Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

14 Tishrei 5764 - September 29, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Learn From the Ant

by M. Zonnenfeld

Reb Aharon arrived on the afternoon of a very warm day. The sun, which had blazed since the morning, hadn't grown in the least tired, and continued to bombard the yard with heat waves.

"It's just like rain," Shaya said.

"Rain?" the surprised Sruly said. "That's silly. It's summer."

"Like rain," Shaya insisted. "Rain falls all over the yard."

It was hard for him to explain, but the heat was all- pervasive and filled the entire area, from the sky to the yard's hard, cracked earth where ants crawled in long processions. It was so palpable that one could feel it with his fingertips, just like raindrops.

"It's just like the rain," Shaya repeated.

Sruly placed his electric locomotive under a dry bush. "Shaya, you sound so silly," he remonstrated.

Shaya left his ants and stood up. "That's not so," he asserted hoarsely. "Besides, you're not allowed to say such things, because . . . because. . ."

Once more the words stuck in his throat. They were so meager compared with the mighty feelings which surged within him. He rolled his tongue, closed his eyes, panted and cleared his throat in a desperate effort to finish his sentence

"Because it really is like rain and because I am your big brother, your older brother," he finally blurted out.

That was it. Now he could sit down beside the procession of ants without even looking at Sruly. Sruly was stunned and probably wanted to say something. But he didn't. Sruly was really a good kid. The ants were okay too. Shaya continued to watch them as they moved along the winding paths from the nest to the yard.

"Why, Abba?" Shaya asked.

"Why, what?" Abba sighed.

"Why do the ants move that way?"

"Because they're looking for food. Hashem, in His kindness, taught them what to do in order to secure food," Abba explained.

"But why that way?"

"I don't understand. What do you mean?" Abba asked

"Why do they move in circles and not in straight lines, like soldiers?" Shaya continued.

Abba was stumped. Shaya glowed, as if he had won first prize in a Mishnayos contest, like Sruly.

Abba smiled.

"I don't know, Shaya," he replied softly. "Actually, I really never paid attention to how ants crawl."

"Why not?" Shaya asked.

Abba sighed again. Age-wise, Shaya was well beyond the "why" stage; yet he continued to cling to it tenaciously.

"Because I'm usually too involved in other things," he replied.

"Why, Abba?"

"Because a Jew is always busy. He has to learn, to daven and to serve Hashem."

"And to look for food?

Abba smiled. "Yes, Shaya."

"Like the ants?"

"Yes, Shaya."

* * *

There were tons of ants in the yard. Shaya tried to count them once and got up to 29. True, there were more than 29, but they moved so quickly and in so many different directions that he got confused.

"What comes after 29?" Shaya had asked. "Thirty or sixty?"

Sruly was engrossed in a book. Ima was in the kitchen and Abba wasn't at home. Lelli, the baby, was close by but she couldn't help. Shaya sighed and returned to the ant procession, forgetting about the counting.

"Actually, it doesn't matter how many ants there are," he told Ima at night, before he put his head down on the pillow. "What matters is that I know that there are lots of them, billions, zillions.

"But then, maybe I should count them. I can start all over again tomorrow until I reach 29, and then count another 29, and another, until I've finished counting them all. Then I'll know how many 29's there are."

"That's a very clever idea," Ima smiled.

"Why not say thirty and go on from there. It'll be easier to multiply them that way," Sruly suggested.

Shaya was confused. He remembered that his teacher had mentioned the word "multiply." But it had retreated, like many other concepts, deep into his mind.

"Multiply?" Shaya asked.

Sometimes he felt that his mind lay in his head like a piece of earth, flat and cracked, and that many ideas seeped inside it through crevices and then fell into the abyss.

"Multiply, " Ima repeated. "You'll learn about multiplication soon, Shaya." Then turning to Sruly, she said sternly, "I would have expected you to be a bit more understanding!"

At home everyone was always expecting a bit more from Sruly. Abba demanded that he be a bit more considerate. Ima demanded that he be a bit more understanding, or that he help out more. In school though, more was expected of Shaya.

"Concentrate a bit more, Shaya," the teacher would urge. "Five more minutes until you finish this exercise."

"Try a bit harder," the educational therapist who took him out of class twice a week for a private lesson would insist. "You can do it, Shaya."

Abba would say: "The child's trying so hard. The staff should have more patience. They should be more considerate. He's doing his best. "

"But the teachers claim that his efforts and abilities are incompatible," Ima replied, wiping away her tears as if they were tiny grains of food or ants which would fall off and sink into the earth if she tried hard enough to wipe them away.

"They claim," Abba protested.. "But we also claim, and Shomayim claims. It demands that every Jewish child receive a good chinuch."

Ima's handkerchief was often moist and her eyes were often red.

"Why, Ima?" Shaya once asked her.

"Because I am davening, dear."

Ima never had to explain. Even when her words confused Shaya they managed, in a mysterious way, to explain the situation nonetheless.

"Why, Ima?" he asked again.

"Because I want you to become a talmid chochom," she replied.

"A talmid?" he asked with a furrowed brow. "I don't like being a talmid."

"A talmid chochom," she said as she hugged him. "A talmid chochom and a tzaddik who studies Torah and causes nachas to Hakodosh Boruch Hu."

