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11 Tishrei, 5783 - October 6, 2022 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Simcha Shel Mitzva: Nothing But the Best — A Story for Succos

By Moshe Musman


First published in 1994/5754.

Part One (The entire story is here.)

Yaakov never slept past sunrise on Succos. As soon as it grew light, his eyes would open almost by themselves and he would find himself lying awake, gazing at the wooden slats and palm branches of the schach above him and shivering in the cold early morning air. He reached out to wash his hands, stood up and dressed, as quietly as he could, so as not to disturb the succah's other occupants who were still asleep. Gingerly, he made his way out, like a hiker hopping from stone to stone across a stream; there was almost nowhere to walk as the beds and sleeping bags of the other bochurim all but covered the floor.

Taking his hat, jacket and arba minim from the locker in his room, he set out for the shtiebel which the bochurim frequented during bein hazmanim. This was Yaakov's fifth Succos in Yerushalayim. Three years previously, he had discovered that the time of sunrise during Chol Hamoed varied from year to year, depending on whether the chag was "early" or "late" in the civil year. He always made it comfortably though, to the six o'clock minyan. He already knew the other mispallelim by sight; they were mostly older men who were early risers all year round.

There were usually no more than fifteen men there and the pace of the minyan was leisurely, affording ample time for contemplation of the tefillah. As the repetition of the Amidah drew to a close, lulavim and esrogim were brought out of their various bags and boxes. Those who had not taken the arba minim at home, did so now. For a minute or two, all that could be heard in the beis hamedrash were the sounds of the rustling of the cardboard and plastic packages, the softly murmured brochos and the clicking and swishing of the gently swaying lulavim.

There was one elderly man whom Yaakov loved to watch every year. His face showed eager anticipation as, with firm but gentle movements, he eased the lulav out of its plastic case and laid it on the long table in front of him. Then he picked up his esrog box and carefully withdrew the yellow flaxen bundle it contained. His excitement seemed to grow as he unwrapped his green esrog and placed it next to the lulav. Picking up the lulav in his left hand, he checked that the hadasim and aravos were correctly positioned and properly supported and then he took the esrog, its top end pointing downwards, in his right hand. His face suffused with joyful emotion, the old man said the brocho slowly and then deftly reversed the esrog. As though he were bearing a trophy, he brought the arba minim forward and, flicking his wrists once, twice and three times, he gently shook them so that the top leaves of the lulav quivered and clicked. Then he repeated this procedure, bringing the arba minim first to his right, then behind him, to his left, up and down. When he had finished, he stood waiting for Hallel to begin with the same look of eagerness he had worn before.

Although Yaakov had never exchanged more than a couple of words with the man and didn't even know his name, as he watched him perform the mitzva of netilas lulav, year after year, he had come feel that this man was his teacher. Although Yaakov had spent the last few years acquiring Torah from the rebbeim in his Yeshiva, he had rarely had a chance to watch them as they performed the practical mitzvos. Yaakov would study every line on the old man's face, trying to understand something of what this elderly Jew must be feeling so that he could make it his own. And while the members of the minyan prepared themselves for Hallel, Yaakov stood watching his elderly "teacher", his mind wandering back to his first Succos in Yerushalayim...

Part Two

...Jay had gone to Meah Shearim to buy a lulav and an esrog. He had heard that the special market which occupied the narrow streets during the few days immediately preceding Succos, where crowds of men and boys converged in search of arba minim, was one of the most exciting events of this holiday in Yerushalayim. He had indeed found it to be so. A strange feeling had come over him though, as he had gone wandering from stall to stall — a feeling of belonging but not belonging. He had only been a few weeks in the country and did not yet feel self-conscious about his attire of black velvet yarmulke, brightly colored T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. At home, most of the observant boys he knew dressed like that.

What he had felt was something deeper; he had instinctively felt a part of the thronging crowds, the men in wide black hats and long black jackets, the young men and boys in hats and short jackets or those with short-sleeved shirts and knitted yarmulkes and the other youths who were dressed much as he was. Yet, at the same time he felt somewhat awkward; like an outsider who had not yet learned the ways of the people amongst whom he was walking. He hadn't realized it quite so clearly at the time; the insight had come with time.

Although he knew what each one of the four species looked like, he really had no idea how to choose a lulav and esrog, like everybody else was doing. Never having learned why it was necessary to choose at all, he wondered why the items on sale were subject to such intense scrutiny on the part of the prospective buyers. He also couldn't help noticing the look of joy on the faces of some of the men as they settled on a particular lulav or esrog and happily paid for it. This puzzled him; it was great to be here with everybody but what was so special about buying this esrog or that one?

Deciding to get a closer look, he had entered one of the small stores that opened onto the main street where several people stood choosing esrogim. The proprietor, an old man with a long white beard, sat behind the counter with tens of esrogim strewn in front of him. The customers picked up first this esrog then that one, examining them closely, turning them around and occasionally going out into the street to have another good look.

