I’d like to suggest an additional interpretation, in light of how the Talmud identifies the etrog itself.
The Torah never mentions the word “etrog”. Rather, in the Torah we are commanded to take, among other species, a פרי עץ הדר – literally, a “beautiful fruit.” The only problem is, which fruit it is the beautiful one we are commanded to take on Sukkot? In reality, the Sages conveyed that the fruit’s identity was transmitted orally from God to Moses (and on down to us), but the phrase that appears in the Torah does give some clues that are relayed in the Gemara, which offers two hints. The Gemara (Sukkah 35a) says:
When we examine each of these opinions, we can find a common thread between them that can offer us an insight into all of the four species. According to each position, the beauty of the etrog lies in its consistency and constancy. According to the first opinion, the most beautiful free emanates from a tree that is so complete that the tree itself tastes like the fruit and visa versa. The tree and its fruit are identical. (It’s interesting to note that some Midrashim suggest that this characteristic applied to all the fruit in the Garden of Eden.) The second opinion refers to a different form of constancy: the etrog tree is unique in that it grows fruit year round, and not during a specific season.תנו רבנן פרי עץ הדר, עץ שטעם עצו ופריו שוה, הוי אומר זה אתרוג... ר' אבהו אמר אל תקרי הדר אלא דבר שדר באילנו משנה לשנהThe Rabbi taught: [what is the meaning of the phrase] the fruit of a beautiful tree? This refers to a tree which has a bark with the same taste as its fruit – one would say that this is an etrog…Rabbi Abahu said, Do not read the word as hadar, rather, it refers to something that lives (hadar) on the tree throughout the year.
According to both postions, the uniqueness of the etrog – and the hiddur – beauty of the fruit, lies in its completeness, wholeness and integrity. I believe that this meaning also lies in the other species as well.
Aravot: following the lead of the other interpretations, and the fact that there are almost no halachic requirements for aravot (the branch can be dried out, wilting, you name it…) I call the aravah the species of “just showing up.” There’s something to be said for being “in the game” as it were, even if a person cannot claim a sense of integrity and completion. Being there, as they say, is sometimes half the battle.
Lulav: The critical qualities that we look for in a lulav are that it should be (1) whole, and not split at the top, even a little bit, and (2) as straight as possible. Are not these other terms interchangeable with integrity and completeness? Moreover, we often refer to a person with integrity as one who is yashar – straight. What you see is what you get.
Hadasim: The sign of a kosher hadas is its uniformity; it should have knots of three leaves consistently from the top all the way down, completely covering the branch itself. Here again we find yet another reference to integrity, completion and wholeness. The hadas which is cut off at the top or missing leaves is lacking.
Etrog: In addition to the symbols mentioned in the Gemara above, the etrog itself represents the species most closely associated with beauty, or hiddur. What makes an etrog less beautiful and desirable? While beauty is, of course subjective, halachah lists different types of blemishes that detract from the beauty of the etrog. What though, is a blemish, if not the absence of the fruit itself? If this is true (which I think it is), then the most beautiful etrog is the most “etrogy” etrog – the fruit that is only fruit, and nothing else; in other words, the most complete fruit.
This, I believe, is a critical message of the four species.
As we try to climb the ladder to spirituality, the greatest struggle we may face is the struggle to merge what we should and can be, with who and what we are; to become our most whole, complete, and integral selves. Too often throughout the year, we stumble in that we lose our sense of integrity and wholeness; we are not who we know we must be. We wear two faces – we are split, disconnected from our true selves.
Spiritual growth then is about climbing the ladder of the four species, from the aravot – just being in the game – to the integrity and straight yashrut of the lulav, to the wholeness of the hadasim, and finally, to try our very best to reach a level of hiddur – of the beauty of the etrog.
The Gemara itself notes that the ideal beauty of the etrog emanates from the fact that the tree and its fruit share the identical taste. Is that not the wish of every parent? That our children – our fruit – share our taste – our love for God and our passion for Jewish life?
The greater we ourselves emanate the etrog in our own lives, the better the chance that we will merit this great blessing, that our fruit will share our taste as well.