Chassidic Psychologymain postsSukotTishrei

Sensitive? The Etrog Challenge

In the words of the sages and in traditional teachings, many parallels are drawn between the Four Species and the organs of the body: the myrtle branches (hadas) correspond to the eyes, the willow’s leaves correspond to the lips, the palm branch corresponds to the spine, and the etrog (citron fruit) to the heart. We would like to focus on the etrog. By contemplating the etrog, we can gain a deeper understanding of our own heart, with its unique characteristics, difficulties, and the appropriate methods for improving and alleviating them.

One of the characteristics of the etrog that appears in the words of the sages is that “it lives [i.e. grows] on its tree from year to year.”[1] In matters of the heart, this would mean that a person with a sensitive heart experiences the events taking place around him throughout the year, contemplates their significance, and acts upon them when necessary. Some people are quite apathetic and do not pay much attention to what is happening around them. Every day is new for them, and they let bygones be bygones. The sensitive person, however, does not forget anything, and cannot feel apathy to the events and people around him. Every event, experience, sight, sorrow, or sound is quickly absorbed into his heart and is added to the entire collection of impressions, insults, and injuries from his journey through life.

Generally, a person with a sensitive heart also has a good heart—he not only experiences his surroundings but also connects to them. If he can, he will also do all that in his power to help, support, or simply “be there” for others. On the other hand, sensitivity often becomes hyper-sensitivity, making the person vulnerable to pain on many fronts. It is then natural for the sensitive person to attempt to shield his heart—to wrap himself, like an etrog that must be shielded from bumps and bruises—in a protective cover, to prevent any pain or friction with the outside world.

Besides the suffering that this inclination can create for the sensitive, it can also lead to problems in one’s relationships. Choosing to wrap the heart in shields and wrappings can lead to solitude and heightened self-awareness. These may encourage him to further reduce his contact with others and relate only to himself. When a person does not feel safe and accepted, he is prone to interpret this as a threat and to build defensive walls from which it is difficult to emerge.

As a result, it is very common for sensitive people with a rich and fragile inner world to suffer social difficulties. Sometimes, they will even act insensitively toward others as a result. Not because they are truly insensitive to others, but because of hyper-sensitivity toward themselves and a general sense of being overwhelmed, which skews their ability to live and act in a balanced and mindful manner.

Pride Masked as Insecurity

The etrog, however, can also teach us how to keep our sensitive hearts intact while not becoming hyper-sensitive and reclusive.

Kabbalah teaches that the etrog represents the sefirah of kingdom (malchut). The inner dimension of kingdom is the experience of lowliness in the soul.[2] The letters of the Hebrew word for etrog (אֶתְרֹג) serve as an acronym for the words, “A prideful foot should not come upon me”[3] (אַל תְּבוֹאֵנִי רֶגֶל גַּאֲוָה). These are the words that the holy Ba’al Shem Tov uttered as his soul left this world. Paradoxically, hyper-sensitivity stems from a subtle but powerful feeling of pride, which makes a person believe, “I am fragile, I am sensitive, and a noble person such as me does not deserve so many barbs, so much criticism, and so many insults.”

To counter this pride, we need to learn from the etrog to develop our rectified point of inner lowliness. If we are hyper-sensitive, the insight we need is that we are so self-aware and so focused on ourselves because we are actually distant from God. Our pride stems from our distance from our true essence and from our true state of rectification. When this inner point of lowliness is developed, every insult is understood not as a full-frontal attack on us, but rather as a reminder of our true place and that we need to return to developing a living connection with God and cleaving to Him. Lowliness empowers us to acknowledge every insult or affront (instead of running and hiding from it, making us reclusive) and to sense that its true origin is God, and that the insult or affront was sent by Him to help us rectify ourselves. If this is indeed the case, what before seemed like an unbalancing attack can be used to help us commit to working toward a rectified state of well-being.


[1]. Sukkah 31b.

[2]. For more on what lowliness does and does not mean, search for “Rectifying the Ego” on our website, and for guidance in how to cultivate lowliness, see our course offerings on

[3]. Psalms 35:8.

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