At such times he forgot all about the ants.

"Torah?" he said then with intense concentration, as he drew the hazy concepts from the pits of his mind. "I study Torah in school."

He had a new Chumash in his classroom. It was large and square, with beautiful black lettering. It was covered by a smooth book jacket which was pleasant to touch.

"That jacket is supposed to keep the Chumash clean," Abba explained after he had finished covering it for Shaya.

Already in first grade the teacher had asked the pupils to place their Chumashim in their personal cubbies. "You don't have to carry your Chumash to school every day," the teacher explained. "It's big and heavy and your shoulders are narrow and delicate. Leave the Chumash here in class and at home you can review what we learned from Abba's Chumash."

Over the years, these cubbies filled with more seforim: a volume of Mishna, a Kitzur Shulchan Oruch, Novi, and even a gemora. All the children kept these seforim in the classroom. Like everyone else, Sruly also left his in school and at home he would search for copies of them in Abba's bookshelf, or in the Otzar Haseforim of the shul. "Let's study together, Abba," he would then say.

Shaya also liked to study with Abba. But Shaya always took his seforim from his briefcase. He insisted on carrying them home every single day and then back to school the next morning.

"Isn't it hard for you?" his mother asked in concern. "You already study from so many books and your briefcase is so heavy."

"Leave them in school," Sruly said. "No one will take them, worrywart. Abba has everything at home."

But the print in Abba's books was a bit different than that in the Chumash in the classroom and so was the pagination. Since reading and reviewing demanded so much effort on Shaya's part, he liked to open to a familiar page with the old letters and to find the beginning of the posuk and the line and the page the teacher had pointed to in the class. Since another book would have appeared like a dizzying sea of lines, it was worth it for him to carry the heavy books back and forth every day and to suffer the jibes of his friends who made fun of this strange practice.

"Hey Shaya, you're a porter? A book-bearing donkey?"

Those jibes were so routine, that they had lost their sting. Shaya had gotten used to them and he took them in stride. He even smiled when he heard them.

"I love my seforim," he would reply with a shrug of his shoulders.

"It's good that you've gotten used to carrying them," someone said one fine day toward the end of the school year. "It won't be hard for you to empty your cubby before you leave."

"Leave?" Shaya asked.

"What, don't you know? The principal is looking for another place for you," someone else piped up.

"That's because we're preparing for yeshivos and have to keep up the pace," the first boy said, in an effort to soften the shock. "We have to move quickly after the vacation and the teacher won't have time for explanations."

"I like explanations," Shaya placidly replied.

"But you won't have them any more," his friends said. "There won't be time."

At the teacher's request, Shaya emptied his cubby of the few items he left there each day.

"The notebooks too?" Shaya asked.

"All of them," the teacher replied.

"My pencils and pens?"

"Everything. Everything. Don't leave a thing here."

In the afternoon, his briefcase was crammed and heavier than usual. Ima's eyes were redder than usual.

Shaya unstrapped the briefcase with a sigh of relief.

"You're crying, Ima, aren't you?" he asked.

"Yes, Shaya," she replied.

"Why, Ima?"

"Because I'm davening."

Shaya could never understand why davening and crying always went together, insofar as Ima was concerned. The halochos on tefilloh which he had learned in cheder never mentioned crying. Just to make certain that he wasn't mistaken he searched his briefcase and found the pages on tefilloh. With much effort, he went over the lines, pointing to the words with his finger. No, they said nothing about crying -- not a word.

"Abba also doesn't cry when he davens," Shaya suddenly remembered. "He sings and sometimes sways back and forth. But crying? Never."

Who should he ask about that? Shaya didn't like unanswered questions. Sruly wasn't home. Lelli was asleep and Abba was talking to someone very intently on the telephone.

"We'll try to get an additional teacher, a private one," Abba said. His face was furrowed and worried. Not even one ant crawled on it and Shaya suddenly pitied him terribly.

"We'll make every effort, be'ezras Hashem, and won't spare time or money. Until now, he managed."

Apparently someone on the other end of the line was speaking now because Abba was listening very intently.

"Okay," he finally said. "We'll wait for the answer. Hashem yerachem."

Abba's expression was so pained, that Shaya forgot what he had wanted to ask.

* * *

At first, everything was fun. Sruly, and all of the other kids in the building were also on vacation and they played ball together in the yard. Abba took the family on a trip twice that summer.

"To cool off a bit," he explained. "All of us need that."

But the bein hazmanim was short and quite soon Sruly began to cover his new books with shiny jackets. Ima even bought him a new briefcase because the old one was torn.

Shaya's briefcase was in very good condition. The zipper wasn't broken and slid from side to side with ease. But it was empty.

"I also want books," Shaya told Ima one day.

"We'll buy you everything," she promised, tears streaming from her eyes. "New books, new pencils -- everything you need, be'ezras Hashem."

"So let's go shopping for them now," Shaya pleaded.

"We'll go shopping for them when we know where you'll study after the vacation," Abba calmed him. "In the meantime, you can prepare a pencil case and empty notebooks."

Sruly was going up to sixth grade and nonetheless had a new briefcase, filled to the brim. Sruly got up on the first day after vacation and left for school. The neighbors' kids also went to school and in an instant, the building emptied and the yard became desolate.

