The Sukkah Reminds Us of Hashem
There are so many divrei Torah about the Yom Tov of Sukkos, about the arba minim, and about the sukkah itself, but I knew that I was bound to find something original and insightful in Rav Avigdor Miller’s shmuessen.
This week, I received a copy of an new sefer, which I immediately began perusing with gusto. The sefer, titled Sichos Toras Avigdor, is a collection of the speeches delivered by Rav Avigdor Miller on the parshiyos of the Torah and the holidays of the Jewish year. Rav Avrohom Kishon, a talmid chochom who also oversees a large kollel in Givat Shaul, owns a publishing company. He knows me well and is aware of my fondness for seforim, and when he told me that he had a new “treasure” for me, I hurried to get a copy. Of course, I was not disappointed; the new sefer was remarkable.
I spent hours poring over the sefer, drinking in its contents, focused primarily on the chapters on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkos. I knew that I was bound to find many chapters dealing with the questions that Rav Miller often asked during his lifetime: “Do you feel Hashem’s presence? Are you living with Him?” Regarding the arba minim, for instance, he said, “The arba minim correspond to the heart, the eyes, the spine, and the lips. When we shake them, it is the time for us to thank Hashem for giving us all these important things.” Of course, he goes on to delineate many other profound kavanos associated with the mitzvah, but this is the most basic understanding.
Rav Miller connects the same theme to the mitzvah of sukkah as well: “When a person has everything, he is liable to forget Hashem. That is why we have the sukkah—to remind us of Him. That was also the purpose of the mann in the desert and of the mitzvah of aliyah l’regel.”
I have a special affinity for Rav Avigdor Miller. When I was a talmid in Lakewood, I occasionally spent Shabbos in Flatbush, where my brother lived. His father-in-law was Reb Reuven Shimon Beck (who is also the father-in-law of Rav Gershon Bess of Los Angeles), and we used to join the Becks for at least one meal every Shabbos. Mr. Beck was the gabbai at Rav Miller’s shul, and we all davened there. I remember that Mr. Beck had a machine in his home that was used to duplicate cassette recordings. That was where the production of the recordings of Rav Miller’s shiurim, an endeavor that ultimately grew into a major enterprise, first took place. Rav Miller loved him like a son.
On the Shabbosos that I spent in Flatbush, I had the good fortune of attending Rav Avigdor Miller’s shiurim. I did not understand English at the time (and, in fact, I still do not understand it, all of my articles which you read here are expertly translated from Hebrew). I was absolutely mesmerized. Even without understanding his words, I was able to sense the power and wisdom of his shiurim. To this day, his singsong voice still reverberates in my ears. Here in Eretz Yisroel, a weekly publication of his divrei Torah, entitled Toras Avigdor, is distributed every Shabbos, and I am always eager to collect a copy.
The Locked Door
My brother is a talmid muvhak of Rav Avigdor Miller. You may recall that I wrote an article for Pesach about my brother’s memories of his rebbi. The title of that article was “When Was the Last Time You Thought About Hashem?” This was perhaps Rav Avigdor Miller’s defining question. He would admonish listeners that a person might be a good Jew and observe all the mitzvos, yet he can still be prone to forgetting Hashem’s existence. This concept is discussed several times in the new sefer as well. In his maamar on Sukkos, he mentions the Torah’s warning to avoid a situation in which “your heart will be haughty and you will forget Hashem.” Rav Miller goes on to explain, “A person might say to himself, ‘Can I really forget Hashem? That is impossible!’ But what this really means is the type of forgetfulness in which you do not think of Hashem as your benefactor.” That is a pitfall that every person must avoid. Throughout his life, Rav Miller exhorted his fellow Jews to remain cognizant of all the benefits that Hashem showers upon them.
I asked my brother if he happened to have a picture of Rav Miller in a sukkah or holding the arba minim. He replied, “It was impossible to take pictures in the shul. On Chol Hamoed, everyone hurried to work immediately after davening. And Rav Miller’s sukkah was upstairs in his home. We never went there.” I am not sure why, but I believe this says a good deal about Rav Avigdor Miller and his congregants. After spending Sukkos with him for decades, year after year, they did not have a single picture of him. They revered him to the point that they did not invade his privacy even for the purpose of capturing a precious image.
