she’d be playing music in the back of the house and not hear the bell.

“WHAT!” she barked.

That’s the way she’d been picking up of late.  Stressed, feeling down.  I mostly let it ride.  Just walked straight past the “what!” right into the relationship, like a guest missing her queue at the door.  But that night was different.  I was feeling too vulnerable to push past.

“Uh.  It’s okay.  Nothing.”



“It’s okay Penny.  Nothing.”

“Why d’you ring?”

“Listen, I can’t talk.  I just have to go.”

“Don’t hang up!”

“I’m not.  I just have to go.”


“Listen, I can’t talk.  Everythings OK.  I have to put the phone down…”

At the bottom of the brownstone steps lay leftovers from someone’s Wendy’s dinner.  The cops and a crowd were gathered at the corner.  It was too many lights and sounds for 9:30pm.  I sat down against the low wall outside our building where grass from the garden offered fragrant relief.

On the corner, I saw Penny.  She was advancing towards me with the same force she puts out on her evening route round the park.

“What’s going on!?” she demanded.  Her concern was spiked with anger.

“I told you.  I’m okay.”

“I came all the way over.”

“Penny, now’s not the time.”

Her mix of anger and concern was shifting with each push to talk and each “not now” I countered with.

“I left what I was doing…”

“It’s okay, you can go back to it.  We’ll talk another time.”

Penny spun round and walked away.  “I’ll call her from the cab on my way to the airport,” I thought as I watched her go.  But she called first.  She called minutes after I discovered that both my driver’s license and passport were misplaced along with $500 to boot!

“Penny, I was just about to call you.  Can’t find my license.  My ride’s waiting downstairs.  I’ll be in the cab in a few minutes.  Will call you then…”

My check, license and passport were still nowhere to be found and I was relying on some miracle to get past security at the airport.  Mine was not what one would call an elegant state of mind.  As soon as we pulled away from the curb, I called Penelope.  But by the time I dialed, it was too late.  I left numerous messages that Sunday.  And I apologized when I met her on the street Monday morning.

“I want to apologize for having hurt you,” I said.

The road to reconciliation was closed and despite calls, a letter, more calls, an invitation that she join me for lunch, going over there…well, other than a hello, or a sentence about nothing squeezed out of air; that was the last we spoke to each other.

As the expression goes, “It blows my mind!”

Each time something like this happens, I find myself confused and in pain.  I’ve been told I’ve apologized too soon, that I needed to “let the bird sit on the egg.”  I’ve apologized too late, in the wrong way, I should try again, or let it go, or I didn’t apologize at all because my words were “I want to apologize”.  There seems to be an art to this and it sure is one I don’t have the knack for!  I’m left muddling over whether it’s only me, and how much of this is about her.  Here’s a journal entry from my diary of a few weeks back:

Penny’s husband advised that I send yet another email.  This is where I’m at though.  I’ve spent many years apologizing to people for things that were not bad or mean acts.  They were mistakes or decisions that others disagreed with…

Maybe I’m sick?  All this running to fix things up.  Does it stem from low self-esteem and feeling that the other is correct in refusing to forgive me?  The relationship has always been more important to me than who’s right or wrong.  At least that’s what I think. If I’ve shared what hurt me and inadvertently caused pain, or allowed myself to not be “on” in a dynamic, I made a mistake yes, but is that something for which I should not be spoken to for months, years, a decade!  Where does one go when the response to an apology is, “Forget about it!  It’s passed” – when in reality it’s the relationship, not the tension, that has come to an abrupt halt?  If our relationship was so fragile that I couldn’t share my experience of what-is, was there really one to talk of?  The question I ask myself is, “Has it been holy or unhealthy behavior that has driven me for years to ask Penelope for forgiveness?”

I’m fully aware that one need only ask for forgiveness three times.  It’s Jewish to forgive.  That’s one of our distinguishing traits.  The sages tell us that G-d expects us to say, “It’s okay.  Let’s move on.”  And to then really do that!  I’m also aware that it’s noble to keep on trying and to go beyond the letter of the law when someone can’t forgive.  But is persevering with an apology ever undesirable.

I need to figure out the meaning of a story in the Talmud.  Here it is:

Rav had a complaint against a certain butcher.  When the butcher did not come to him on the eve of Yom Kippur to ask his forgiveness, he said, “I’ll go to him and calm him down.”