There were people there, of course. The mailman came in the morning with lots of letters. Two representatives of a tzedokoh organization knocked on the doors. A technician came in a shiny car and climbed the stairs with his heavy tools. But all of them were busy. None of them could play ball or help Shaya assemble his electric train. All were in a rush -- all but the ants.

Shaya didn't know why so many ants were attracted to the yard. There were many ants, so many of them -- lots of 29s -- that it was hard to count them. All of them crept along paths known only to themselves. They were also very busy. But they never said so.

Ima didn't understand.

"A big boy like you," she said, "can keep himself busy with an interesting book. He can even review the material he studied in class. Why do those ants interest you so much?"

Shaya had never even tried to explain that to himself. But maybe that was why he felt so at ease with the ants. One could sit beside them all morning without asking permission, without apologizing and without making any explanations.

"Was it boring without me?" Sruly casually asked when he returned.

"What did you do all day?" the kids in the neighborhood asked.

The grocery story lady across the street wanted to offer him a job. "He can arrange the milk products in the refrigerator," she told Shaya's mother. "That's not too hard and he'll have something to do."

But Shaya didn't need something to do. The mornings were lovely and clear. The grass was tall and yellow and a remote, inexplicable scent heralded the autumn and spurred the feverish activity of the ants. They had plenty to do and so did Shaya.

* * *

Then Reb Aharon appeared on the scene -- on the afternoon of a very warm day.

Shaya didn't notice him at first. One ant had tried to push a larger-than-usual grain and Shaya was watching it intently. The ant pushed it with its front legs and then toppled on it full force and rolled it ahead. Sruly, who had returned from cheder, nearly trampled the ants by accident. But the procession continued as if nothing had happened.

"Be careful," Shaya asked.

"I'm careful," Sruly replied, without understanding what Shaya was talking about.

Suddenly Abba appeared in the yard, a broad smile on his face, for a change.

"You have a visitor," he told Shaya.

"Me?" Shaya said in disbelief.

"Yes, you," Abba replied happily. " Ish mevasser tov -- a bearer of good tidings."

"Ish mevasser tov?" Shaya gasped. That phrase was familiar to him. Perhaps he had heard it when the family sang zemiros Shabbos or perhaps on motzei Shabbos. Too bad that the phrase had slipped back through the crevices of his mind.

Reb Aharon didn't have a long and white beard. Shaya was disappointed for a moment. But he immediately noticed Reb Aharon's friendly eyes and warm smile.

"Shaya?" Reb Aharon asked.

Shaya nodded, happy that he didn't have to introduce himself. At such times, words were more slippery and evasive than usual.

"My name's Aharon, Reb Aharon," the smiling man said as he extended Shaya his hand.

"Reb Aharon," Shaya mumbled, not knowing precisely what to say.

"I want to invite you to my yeshiva," Reb Aharon simply said. "Actually, it isn't a yeshiva, but a mechinah, a preparatory school for yeshiva for boys who want to learn yet find it a bit hard to do so."

"It's hard for me, sometimes very hard," Shaya admitted. Reb Aharon had captivated him.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Reb Aharon said then with a smile which lit up his face like a pleasant sun. "That's what I thought. Do you want to learn?"

The word "yes" was on the tip of Shaya's tongue. Of course he wanted to learn and to become a talmid chochom who caused Hashem nachas. But the recollection of those long hours in front of his books in the classroom and the heavy briefcase and the jibes of the kids surged before him.

Suddenly, the parade of ants and the inviting sun posed an irresistible temptation.

"I don't know," he stammered.

His father's face fell.


"That's okay," Rav Aharon said with a smile. "In our mechinah we do all sorts of interesting things at specific hours. If you wish, you can work in the garden or in the nature corner at certain times during the day. What do you think of that?"

A nature corner! How had Reb Aharon known?

"So you'll come?" Reb Aharon asked.

"Yes," Shaya replied.

Ima wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. But this time they weren't red.

* * *

The new classroom wasn't like anything Shaya had known in the past.

"It's a trailer," a dark-haired and smiling boy answered Shaya's silent question. "We aren't learning in a regular building meanwhile because they're still building it."

The trailer was spacious and its windows were draped with blue curtains. There were no cubbies though, and the students had to take their books home every day.

"It's easier and neater that way," Reb Aharon explained to Shaya. "Besides, everyone likes to study from his own books, even at home."

In the mornings, Reb Aharon taught gemora, and parshas hashovua and two other teachers taught Chumash, mishna, novi and halochoh.

"After lunch, we study arithmetic," another smiling boy told Shaya. "I hate arithmetic. We also have dikduk and Ivrit, where they tell us stories.

Shaya liked stories and he also liked arithmetic. He especially looked forward to the gemora shiur.

"I think I'm a good student," he told his father proudly. "I also like to learn."

In the mornings, a pleasant breeze would strike Shaya's face during the bus ride to school. In this school, everyone was friendly and happy to help. The charts which the teachers drew on the blackboard were very clear and the lessons were enjoyable. During recess, Shaya played with tiny goats and chicks.

There too, no one made fun of him or called him insulting names because everyone was busy "just like the ants," he once told a friend.

"Just like them," the friend agreed.

