The custom of shaking the lulav in all directions — to each of the four points of the compass, and then up and down, to the sky and the earth — originally symbolized an acknowledgment of God’s all-encompassing presence.
But the practice took on other symbolic, spiritual meanings in chasidic thought. chasidism brought the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah to the masses, reinterpreting longstanding traditions and imbuing them with spiritual meaning.
For Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the act of shaking the lulav was a meditation that could last half an hour. Each direction had significance. Each represented a different prayer, the wish for a different blessing for the coming year. And in the years that I prayed at his synagogue before his death in 1994, the lulav ceremony was, for me, the most meaningful of the services of this holy day season.
I have adapted his teaching as I remember hearing it.
First, face right. Right in kabbalah signifies the attribute of chesed — kindness, mercy, overwhelming beneficence. It’s a reminder of Abraham, master of hospitality. Facing right, slowly shaking the lulav in and out three times, think about all the chesed, the giving in your life, and pray to God to perfect it.
Do you find it too hard to be generous? Or are you suffering from an excess of generosity, of kindness, of love? “We don’t know when to love and how to love, and we always put so many borders in the wrong place,” Carlebach said. Facing right, pray for God to grant you the proper measure of chesed.
Then face left. Left in Kabbalah is gevurah — strength, strict judgment, limits. Gevurah is symbolized by Isaac — bound to the altar for sacrifice on Mount Moriah, unflinching, accepting, not judging. Take this opportunity to think of the limits, the judgments in your life. Are your circumstances too confining? Do you need more boundaries, or fewer? Do you need more strength? This is an opportunity to invite God to help you fix the limits in your life.
Next, face straight forward, the direction symbolized by tiferet, or beauty. This is the ideal of balance, where the beneficence and the boundaries are in their proper proportions. It is symbolized by Jacob, who fathered the Jewish people. Reflect: What do you need to bring balance in your life?
Then look up. Can you connect with God? What’s the holiness you need in your life? How high can you rise this year?
Then aim down. This is a chance to pray for groundedness, to reflect on your foundations. And it’s about your ability to find the buried treasures under your feet; the truths buried in the dirt.
Finally, face backward and wave the lulav in that direction. The essence of repentance, Carlebach taught, is being able to go back and fix your past. This is a prayer that your past be fixed by your coming to terms with it.