One of the men turned to the storekeeper and said something in a language which Jay recognized as Yiddish. The only word he caught sounded like "beste." The storekeeper slowly reached under the counter and brought out a cardboard box from which he took a small bundle. Unwrapping it carefully, he held out a bright yellow esrog to the man who had spoken to him. All eyes in the shop turned towards the yellow esrog. All Jay could see was that it was yellow, whereas most of the other esrogim were green but the other men seemed to see much more than he did. There were a few gasps and two of the men moved to get a closer look.

Noticing Jay's curiosity, a man turned to him and said, "Now that certainly is a fine esrog!" The man was young, not all that much older than Jay, bearded, and he wore a hat and jacket. Long after the incident, when Jay had all but forgotten the man's facial appearance, he remembered clearly that his first impression had been of the warmth and friendliness in the man's voice.

Unsure of what he was supposed to say, Jay had replied, "Yeah, but, er, what's so great about it?"

"Just look at that beautiful shape and it's so clean..." the man began, and he proceeded to survey all the advantages of the yellow esrog over most of the others that were in the market that day.

"So that's the best esrog," Jay had thought to himself, beginning to understand what everybody was searching so earnestly for. Out of interest, he asked his friend what he understood to be the logical next question, "How much does it cost?"

The young man looked at him thoughtfully for a moment before smiling and replying, "I've really got no idea. I'll ask the storekeeper." It seemed however, that the yellow esrog was not for sale.

An idea had then come into Jay's mind. He had not been long in the country and his parents had stocked him fairly well with spending money, hoping that he would make the most of his year in Israel. It occurred to him to make the storekeeper an offer for the "best" esrog. That would surely be something, if he came back to the yeshiva having bought the best esrog in the market.

He hurriedly asked the young man, "What if I offer him a hundred bucks? Will he give it to me?"

"Hey, just a moment!" the young man smiled at him. "Have you ever bought an esrog round here before? No? I thought not. Listen, this esrog is probably reserved for someone very important, that's why he's not selling — not because he's waiting for an offer." Then the man hesitated before he added slowly, "And besides, even if he gave it to you for a hundred, or two hundred — it's certainly beautiful but are you sure...are you sure it's the best esrog for you?"

At the time, Jay had not been able to fathom what the young man had meant. The best esrog was the best esrog, surely. Back home, his family always tried to buy the best of everything they could afford. What was an esrog different from say, a refrigerator? Perhaps he had been a little hasty but on reflection, why shouldn't he buy the best? He had spent some more time browsing around the stalls and having finally decided to buy a really good esrog, found another shop where the storekeeper understood enough English to grasp that this young American wanted to buy the best esrog he had. When Jay returned that afternoon to the yeshiva, he could hardly wait to display the esrog which for which he had just paid eighty dollars. Jay didn't know it but the hadasim he had bought were only just kosher while the lulav he had chosen was not even that. Still, he didn't find that out until much later and that Succos holiday had been thoroughly enjoyable. He was immensely proud to be the owner of the best esrog and he sensed that some of his friends now looked up to him on its account....

Part Three

...Ya'akov blushed at the memory of that Succos. As Hallel began, he turned his attention to the tefillah. Later, when the minyan were circling the bimah for Hoshanos though, he fell to remembering another Succos — it had been his third in Yerushalayim...

...Jacob was having a great time at the Simchas Beis Hashoeva. The band was playing at fever pitch as the circles of dancers lurched round and round. Whoever had any breath left tried to sing the words of the tunes and whoever didn't, simply meditated on them as the swaying ring kept on going...Vetaher libeinu le'ovdecha be'emes... Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu... Ano avdo deKudsho Brich Hu, seemed that the whole world was singing and dancing with them. As he danced, Jake felt exhilarated. His first year in the yeshiva (halfway through which he had abandoned the name "Jay") had left him with the realization that there was much, much more he still to learn before he could return home. His parents had been understanding. They missed him but they had agreed to his staying on.

At the end of his second year it had not been so easy to get them to agree that he stay but at the end, just after Yom Kippur, their assent had been given. Now, Jacob was celebrating his good fortune. He was thrilled at the prospect of another year's learning and particularly looked forward to the approaching winter, during which the yeshiva would be learning one of the most exciting and challenging masechtos he had ever met. He had decided that this winter he would master it, emerging from his third year as a true talmid chochom.

Round and round they danced, singing Vesein chelkeinu besorosecha... Achas shoalti... Boruch Hu Elokeinu shebro'onu lichvodo and rejoicing. When Succos had arrived, he had become keenly aware of the fiasco of two years before. Since then, his ideas had undergone modification (and he always made sure of going to choose arba minim with one of the older bochurim). Excelling was not simply a matter of spending big money on an esrog. He had learned about the concept of shelo lishmoh: it was permitted — in fact it was necessary — to use selfish motives as a spur to further achievement in serving Hashem.