Shaya felt that the crevices in his mind were sealing and that the concepts and information no longer got lost in the gray matter inside it. Even words had become friendlier.

"They don't run away from me any more," he told his mother.

"There's no reason why they should run away," she replied. "You're a very nice boy."

"And intelligent," his novi teacher had said at a meeting.

"I'm proud of you," Reb Aharon said with a glowing smile when he gave him his report card at the end of the first week

* * *

This happy period lasted three weeks -- until Rosh Hashonoh. Then it waned like a setting sun.

Shaya couldn't explain what had happened to him. Perhaps the fact that he had to go to yeshiva on Tzom Gedaliah while Sruly had off and was able to sleep late that day had bothered him.

"Don't wake me early tomorrow," Sruly had said before falling asleep. "I have off."

Later on, after Succos vacation, the books seemed a bit menacing and the chart which Rav Aharon had drawn on the board totally unclear.

"Don't worry. You'll soon remember what you learned." Reb Aharon had said with a smile. "It's always a bit hard after vacation."

But Shaya was tired; fatigue had overcome his entire body. Something thick and fluffy, like warm and soft cotton batten, seemed to fill his mind, and he felt drowsy all of the time.

"Shaya, take out your sefer," the halocho teacher prodded as he read a portion from the Kitzur Shulchan Oruch. But Shaya was too lazy to remove the sefer from his briefcase. Instead, he merely stared ahead aimlessly.

"You're dreaming," the black-haired boy said as he poked him.

"Quiet, please," the teacher boomed.

But the following day, Shaya also had difficulty listening. In Reb Aharon's shiur, he really tried to concentrate and to understand. But the material was totally unclear to him.

"That's because you dreamt yesterday," a friend ventured.

"Don't talk now," Reb Aharon said, this time without a smile.

"Is your gemora open to the right place?" he then asked. "Very good. Now you can read, Shaya."

But the letters seemed as evasive as the ants. They arranged themselves in winding lines and crawled all over the page. Suddenly, Shaya missed the ants outside.

"Can I go out, please?" Shaya asked

Reb Aharon was a bit perplexed. But he agreed. Shaya got up, opened the door and went outside.

One of the advantages of a trailer is that it's one-level and without long hallways or winding staircases. Shaya walked out into the sunlight. The path was clean and inviting and the grass was still moist with dew.

He didn't go as far as the nature corner. The security guard wouldn't have let him play with the goats when it wasn't recess time. Nonetheless, Shaya walked on, enjoying the warm sun. Then he stretched himself down on the earth.

It only took him a few moments to find the ants as they carefully pushed their grains further and further. One rather large ant tired to push a puffed grain with its antennas.

"Not that way," Shaya murmured as he shoved the grain with a stem he had found. Apparently the ant was surprised, but continued to march behind the grain, pleased with the unexpected assistance.

Shaya helped the ant along the path. Its destination wasn't far off. A sudden brown patch amidst the grass revealed a small crack in the earth Shaya gently lifted the stem and smiled. The ant pushed the grain into the crack and then slipped inside it too.

"Just like the chart in the gemora shiur," Shaya mused, as he searched for another ant who needed help.

This was a new and exciting game. Apparently the ants sensed that it was nearly winter and had begun to work much harder. The processions seemed to move more quickly than usual and the grains seemed larger. Again and again, Shaya helped the ants, and when his stem cracked he found another, longer and more pliable one. Shaya crawled beside 29 processions, or more, and helped many, many ants push their grains toward the cracks. Suddenly, a shadow was seen on the path, and the next procession was no longer visible. Shaya looked up, only to see a smiling Reb Aharon standing beside him.

"So you went outside in order to unwind a bit?" Reb Aharon gently asked.

Unwind? That was another word which had fallen into one of the crevices in his mind. Shaya sighed. Apparently the crevices in his mind hadn't closed.

"I mean you went outside to rest a bit," Reb Aharon said.

"No, not to rest but to help the ants," Shaya blurted out only to regret that remark then and there.

"To help the ants?" Reb Aharon said with a smile. "That's very nice of you. They are Hashem's handiwork."

Shaya turned red. He hadn't expected such a reaction.

"It's good that you came here," Reb Aharon continued as he sat down on the grass beside him, without even taking off his suit jacket or hat. "Shlomo Hamelech who was the wisest man in the whole world said that it's good to observe the ants."

"Really?" Shaya said as his eyes widened.

"Yes, I'll show you the posuk which says that one should observe the ants and learn from them."

"Ants don't teach," Shaya laughed.

"Yes, they do," Reb Aharon whispered. "They teach us that we should strive to achieve our goal and reach our destination, without relenting, without giving up. Did you notice how they keep on advancing, without pausing and without being lazy?"

Shaya nodded, without saying a word.

"Stay outside a bit longer and keep on watching them," Reb Aharon advised. "When you feel that you can work like them, return to the classroom. Today, we're going to learn about Succos. It'll be an interesting lesson."

Then he jumped up, as if he wasn't a rosh yeshiva, brushed off his pants and went back into the trailer, without punishing Shaya and without saying another word.

Shaya stretched out on the grass. Crickets danced around him; birds flew overhead -- and one lone ant crawled on his hand in search of food.

"I don't have anything, silly dilly," Shaya shouted at the ant. "Besides, I don't have time to sit here. Do you understand?"