In any event, according to Rav Miller, the purpose of the mitzvah of sukkah is to remind us of Hashem’s presence, of the fact that it is He Who protects us and that even if we have respectable livelihoods, our sustenance comes only from Him. As Rav Miller puts it, even when we turn on the gas and a fire is ignited on the stove, or when we open our refrigerators and find them stocked with food, we must remember that it comes from Hashem. Moreover, even our own bodies are a gift from Hashem. If a person can walk, he must thank Hashem for his feet. If a person is confined to a wheelchair, he must give thanks for the wheelchair itself. And the sukkah vividly reminds us that the walls of our homes do not shield us from harm; it is only Hashem Who affords us protection.
The story that accompanies the chapter on Sukkos is an incisive anecdote that focuses on this point. Rav Miller, who lived above his shul, related that he once went home at night, closed his door, and slept soundly throughout the night. The house was protected by a reinforced, locked door, and he slept with a sense of security, confident that intruders would not be able to gain access to his home. The next morning, he was surprised to discover that his key had been in the lock all night long, on the outside side of the door.
“I thought about the fact that I had slept through the night with a feeling of security,” Rav Miller remarked. “I felt so secure behind that locked door, but then I discovered that it had been completely meaningless….” The message, he asserted, was that none of us should rely on our doors or locks to give us security; our security comes only from Hashem Himself. If we believe that anything else will keep us safe, it is merely an illusion.
“This is the way we must live!” the conclusion of this chapter declares. “If you are a servant of Hashem, you must attribute everything to Him.” Rav Miller cited a long list of mitzvos as evidence of this contention, which he felt was also indicated by the conduct of Bnei Yisroel both in the desert and when they entered Eretz Yisroel. Above all, he explained, the purpose of the sukkah is to foster this awareness.
The Symbolism of the Arba Minim
We are all familiar with the statement of the midrash that the four species taken on Sukkos allude to four different types of people. The esrog, which has both a taste and a fragrance, alludes to people who learn Torah and engage in virtuous deeds. The lulav, which has a taste (i.e., it is part of the palm tree, which produces fruit) but lacks any fragrance, alludes to people who have learned Torah but have not accumulated merits by performing good deeds. The hadassim, on the other hand, have a fragrance but are tasteless, corresponding to people who lack Torah wisdom but have performed virtuous deeds. Finally, the aravos have neither a taste nor a fragrance and allude to people who have neither engaged in Torah learning nor performed good deeds.
Thus, according to the midrash, the lulav—the branch of a palm tree, which produces dates—symbolizes talmidei chachomim, while the hadassim are symbolic of people who have performed deeds of virtue.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This is how we have always been taught to understand the symbolism of the arba minim, yet it is not the only take on this subject. The piyut entitled “Ekchah BaRishon,” which is recited on the first day of Sukkos, actually reverses this symbolism. The words of this piyut indicate that the lulav, with its flavor and its lack of fragrance, symbolizes people who have the merit of good deeds but lack Torah wisdom, whereas the fragrant yet tasteless hadassim are symbolic of talmidei chachomim.
Loopholes in the Lockdown
Just before Rosh Hashanah, the government publicized the new restrictions imposed in light of the nationwide lockdown. It was saddening to read that people would be barred from leaving their homes except for purposes such as exercising or purchasing medicine, but there was one aspect of the rules that provided a glimmer of consolation. After the clause that permitted participating in a bris or funeral, the next paragraph stated that an exception would be made for “a baal tefillah who has received a permit for leaving [his home], without other companions, from the Minister of Religious Services or another professional authority, for the purpose of participating in davening on the holidays specified in paragraph 42.”
Why did I find this comforting? While the laws of other states recognize spiritual leaders such as rabbonim as providers of essential services, I am not aware of any laws that afford similar recognition to chazzanim.
