I learned an important lesson from a member of our community this past Sukkot. Dr. Levy (pseudonym) who is blind, came to the lobby of our shul to buy a lulav and etrog. There he was picking out his set, with a bunch of frightened Bnei Akiva teens trying to figure out how to help a blind man choose an etrog. He ran his hands over all the etrogim for a few minutes and then picked one up. Someone walked over to him and told him that it was the most beautiful etrog and asked him how he chose it. He said something I will never forget. “People spend hours with a magnifying glass searching for the perfect etrog - looking for spots and specks. But they are missing the entire point. The goal is to be turning that magnifying glass into yourself. We spend so much time looking at a fruit, when we should really be looking into ourselves.”
People do spend a lot of time and money on their lulavim and etrog. The gemara says that one should spend one-third more of their earnings on an etrog, and after that, God will reimburse you! However, perhaps the lulav and etrog should be seen as an extension of ourselves. There’s an often quoted midrash that says that each of the four species correlate to parts of our bodies—the lulav is likened to our spine, the hadass—the eyes, the aravah to the mouth, and the etrog is likened to our heart. Rather than spend so much time finding the perfect species, we should figure out how to be better people. We should stand up for others who cannot stand up for themselves. We should use our mouths to praise God and others, we should use our eyes to see the good in this world, and open hearts one third more than we usually do.
The ritual object—the lulav and etrog—is meant to help enhance our performance of the act. We strive to pick beautiful lulavim and etrogim not for the sake of retaining bragging rites for having the best etrog around town. But as a means to help each of us serve God and others in a more complete way.
On a separate note, there have been some questions with respect to Yeshivat Mahara”t. To read a little more about the Yeshiva, check out http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c36_a16923/News/New_York.html