Shaya gently placed the ant on the grass and ran back to the trailer.

"Where were you?" the black-haired boy asked.

"Outside," Shaya replied and continued to march forward.

Reb Aharon stood beside the blackboard, his clothing spotless. Suddenly it seemed to Shaya that the episode on the grass hadn't really taken place.

"It's not even Yom Kippur yet," Reb Aharon began. "But today, we're going to talk about Succos. There's not much time and we have a lot of work to do."

Then he wrote the words "arba'as haminim" on the blackboard, and underlined them with a green marker in order to stress that this was a heading.

"Am Yisroel is compared to the arba'as haminim," he said. "Each species resembles a different type of person in Am Yisroel. Which one of the arba minim has both a good taste and a pleasant fragrance?"

"The esrog," one of the kids cried out.

"Very nice," Reb Aharon smiled.

"My mother makes esrog jelly and it's not tasty at all," another boy said.

"The haddas has a nice smell," a different boy added.

"And the lulav?" Rav Aharon asked. "From what tree do we pick the lulav?"

"The palm tree," someone in the first row exclaimed.

"Dates are tasty, but they have no smell," the black-haired boy volunteered.

"And what is left?" Reb Aharon asked, his face indicating that this wasn't the last word.

An intensive effort of concentration on Shaya's part sealed the crevices in his head. "The arovoh," he cried out.

"That's right," Reb Aharon replied with a glow in his eyes. "Now Shaya, tell us about the arovoh."

Think, a bit more," Shaya prodded himself. "Is it a fruit? I guess not. When I went with Abba to pick arovos in the field, I didn't see any fruits."

"It has no taste and no smell," Shaya declared.

"That's right," Reb Aharon confirmed and Shaya felt that the effort had been worth it.

"And now, my talmidim," he continued, "let us equate flavor to Torah, and fragrance to good deeds."

Going to the board, he then wrote out this equation.

"According to this, which type of Jew does the esrog, which has both flavor and sweet fragrance, resemble?"

"A tzaddik," one of the students piped up. "One who has both Torah and mitzvos."

"And the haddas is a Jew who doesn't study Torah but does good deeds. The lulav is a Jew who only studies Torah," the black-haired boy quickly added.

"You understood it quite well," Reb Aharon smiled at him.

"What does the arovoh symbolize?" he asked, his eyes resting on Shaya.

"It has no flavor. It's like someone who doesn't study Torah and doesn't do mitzvos," he said with confidence.

"Wonderful," Reb Aharon replied. "And what do you think, Shaya? Is such a person considered part of Klal Yisroel?"

"No. A person who doesn't learn, doesn't cause Hashem nachas."

But Reb Aharon roared: "That's not so! Even such a person is considered part of Klal Yisroel. Do you hear? Just as the arovoh doesn't stop being part of the mitzvah of arba'as haminim, and without it we can't perform the mitzvah of lulav at all, so such a person is still part of Klal Yisroel!"

That day Shaya made special efforts in the shiur. He forced himself to sit straight and not to let his head droop. He also tried, to answer all of Reb Aharon's questions. When Reb Aharon asked the students to open their seforim, Shaya's eyes were so tired that they nearly closed. What was happening to him that day?

"Sometimes a person is tired," Reb Aharon said as he neared Shaya's desk. "It happens. Go outside and unwind a bit. You'll soon feel better. The shiur is nearly over."

But in the next shiur his eyes actually closed and the teacher sent him outside to help feed the chicks.

"Is that a punishment?" Shaya asked before he got up.

"No, it's help," the teacher said very seriously. "You'll help the workers and the work will help you."

The chicks were starving and Shaya carefully placed a bowl of grains in front of them.

But what now? The trailer seemed too threatening and he didn't want to return to it. But if he didn't participate in the shiur that day, how would he understand the lesson the following day?

Again, the words would begin to dance on the page and the cracks in his head would grow wider and deeper. Should I or shouldn't I return?

He returned and the teacher's smile indicated that he had decided correctly. He sat down with pursed lips, ready for every effort. "This is a class where everything is explained," he repeated to himself, "a class where one can study, a class where my chances of succeeding are high. I have to succeed. Just a bit more effort, one more moment of concentration and of thought. I must."

Shaya raised his head and blinked. The other kids were getting up and packing their briefcases.

"Good morning," one of the kids said. "The school bus is waiting. Hurry up."

* * *

"What's happening to you?" Abba asked with a very serious and pained expression.

"In the beginning you listened and learned very well. What happened after Rosh Hashonoh?" Ima tried to ascertain, her eyes red again, her handkerchief moist.

"I don't know," Shaya admitted. "I really don't know. Suddenly it gets so hot in the classroom and I can't concentrate. One day, I was so tired that I fell asleep. I wanted to go outside all the time."

Abba looked at him intently.

"Listen Shaya," he said. "It's nearly Yom Kippur and then Succos. You have to know many halochos. You're a big boy now."

"Try to learn well. Okay?" Ima lovingly added. "I'm sure that by yom tov you'll know all of the halochos."

"Be'ezras Hashem, Ima. I'll try."

* * *

The following day the family began to build the Succah. Sruly climbed the ladder and began to hammer the boards like a pro.