In order to put this stipulation into practice, the Ministry of Religious Services publicized a mailing address to which all shuls could send the identifying details of their chazzanim, who would then receive permits bearing the ministry’s logo that would entitle them to freedom of movement. In spite of the text of the regulations, these permits actually extended to the chazzanim’s family members as well. The permits explicitly included the chazzanim and their families, and the police granted passage to family members as well. After all, the purpose of this provision was for a baal tefillah who lives in a different city to be able to travel to the shul where he was hired to daven—and a chazzan certainly could not be expected to spend Yom Tov without his family. This project was highly successful.
The complications surrounding the purchase of arba minim this year are no laughing matter. Some arba minim markets opened, but many people were hesitant to shop there as usual. Many people simply ordered their lulavim and esrogim to be delivered to their homes this year, opting to forgo the pleasure of selecting their esrogim and hadassim. It was an unprecedented situation, like many of the other changes we have witnessed this year.
Empty Streets on Erev Yom Tov
In advance of the lockdown, there were many dire warnings about the penalties and fines that would be issued to anyone who violated the government’s restrictions. The authorities also warned the public that anyone who traveled to a different city for Rosh Hashanah would not be able to return home. The public apparently took these warnings seriously, as the roads were empty on erev Rosh Hashanah. Two hours before the Yom Tov began, I set out from my home in Givat Shaul to drive to Romema, which had been labeled a red neighborhood and was placed under a strict closure for multiple reasons: It was a red neighborhood located in a red city (Yerushalayim. My son, who lives in a rented apartment in Romema (or, to be more precise, a rented storage room) had come to help us prepare for the Yom Tov, and I was driving him home. I encountered a police roadblock near Center One that prevented motorists from turning on to Rechov HaMem Gimmel and was allowed to pass.
The roads were deserted. I felt as if I was driving through a ghost town. The streets of Yerushalayim were as empty as if it were the middle of a war, chas v’sholom. There was no traffic congestion anywhere, even at red lights. And this was an area that is generally bustling with activity, especially in the hours leading up to a Yom Tov. Yet the roads were as silent as on Yom Kippur. The police officers manning the roadblocks looked fairly sleepy, since they had very little to do. There were no motorists who even attempted to pass through the checkpoints. I noticed some public buses running, which I found somewhat surprising; the lockdown had already begun at 2:00 p.m., and people were not supposed to be traveling anywhere. Indeed, the buses were mostly empty; I spotted only a single passenger on one bus, and two people on another.
I also noticed a beautiful sight: I was driving down Rechov Zichron Yaakov toward Rechov Petach Tikvah, and I noticed a large crowd of people—men, women, and children—congregating outside the community center for a distribution of fruits and vegetables. I pulled up alongside the crowd and asked someone what was happening, and he explained that this scene takes place every Friday. The distribution is arranged by an organization known as Keren HaRashash and is a major benefit for the residents of the neighborhood. As I was listening to this explanation, a van appeared and a voice boomed over its loudspeaker, “Fresh, hot challos have arrived! Come and take!”
One of the recipients recognized me and said, “You know, you should write about this in the newspaper. The organizer deserves a yasher koach.”
“What is the organizer’s name?” I asked.
“We know him only as Reb Dovid,” my acquaintance replied.
Well, Reb Dovid of Keren HaRashash, if you are reading this then please be aware that you bring joy to hundreds of people in the neighborhood of Romema before every Shabbos and Yom Tov!
Outsmarting the Rules
When Jews experience troubles, they often tend to make light of their problems.
Many people have tried to soften the blow of the three-week lockdown by making light of it, but I am afraid that they are also downplaying it too much. On Tzom Gedaliah, I drove from Givat Shaul to the Knesset and did not see even a single police car or roadblock. On motzoei Rosh Hashanah, I looked out my window and observed the movement of cars on the Yerushalayim-Tel Aviv highway. Traffic was flowing smoothly out of Yerushalayim, as there was no effort made to hinder motorists from leaving the city. The entrance to Yerushalayim, however, was completely blocked. Cars stood motionless on the highway for an hour and a half, as the drivers honked their horns furiously. I don’t know if the entrance was closed by protestors or by police officers enforcing the lockdown; what I do know is that after an hour and a half had passed, the road was opened completely.
