Using the Four Species of Sukkot to Extend Our Attention Spans

The modern world has reduced our attention spans to less than a goldfish: eight seconds. How can we reverse the #TLDR trend?

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The #TLDR hashtag is being used all over the Internet. It stands for “Too Long Didn’t Read.” People use it when they want to post an article with a title or a theme that speaks to them, but with the caveat that for one reason or another, they didn’t take the time to finish reading it. It's possible that some of you may have come across this article from someone who posted it to a social media site with the hashtag. It's possible some of you will even post it with #TLDR.

Why is there is a phenomenon called #TLDR? There may be a few reasons, but I believe that much of it stems from the overdose of information that has diminished the human attention span to the point where it is now less than a goldfish: eight seconds. This, of course, doesn’t bode particularly well for rabbis across the country like me who on Yom Kippur gave 15- to 20-minute sermons, nor for the Jewish religion or modern communication generally.

During the summer, I attended a rabbinic conclave where Leon Wieseltier, the former editor of the New Republic wisely observed how paying sustained, meaningful attention is critically important to so many aspects of being Jewish. A person can’t study Torah, let alone the great many works of our tradition if he or she cannot produce sustained attention that lasts more than nine seconds; and historically, it is our reputation for sustained attention from Torah study that has allowed Jews to excel in fields like law or medicine that require in-depth study. If we are unable to focus on the greater meaning of our ritual, then candle-lighting, shofar blowing, or lulav waving lose their meaning and become almost irrelevant.

Sukkot, and its traditional rabbinic interpretations of the four species central to the holiday's observance – the etrog (citron), lulav (palm frond), aravot (willow branches) and hadassim (myrtle branches) – speak to these struggles and the solutions we seek to find for more sustained attention this new year.

Based on the attributes of taste (Torah) and smell (mitzvot, good deeds), our rabbis depict each of the species as a different kind of Jew (Vayikra Rabbah 30:12) with varying attention spans. The lulav, which has taste but no smell, represents the Jew who dedicates all of his (or her) time to Torah, but because his time is spent exclusively in study, he does not pay attention to the needs of others in his community. The hadass is the Jew who has smell, but no taste, pays attention to the community needs, but who in turn neglects Torah study. The etrog is the rare Jew who has both, while the aravah is the Jew who lives a spiritually empty life because he or she is completely out of tune with the needs of the greater world.

Yet, interpreted differently, the four species also provide the solution for how we, in our modern world, can begin to pay attention to each other. This is by viewing the species, as the rabbis also do, as body parts, based on their physical properties. We need the lulav, or our spines, to convey meaningful body language when we are paying attention to God during prayer or to each other when we interact. We use the hadassim, our eyes, to focus on reading a sacred text or on the face of another person. We use the aravot, our lips, to repeat words spoken to demonstrate that we have listened to what another has said. We need our etrog, our heart, to focus, because as we read in Kohelet Rabbah (7:5), everything comes from the heart.

When our rabbis came up with this interpretation, it was because they firmly believed that a Jew needs every part of his or her body to communicate fully with God. In our 21st-century world, where meaningful and in-depth communication is slowly fading away, this same teaching is important for communicating fully with each other.

The machzor, from which we pray on the High Holy Days, is a very lengthy book. A rabbi’s sermon is also a lot longer than eight seconds. With the length of the Yom Kippur service, it can feel like we live in a #TLDR world. But as we transition to our observance of Sukkot, let us remember that it is the four species that provide us with the means and inspiration to better attune ourselves to the world around us.

Dan Dorsch is the Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey, and is a board member of MERCAZ USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement. You can follow him on Twitter @danieldorsch.