"It's less then 20 amos," he said as he displayed his knowledge, "and more than 19 tefochim. Do you see, Shaya? It's not under a tree, whose shade is greater than the sunlight it admits."

"Very nice," Abba said. "When did you manage to learn all this?"

"I learned maseches Succah by heart two years ago, Abba," Sruly said. "It wasn't hard and I remember everything."

It was difficult not to discern Abba's satisfaction.

"Okay, Sruly, what does R' Yehuda say about one Succah on top of the other?"

The two fell into a discussion about the mishna. Sruly stood on the ladder and repeated it clearly and Abba waved the hammer with every one of Sruly's correct answers. Together the two reviewed mishna after mishna: R' Meir's opinion, R' Yehuda's, Beis Hillel's, Beis Shamai's. Shaya listened and he recalled that he had once known many of these concepts, too. But they had gotten lost in the crevices, without leaving any traces.

Quietly, Shaya slipped away. There were no ants in the area. Perhaps they were afraid of the hammering. He was very tired, too tired to think or even to feel. Sruly apparently hadn't struggled so hard in the class that morning. Nonetheless, he knew the mishna so well. Shaya's pain was so real and bleak, that it went all the way up to his eyes and slowly seeped out of them, like the rain.

"Nu?" Abba prodded.

Shaya lowered his head and cleared his throat in confusion.

* * *

The following day Shaya came to the trailer, determined to abide by his new decision. He was calm and relaxed in comparison to the way he had felt the past few days. He no longer worried about whether he would manage to concentrate in the shiur, nor how many times he would go out for air. That didn't bother him any more.

"It doesn't matter," he reminded himself, "and it's a pity to try."

He didn't know if that was a wise decision, but he felt that it was pleasant and liberating. There had been no one to consult about it. Abba had been busy with Sruly in the Succah. Ima was in the kitchen cooking and watching Lelli, who was gurgling in baby-language.

"Its easy for you, Lelli" Shaya told her. "Everything's so simple for you. No one asks anything of you. You don't have to learn. You have no thoughts which fly away from you and then get lost."

She looked at him and then burst out into babyish laughter. It was then that the decision had crystallized.

* * *

"Shaya, your Chumash," the teacher said. "You still haven't taken it out? What happened?"

The stable and confident hand of the teacher took the Chumash out of Shaya's briefcase and opened it to the right page. The words began to swim in front of Shaya's eyes, in long processions that led to an unknown destination. It was cloudy that day and the ants surely needed him to help them push their grains with his stem. There were lots of stems outside.

"You can go outside, Shaya," the teacher said. "I think you'll be better off there."

It was chilly outside. Succos' winds had begun to blow before Yom Kippur had arrived. A drove of birds flew across the sky. A cricket squeaked without pause. "What did Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of men say? Go to the ant to learn from them? But they don't have to stay in school and study. They can wander about outside and aren't closeted in school in front of a book. They don't try to learn. They don't make even the tiniest effort to study," he reflected. "They're outside lechatchiloh, making long and winding processions in the grass."

Reb Aharon's smile was stable and genuine, just like his words. Shaya swayed back and forth on the grass uncomfortably but Reb Aharon's warm hand steadied his shoulder.

"Shaya, I want to ask you a favor," Reb Aharon said gently.

A favor? He had expected the regular questions of "What's going on with you?" or "How is it possible that a smart boy like you doesn't take advantage of the opportunities he is being given?"

But Reb Aharon was not like everyone else.

"I want you to do me a favor, Shaya," he repeated, as if Shaya was the best student in the class or at least a regular one who studied as he should, and didn't make weighty decisions regarding his chinuch. But that was apparently what made Reb Aharon so special. One could sit beside him without apologizing, without explaining.

"I'll be very busy these next few days," he told Shaya very simply. "I have a lot of work here in the yeshiva with the new building, and I am afraid that I won't have time for the really important things. I will be able to build a Succah at the last minute, I hope. But one needs patience and time in order to purchase arba'as haminim."

The grass suddenly stopped rustling and the ants seemed to be listening too.

"Will you be able to buy a set of arba minim for me?" he said in a somewhat pleading tone. "I need a good set."

Then he took out some money and handed it to Shaya, saying: "I rely on you to make a good choice."

Shaya was dumbfounded. That was a very large sum of money.

"But, but . . . " the words once more evaded him.

"It'll be okay, Shaya. I trust you to choose the best arba minim possible. And I want you to choose them, not your father or anyone else. You can consult them, of course. But the choice must be yours."

"I don't know," the words suddenly escaped his lips. "I don't know the halachos. I didn't pay enough attention in class. Sruly knows them. Maybe he . . . "

"Sruly will chose his own arba minim," Reb Aharon said resolutely. "I want you to choose for me. Regarding the halochos, I am sure that you'll find a way to learn them. You can ask. There are also many seforim on the subject. I think Rav Katz arranged all of the seforim on these halochos on the lower shelf in the beis medrash. It'll be okay, Shaya. I'll be in touch with you on erev yom tov. Behatzlocho!"

Shaya remained riveted to his place, looking at the money and at the line of ants which continued to march on, pushing huge grains. Suddenly, he recalled last year's arba minim market. The crowded stalls, the avreichim who were checking and examining the arba minim with magnifying glasses and asking tons of questions. What would be?