The lockdown regulations permit protests. The right to demonstrate is considered the heart and soul of democracy—even, apparently, if it leads to deaths. The chareidi community was incensed by the fact that the demonstrations against Netanyahu on Rechov Balfour have been allowed to continue with mass gatherings, while tefillos with numerous participants have been banned. Professor Roni Gamzu warned that any person who traveled to his parents’ home or to his rebbe for Rosh Hashanah would be forced to remain there until after Sukkos; the lockdown would prevent people from returning to their homes after Yom Tov. Some people, however, decided to outsmart the rules: Demonstrations were organized on the night after Rosh Hashanah in Bnei Brak, Yerushalayim and several other cities in order to provide a pretext for people to return to their homes. Anyone who traveled between cities would be able to claim that they were heading toward a particular demonstration in the city to which they were headed, and thus would be able to avoid penalties for violating the lockdown. Believe it or not, this ploy worked!
There is a difference, of course, between the chareidim’s ploy and the chilonim’s demonstrations. The religious community sought to circumvent the rules l’sheim Shomayim, while the secular protestors were interested only in their own selfish agenda. But Roni Gamzu was furious; he saw the numbers and seethed.
Frightful Corona Statistics
On the day after Rosh Hashanah, Professor Gamzu expressed his distress over the widespread disregard for the corona regulations. He decried the failure of the public to realize that the crisis is real. “With 600 deaths every month, you can do the math yourselves,” he announced. “I won’t frighten people by mentioning the prospect of 10,000 fatalities, but there are real numbers. We expect to have about 800 seriously ill patients by the end of this week. Every day, the system absorbs another 30 or 40 patients who are seriously ill, and about 40 mildly to moderately ill patients. We are going to have to reduce elective medical procedures and convert additional wards into coronavirus wards or open new wards in every hospital. We are heading into a very, very difficult month. All of the citizens of Israel, everyone who lives in this country, must be aware that the health system—certainly the hospital system, but the health clinics as well—is facing a massive challenge, an insane challenge, in order to protect the health of all of us.”
Gamzu spoke passionately. “We are accustomed to wars with tanks, with a battlefront, with bullets and conquests and wounded soldiers. The public responds more to such an event. But this is no different. People are dying; there are 20 to 25 fatalities every day. That is the mortality rate that can be expected with 5000 new cases developing every day. Some of the people are still claiming that this is a false plague or that it isn’t a pandemic, and that we are lying to them. Fools! This is real; people are sick, some of them very sick. The hospitals are overflowing, and people are dying. And it isn’t only elderly people. There is a certain dissonance; part of the public still hasn’t internalized it. Should we begin frightening them? Should we tell them that there will be 10,000 deaths? Because that is what is going to happen.”
Professor Gamzu argued that the red line, from his perspective, has already been crossed, and that if the government decides to tighten the lockdown, he will not oppose it. “It is all a question of costs and benefits,” he said. “We have to look at the big picture. If the government decides to tighten the lockdown, then as far as corona is concerned, there can certainly be an improvement in discipline with stricter enforcement. Even in this situation, the police must enforce the rules, the citizens must be responsible, and all of us must be disciplined and understand that the restrictions we are imposing are not unfounded. They are real.”
The government certainly has been planning to make the lockdown stricter, although I am not sure what other restrictions can be imposed. Perhaps their plan is to ramp up enforcement. After all, what I have been witnessing in the streets cannot truly be considered enforcement.
Meanwhile, everyone senses that the situation has been growing worse. Every day, we hear reports of more deaths and more cases of illness in our neighborhoods and families. The number of coronavirus cases in the Grodno Yeshiva in Beer Yaakov, for instance, reached a staggering 280 on Tzom Gedaliah. Many roshei yeshivos have contracted the virus. In the neighborhood of Brachfeld in Modiin Illit, the number of cases has been skyrocketing. And the coronavirus wards in all the hospitals are exceeding 100 percent occupancy! This week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the army to prepare to establish a field hospital. It certainly sounds very bad.