Rav Huna met him on his way there and asked, “Where are you going?”

He replied, “To soothe the butcher.”

“You will cause his death.  He should be mollifying you.  He will be punished on account of your degrading yourself.”

But Rav went anyway.  When he arrived, the butcher was sitting and chopping the head of an animal.  Rav stood next to him.  The butcher raised his eyes and saw him.

“You are Abba,” he said with contempt, addressing the sage by his first name.  “Go away!  I will have nothing to do with you!”

While he was chopping the head, a bone jumped off, stuck in his throat, and killed him.

Some story.

Who’s culpable?  Rav or the Butcher.  Rav Huna warns the former, “Don’t go.  It’s not the time.  Your attempt is going to backfire, and with disastrous consequences.”  But he goes anyway.  Sooooo, if Penelope was not ready, I should have “sat on the eggs” – just as her husband suggested!  When I rush head-on into an attempt at resolution and make things worse by forcing the situation, then who’s to blame?  I ponder, and rest much of it on my shoulders.

But the butcher had his issues too, to say the least.  It was the eve of Yom Kippur and he was sitting chopping the head of an animal.  Can you see it?  Everyone else is dressing in white, going to the mikva, thinking of mending things, and there he sits with his butcher’s knife chopping at the head of a beast.  I’m not pointing fingers.  I do that too.  Obsess over what’s gone wrong and indulge in grievance that is.  But a couple of hours before the Day of Atonement?!  When Rav walks in, you stand up.  You wipe your hands and say, “I’m sorry.”

Both felt wronged.  Ditto with Penelope and me.  Her sister later told me I’d, “Slammed the phone down on her and essentially told her to ‘get lost.’”  That was her reality.  For my part, I felt let down by a friend and pushed to the limits of comfort when she wasn’t there at the time I needed her; and then demanded that I open up when she was ready but I wasn’t.

I’m not playing Rav and putting her in the role of the butcher.  Not at all.  I myself am “Rav” and the “butcher.”  I pushed too hard for reconciliation.  And I’m choking on my own bone.  Stuck in my throat, plugging my life force is the desire that there be peace.  It sounds like a noble ideal but m-a-y-b-e it’s just my ego.  As I asked, has my pursuit of peace been coming from a holy or selfish place?  That’s my question this eve of Yom Kippur.  If I send Penelope just one more birthday gift, just one more bunch of flowers, or email, if I call again, then I run the risk of standing at the door of her discontent and being party to her gagging on her own negative feelings.

So I say to myself, I think this Yom Kippur, I’m going to sit tight.  I’m going to listen to Rav Huna and a different voice within.  I’m going to draw the arrow backwards with the intention of shooting it forwards.  My sense is that my yearning for harmony is largely about wanting to appear to others and myself as a “good person.”  Well it’s time to let that go.  The Work in this moment is to just do my next best effort and let-others-live. 

So Penelope, if you’d prefer to hack at a grievance, then go ahead.  And if you want to tell me the conflict’s all over, that there are no pink elephants in the room or gripes on the table, then so be it.  My sense that I can change your way of being in the world is a delusion.  I want to wear white (at least I’m going to give it a shot) and leave you be.  Let’s do things on your timetable for a change.  This Yom Kippur I’m going to try spending the day confessing my own sins and not worrying if you have any.  And maybe I’ll look up from my prayer book after a moment of intense concentration to find you beside me, and you’ll say, “Shana Tova.”  To you too my friend.

But instead, I ignore the voice of Rav Huna. Call it co-dependency, call it lack of self-esteem, or call it anything else. I have to ignore the labels. Because just maybe my impulse to call is a real desire for peace and it’s hidden inside those cloaks. So I pick up the phone to call “Penelope.” I find it a more compelling notion than the thought that there’s ever a time not to say, “I’m sorry.”

p.s. This piece was written a while ago.  I’m going to give you the post script on this evening’s Kabbalah Class Teleseminar.  You can sign up here if you want.  In the meantime, climb in to the fray.  I’d love to know your thoughts.

This article was originally published on www.TheJewishWoman.org.  Thank you Sarah Esther, my dear friend and editor for getting me to put some of what’s in my head into print.