The bills pricked him mercilessly, as if they were a drove of ants. If only he could delegate this responsibility to Abba or to Sruly who knew the halochos. But yom tov was only a week away and time was short. He gave one last glance at the active ants and rushed back to the beis medrash.

* * *

The smiling avreich in the beis medrash listened patiently to Shaya's request for seforim on arba minim and placed them on the table.

At first, Shaya opened maseches Succah, his hands trembling a bit. It wasn't the same edition they had at home, and the lettering and the size of the pages were unfamiliar to him. But he bit his lips and began to read.

"Niktam rosho. The lulav's tip has been cut or abraded," he read -- another concept which had gotten lost in the crevices of his mind. Shaya breathed deeply. He had to recall what it meant, even if he had to descend into the crevice himself and draw the concept out with iron cables.

"Who will help me? Perhaps the avreich over there swaying beside his gemora."

Shaya took another deep breath. Had he been an ant, a dry stem could have helped him. But he needed a different kind of help.

"Excuse me," he said.

The young man looked up. No, Shaya didn't know him. He was a stranger. Suddenly, the words slipped away.

"But I have to buy Reb Aharon a choice lulav. What will I do?"

Shaya's eyes filled with tears, but he tried again: "Excuse me, what does niktam rosho mean?"

"In what context?" the young man pleasantly asked.

"There in the mishna," Shaya replied.

Suddenly the young man was by his side.

"A lulav," he explained, "has to be intact. If part of its tip was cut, or if its leaves were opened or pulled apart, the lulav is posul. It's the same way with a haddas, as it says later."

The two leafed through the mishnas, until reaching the halochos on haddasim. Then they compared them to the arovoh, and returned to the lulav.

"That means that if the lulav's tip is closed it's okay?" Shaya asked.

"Not necessarily," the young man replied. " It depends how long its tiyomess is. It's not so easy to examine if it's damaged or not. Some lulavim have a hole on top which invalidates them, others have holes which don't invalidate them."

Shaya trembled. "There are so many halochos. What will I do?" he whispered.

"Yes, there are a lot of halochos," the young man confirmed.

"And does one have to know them all?"

"Most of them," the young man replied. "A Jew is a busy man. He has a lot to learn in order to fulfill Hashem's will."

"But it's so hard," Shaya, who was on the verge of tears, protested.

"Yes, it's hard, but the harder you try, the greater your zchus. But don't worry. I have a book with pictures which illustrate the halochos for you. Come home with me and I'll let your borrow it."

Shaya had never been so confused in his life. There he was going to a strange house to borrow a book. His hands trembled when he took the book and he barely heard the young man's encouraging words.

At home, when he leafed through the book, he knew that the effort had been worthwhile. The pictures were clear and colorful. The halochos became understandable, as if one of the teachers had listed them on the blackboard. The tiyomess had acquired genuine proportions and the lulav became a clear concept. When Shaya finally understood the halochos, he danced for joy.

"What are you reading there?" Sruly asked. "A new book?"

"Yes," Shaya answered.

Shaya barely looked up though, because he had no time. There were so many halochos that he had to know before going to buy Reb Aharon the arba minim.

Toward evening, he was exhausted and his head hurt. Shaya rinsed his face in cold water and immersed himself in the seforim "Just a bit more effort, one more halocho," he told himself. "What kind of esrog will I bring Reb Aharon if I don't know the halochos?"

Sruly hammered Succah boards in the yard but Shaya didn't hear him.

* * *

In the morning, Ima announced: "Only a few days until Succos. The Succah is up. Decorate it today."

Sruly agreed to decorate the Succah after he had gone with Abba to buy arba minim for the whole family. But Shaya hesitated.

"I hope those ants aren't bothering you again," Ima said.

"No," Shaya promised.

Shaya was very tense that day. For the past two days, he hadn't put the sefer down. In shul he asked whoever was seated beside him to help him understand the halochos. Abba also reviewed them with him an entire evening.

"You're doing quite well in the mechinah, I see," Abba said.

Shaya didn't reply.

That morning, Shaya went to the esrog store himself. It was packed with people. Shaya had never imagined how many people bought their esrogim so close to yom tov. He picked up a very fine esrog with a beautiful stem (pitam) and one small blettel. The magnifying glass didn't help him. His hands hurt from feeling the esrogim so much. His throat was parched. His head ached. Had he eaten anything that morning? He couldn't recall.

"Ask your rav about that esrog," someone suggested."It looks very nice."

But then he noticed another esrog which seemed even nicer.

In the end, he went into the rav with five esrogim. The waiting room was packed and everyone had something to say about everyone else's esrogim.

"Is that yours?" a very prominent looking man said when he saw one of Shaya's esrogim. "If you don't want it, give it to me? Okay?"

"But it has a blettel," Shaya replied.

The man smiled. "I wish I had such an esrog. But it's your turn to go in. Ask the rav about it."

Once inside the rav's room Shaya felt dizzy. He hadn't slept much for the past two nights and for a moment he thought that the blettel was an ant, and that a long line of ants might soon surround him and pull him back into one of the crevices.

He was so dizzy, that he barely heard the rav say. "That's a very special esrog. A beautiful esrog."