I have a very simple indicator of the severity of the situation. The Knesset Sergeant-at-Arms sends us an e-mail every time there is a confirmed case of corona in the Knesset. He informs us of the name of each patient, the places in the Knesset building where he was present, and the last time that he was present in the building. Anyone who came in contact with the patient is asked to self-isolate and to take a coronavirus test. On motzoei Rosh Hashanah, I received six e-mails about new cases of coronavirus detected among the Knesset employees. Until now, these e-mails had come only once every week or two. Among the new corona patients are MK Moshe Arbel and a certain yungerman from Rechasim who serves as an aide to MK Yaakov Margi. The situation here in Israel is very grave and seems to be getting increasingly worse. Every day the count of sick people rises. May Hashem have mercy on us.
The Tears Flowed Easily
This year, it was all too easy to cry on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is known that the Arizal used to weep copiously during the tefillos of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; he would comment that if a person did not cry during these days, it was a sign “that his neshomah is not proper and complete.” This year, the tears came without any effort. There has been so much sickness, so many deaths, and so many new orphans. On Tzom Gedaliah, we were informed of the passing of Rav Avrohom Levin, the son-in-law of Rav Yeshaya Lieberman, the founder of Seminar Bais Yaakov in Yerushalayim. In recent months, the Israeli Yated Neeman featured a daily notice asking the public to daven for his recovery. Throughout his illness I monitored his condition, just as I kept tabs on the well-being of Rav Benaya Nebenzahl zt”l. With his passing, tragedy has struck again. It should come as no surprise, then, that my tears flowed with ease.
For the benefit of the Breslov chassidim who were stranded in Belarus and barred from visiting Uman for Rosh Hashanah, I will quote Rebbe Nachman’s comment on this subject: “Rebbe Nachman once asked someone if he had cried on Rosh Hashanah, and added that the ideal is for the tears to stem from rejoicing. This is evidenced by the fact that initial letters of the words ‘b’shimcha yegilun kol hayom—they shall rejoice in Your Name throughout the day’ form the word bechiyah…. The value of bechiyah is primarily when it stems from joy. Remorse is also at its best when it results from joy.” For me, this was a novel idea, even though I was already aware that the Elef Hamagen (581:3) presents a similar thought: “True teshuvah must emerge from joy, not from depression and sadness, although a broken heart is good.”
We are entering the new year in a state of impoverishment, but that may bode well for our future. As the Gemara tells us, “Any year that is impoverished at its beginning will be rich at its end” (Rosh Hashanah 16b). Let us daven that we will see the fulfillment of this promise very soon.
Celebrations in Washington, Explosives from Gaza
Events have been unfolding so rapidly that we have almost forgotten the recent ceremony at the White House, where Israel signed a peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Due to the coronavirus, this did not receive as much attention in the press as it should have, in spite of the historic nature of the accomplishment. (Of course, Netanyahu’s detractors are still mocking him. “What sort of peace agreement is it, “they have asked cynically, “if we weren’t at war anyway?”) President Trump has already announced that there are other countries that are interested in signing peace agreements with Israel. The next in line, if I understood correctly, is Saudi Arabia. The only problem is that King Salman of Saudi Arabia is still refusing to join the peace bandwagon, but I presume that President Trump will manage to persuade him, either with the proverbial carrot or with the stick. According to Trump, Kuwait and Qatar are also ripe for peace.
An image that featured prominently in Israeli newspapers was the picture of the minyan for Mincha that was held on the White House lawn. The Shemoneh Esrei fostered a major kiddush Hashem as the Israeli newspapers were forced to grudgingly express their approval. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s entire entourage entered quarantine when they returned to Israel. Even Netanyahu remained confined to his home; on Rosh Hashanah, the shofar was sounded for him by a litvish yungerman who stood in the street below his home.