In that light, his esrog purchase had not been entirely a waste of time. At least it had been his ambition to have the best esrog, rather than the best tape deck or silk tie. He appreciated the wisdom of the young man who had not tried to put him off buying it but had simply suggested that it may not have been the best esrog for him. Then, he hadn't understood—but now he did.

Now though, he could see much more. True honor and happiness derived from learning Torah. How grateful he was to Hashem for having given him the insight to see that he literally stood to gain an eternity by staying longer in the yeshiva, when so many of his friends had not seen this.

However, things had not gone according to his plan that winter. The masechta was very hard. Where Jacob had expected to forge ahead, he had to go slowly, at times barely understanding the strange, new concepts he had to absorb. Finally, when the warm breezes of Nisan began blowing through the beis hamedrash, Jacob had to admit to himself that he had been wrong again. His progress had been painfully slow and at times it had seemed to him that he was getting nowhere. Why had he failed to realize his ambitions for the months that had just passed?

Rav Schwarz, one of the yeshiva rebbeim with whom he had become friendly, had been sympathetic to his plight and offered Jacob a new way of looking at things. "So, you grew this winter, Jacob," he had said. "It takes a lot of effort to achieve just a little bit of real progress — and don't underestimate yourself either, you probably gained far more then you realize. Don't judge from the results, look instead at what you put in!"

Jacob heard the truth in the Rabbi's words but he was dismayed that back on Succos, the soaring joy he had experienced had been short lived. He hadn't yet managed to infuse his life with the true joy that he felt he should be experiencing. While Rav Schwarz had afforded him much consolation, Jacob often felt, in a vague way, that there was more he still needed to understand. He felt that while he was indeed climbing upwards, his progress had been more in the way of substituting one level of shelo lishmoh for different one, rather than a fundamental change.

The fourth year had not been an easy one for Jacob — Yaakov as he now preferred to be known. His parents, while unhappy that he had still not come home, were nevertheless proud of his commitment to learning Torah. They were unable however, to keep sending him money so he had been forced to look for a way to earn the small amounts he needed for his expenditures, by himself. He had therefore taken on some tutoring work.

When it had come to buying arba minim this year, he was the one who had taken two younger bochurim with him. He had spent Elul learning the halachos of the arba minim thoroughly. He no longer aspired to the "best" esrog, in the sense that he had understood it five years before. He still wanted the best one of course, but it had to be the best one for him. He derived far greater satisfaction from looking over a tray of esrogim and deciding which one was most worthwhile to take, than he had ever gotten from his eighty dollar esrog. No, he thought, things were not working out exactly as he had thought but he was gradually reaching a deeper understanding of his situation...

Part Four

As he stood in the small shtiebel waiting for the shaliach tsibur to begin the repetition of Musaf, Yaakov's mind went back to the previous night, when he had attended a small Simchas Beis Hashoeva in Rav Schwarz's succa. It had been quite different from its noisier counterparts that were being held in various locations around Yerushalayim. The bochurim sitting in Rav Schwarz's Succa sang unaccompanied by music — instead of getting caught up in a tumult of sound and excitement, all the simcha in the atmosphere was being generated from within.

Rav Schwarz had spoken about Succos and the fact that the Rambam writes that the mitzva of simcha on Yom Tov applies especially to Succos. "On Pesach and Shavuos," he had said, "the events which the chag commemorates were national events; they involved all of Klal Yisroel as a nation. On those chagim, our task is to internalize the lessons we learned as a nation; to take them to heart on an individual level. Succos commemorates—not a national event—but a level which Klal Yisroel as a nation reached. The ananey hakovod, or the succos which Hashem made for Bnei Yisroel, symbolize the level of our trust in Hashem's providence. This trust and closeness — whereby we consciously place ourselves in Hashem's care and make the fulfillment of His wishes our first priority — generate a pure, sublime joy whose source is within the individual himself.

"That is the special simcha of Succos," Rav Schwarz had continued, "simcha shel mitzva; it has no counterpart in the world of material endeavors. Man's efforts for material ends are directed towards fulfillment of his physical needs, or his desires. This cannot bring true simcha in and of itself, unless it takes place in the wider context of fulfilling Hashem's will. If and when a man learns to subjugate his own will to the Divine will, he is filled with this joy but not before he has learned this lesson."

To be sure, Yaakov had thought to himself, shelo lishmoh is important but only as a tool. It has its place but only when it is subject to an inner motivation which is lishmoh. On its own, it can't bring true joy. He remembered how his elderly "teacher" looked as he fulfilled the mitzva of lulav — the pure simcha which had lit up the man's face. The joy had not been pride in his own achievements but joy of fulfilling Hashem's command. That was simcha shel mitzva! Looking around at the members of the minyan as they prepared to leave and he saw the elderly man carefully pick up the containers which held his lulav and esrog. Now he understood.


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