"But the oketz, the blettel," he said, as the words and then the sentences flowed, without slipping away. Had the words also listened to the advice of Shlomo Hamelech? Had they learned from the ants?

* * *

Shaya came home to a decorated Succah.

"Nice work, Sruly," he heard his mother say.

Delicious aromas wafted from the kitchen. The wind gently shook the grape clusters which dangled from the schach. The yom tov atmosphere was keenly felt. But Shaya had no time to enjoy it.

"I'll be back soon," he told his mother.

"Hurry up," she replied. "It's nearly yom tov."

As Shaya buttoned his shirt, his hands trembled. They trembled even more when he tied his shoes. He was so nervous that he was afraid to pick up the plastic box in which the nicest lulav, haddasim and arovos he could find lay. He would have to take the esrog in a separate box.

"I'm going," he said.

The street was nearly empty at that time. He walked quickly, although he was exhausted after having stayed up so late studying the halochos. His head buzzed with halochos and concepts, like an active ants' nest. However the crevices had disappeared -- or perhaps he had simply bypassed them.

Reb Aharon's house was surrounded by Succahs. "Our porches are small," Reb Aharon had told him, "so that all of the neighbors build their Succahs downstairs. It'll be easy to find my house."

Reb Aharon had told him to come at four but Shaya came earlier, fearing that he might be late. But how would he find him amidst all of those Succahs? A Succah isn't like an apartment with a nameplate.

At first, he felt at a loss. There were twelve Succahs in that yard, all of them beautifully decorated.

"Oy, Hashem help me!" he prayed.

But then the curtain of one of the Succahs moved and a black- haired and smiling boy stepped outside.

Shaya froze.

"What are you doing here?'" he asked.

"And what are you doing here?" the black-haired boy asked.

The boy's smile disappeared.

"Now you've come to ask a question? And what if Reb Aharon says that your esrog or lulav is posul? All of the stores are closed. Why didn't you go to a rav nearer your house?"

"But I asked a rav near my house," Shaya said with confidence and determination. "He said that everything was fine."

The black-haired boy looked at him in amazement.

"So why have you come now?"

"Me?" Shaya asked in confusion. "I came to bring Reb Aharon his lulav and esrog. He asked me to . . ."

The black haired boy was stunned. "Can't be. He didn't ask you."

"He did!" Shaya insisted. "And why not? I also know how to study halochos. Do you think I only look at ants all day? I studied maseches Succah and all of the halochos. I asked rabbonim and bought him a choice set."

But the black-haired boy wasn't impressed.

"It can't be," he insisted. "It simply can't be. Reb Aharon also asked me to buy him arba minim and that's why I studied so diligently all week. I'm not as great a student as you think I am."

"He asked you?" Shaya nearly shouted. "So why didn't you buy them?"

"Of course, I bought them," the offended boy answered. "A beautiful set. He gave me a lot of money and seemed very happy. I've been here since three-thirty."

Shaya nearly collapsed. All of his efforts had been in vain. He had spent hours running around to find the very best set of arba minim for Reb Aharon, while he already had one!

Shaya struggled with his tears and with the lump in his throat. If he could have, he would have turned around and gone home. But suddenly, he saw a shadow on the path. Lifting his head, he saw Reb Aharon smiling at him.

"Nu, Shaya," Reb Aharon said warmly. "Where is my set?

Shaya nearly dropped the esrog.

"Here it is," Shaya said, as he burst into tears. "But kevod haRav already has a lulav and esrog. He doesn't need mine."

Reb Aharon's smile broadened.

"Ah, you met your friend. You came early and discovered my secret. What do you say? Come inside and I'll show you something."

Shaya went inside and on the table he saw rows of esrog boxes and lulav containers.

"Now the secret is out. Everyone bought me a set. That is what caused all of you to learn the halochos so well."

Then he opened the esrog box Shaya had brought, and exclaimed: "Shaya, what an esrog! How many halochos did you learn in its honor? The lulav, the arovos are special too. Shaya, they're the choicest of the choice."

"But you have so many esrogim and lulavim. Why did you need mine too?"

Rav Aharon laughed. Then he explained calmly.

"None of them are what I was searching for. None of them are kosher."

"Not kosher?" Shaya gasped.

"They're kosher, of course. And one can make a brocho on them lechatchila. But do you remember what I said in my introduction to the laws of the holiday? We learned that the arba minim correspond to the four types of Jews. The esrog, which has both flavor and fragrance, corresponds to one who possesses Torah knowledge and good deeds; the haddas which has a lovely scent, corresponds to one who only has good deeds. The lulav which has flavor corresponds to those with Torah knowledge, while the arovoh, which has no flavor or deeds, corresponds to one who has neither Torah nor good deeds, but is still considered a member of Klal Yisroel."

Shaya nodded.

"Now tell me," Rav Aharon said with a glowing face, "which set is the choicest? Everyone else who brought me the minim had studied the halachos and had done many good deeds. They went to great efforts to find me the choicest minim. In that way, everyone who came here has both Torah and good deeds. All of them are esrogim. But if all of them are esrogim, from where would I get the rest of the minim? Now I have them all."

The sun, which had blazed since the morning, had grown tired -- but it nonetheless continued to fill the area with waves of heat, which penetrated the heart.


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