While Netanyahu and Trump were presiding over a peace agreement at the White House, here in Israel we were still contending with terrorism. Explosives tied to balloons have continued to glide across the border from Gaza, with the goal of igniting fires and sowing destruction in Israel. How can these Arabs be permitted to stand on their side of the border and launch these weapons into our country, with the goal of spreading devastation and death? I am terribly troubled by the Israeli government’s apparent surrender to this terrorism. The State of Israel is considered one of the most technologically advanced and sophisticated countries in the world; it possesses highly advanced weapons and defensive technologies, some of which I am not even permitted to mention in print. The United States is certainly a technological superpower as well. Yet Israel is combating the balloon terror with drones operated by ordinary civilians recruited for this purpose, while thousands of dunams of land have already been burned. B’chasdei Shomayim, the terror balloons have not caused any fatalities.
Hamas continued its attacks on Israel even during the event in Washington. Missiles were launched into Israel at the very moments that Netanyahu, Trump, and their new peace partners were delivering their festive speeches. The city of Sderot came under heavy fire, and a resident of the city named Rabbi Asher Bitton, who was in the process of distributing food packages to the needy, was severely wounded by shrapnel. At first, he was in critical condition, but he stabilized miraculously before Rosh Hashanah. Before Yom Kippur, his condition became moderate. It was a true miracle. Let us daven that peace will come to our own little corner of the world.
Malice in the Media
After the festive ceremony in Washington, another image captured the nation’s attention: a picture of Netanyahu sleeping on the floor of the plane that transported him back to Israel.
Of course, the airplane was equipped with more comfortable berths, both in the business class section and in first class. It was reported that Netanyahu slept on the floor because of back pain that prevented him from sleeping comfortably in an ordinary seat. Nevertheless, this picture was a sign of the cruelty of the Israeli media, and perhaps of some of the country’s politicians as well. Netanyahu had originally planned to travel to America on a private plane due to his fear of the coronavirus, but his intentions sparked a major outcry in the media and from various politicians, which impelled him to quickly reverse his decision.
There is a distinct pattern of malice in the media. It seems as if there is an internal competition within the press to produce the most highly inflammatory stories and news reports. What would have happened if Netanyahu had flown to America on a private plane? I have no idea how much it would have cost, or if the plane would have belonged to El Al or the air force, but what was the purpose of attacking him so viciously for his intent? What was the justification for all the hatred and invective that flooded the media?
Here is another example of the same trend: Last Friday, Yediot Acharonot carried a story bearing the headline, “Disregarding the Rules: Hundreds Gather at an Event Attended by the Mayor of Yerushalayim.” The subtitle offered more information: “Moshe Leon, Minister Rafi Peretz, and the chief rabbis of Israel were among the participants at the inauguration of a shul and a hachnossas sefer Torah held in Yerushalayim last night.” A picture of Rav Yitzchak Yosef appeared alongside the article. But this was not journalism; it was sheer incitement. The municipality of Yerushalayim responded by clarifying that the event complied with the Health Ministry’s regulations. The Chief Rabbinate likewise responded, “The rabbonim attended this event after it was made clear that the guidelines would be observed. They were accompanied by officers of the police force, which should make it clear that the event was approved and coordinated with the authorities. The rabbonim were present for only a few minutes.” Minister Rafi Peretz and Mayor Moshe Leon also responded that they had attended the event for only a few minutes. What, then, was the justification for this bombastic headline? And why is the media so hostile and malicious?
Yet another example is the outcry over the fact that Meir Rubinstein, the mayor of Beitar Illit, and Yisroel Porush, the mayor of Elad, “abandoned” the residents of their cities to fly to Uman. Yediot Acharonot painted a particularly black picture of their actions. “It is not to be believed,” the newspaper’s writers proclaimed. “The city is locked down at night, the virus is running rampant in the streets—and the mayor left it all behind and traveled to Uman.” Once again, this is not proper journalism; it is pure hatemongering.
The Roshei Teivos of Esrog
Allow me to share a dvar Torah that I can guarantee you will enjoy. I learned this idea from a distinguished gentleman by the name of Reb Pinchos Weiss, in the lobby of the Park House hotel in Boro Park in the year 1995. I was visiting my parents, who lived in Boro Park for a while, at the time. (My father was, for a long period of time, a maggid shiur in a yeshiva for Israelis in Monsey, and he was also responsible for a large group of Russian bochurim whom he had been mekarev in Moscow—under the aegis of Rav Moshe Reichman and his emissary for that purpose, Rav Mordechai Neustadt—and whom he sent to learn in Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore.) Professor Weiss was visiting New York at the time for medical treatment. He has since passed away.
Pinchos Weiss was a professor and a scientist, but he was also an outstanding talmid chochom. His main place of residence was Antwerp, but he also spent time in Bnei Brak and Brooklyn. He was the father of two men of renown: Rav Chaim Yosef Dovid Weiss, the dayan of Satmar in Antwerp, and Rav Yitzchok Aryeh Weiss, a rosh kollel in Manchester. I found Reb Pinchos sitting and learning in the hotel lobby, and I asked if I could join him. When I introduced myself—that is, when I revealed my grandfather’s identity—he graciously agreed.
“Listen to this story,” he said. “The year was 1929, and I was twenty years old. I was learning in Pressburg, and word reached our yeshiva that the Knessia Gedolah of Agudas Yisroel was convening in Vienna. A few of us decided to go there. It was 30 kilometers away, but who could resist an opportunity to see all the gedolei Yisroel meeting together? Rav Chaim Ozer, Rav Meir Shapiro, Rav Elchonon Wasserman, and many admorim were going to be there. So we went. On Shabbos afternoon, I wanted to meet the Imrei Emes of Ger. I waited outside his room for a long time, but the gabbaim didn’t let me go in. After all, why should a young bochur be permitted to disturb the gadol hador? But then your grandfather, Rav Binyomin Zev Yaakovson, arrived, and everyone greeted him warmly. Of course, he was ushered into the Gerrer Rebbe’s room without the slightest hesitation. And when he went inside, I snuck in along with him.”
I was treated to a large assortment of fascinating anecdotes at the time, but our topic now is the holiday of Sukkos, and I would like to share a dvar Torah on that subject that Reb Pinchos shared with me. The word “sheleimah” (complete) is used with regard to four things: emunah, teshuvah, refuah, and geulah. This indicates that each of these phenomena is meaningless unless it is complete. A person whose emunah is lacking even an iota is considered a full-fledged apikorus, and a person who has fallen just slightly short of repentance is not viewed as having engaged in teshuvah at all. Likewise, refuah (health) or geulah (redemption) is not genuine unless it is absolutely complete. Incredibly, the initial letters of each of these four words spell the word “esrog”—and an esrog that is not completely whole, even if only a small portion of the fruit is missing, is likewise considered completely posul.
A Fascinating Encounter in Rav Chaim Brim’s Sukkah
I will conclude with a story that I heard from the great Rav Uri Zohar.
Many years ago, Rav Uri was a member of a group of baalei teshuvah who attended shiurim delivered by Rav Chaim Brim. Rav Chaim was one of the crown jewels of Yerushalayim, an outstanding talmid chochom who was at once profoundly humble and incredibly regal. In his young years, he had a close relationship with Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer and was the chavrusa of another famed denizen of Yerushalayim, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. Both Rav Chaim and Rav Shlomo Zalman lived in the neighborhood of Shaarei Chessed. Rav Chaim was a rosh yeshiva in Slabodka in Bnei Brak as well as in Porat Yosef in Yerushalayim; in his later years, he became the rosh yeshiva of Pressburg. There was also a period of time when he served as a rosh yeshiva in Skver in America. He was very close to the Chazon Ish and often met with the Brisker Rov on his behalf. Rav Chaim Brim passed away 18 years ago and was buried on Har Hazeisim.
One Sukkos, Rav Chaim Brim shared an interesting story with the participants in his shiur, who visited him in his sukkah. “Yesterday, a baal teshuvah was here and sat in my sukkah for many hours,” he related. “I saw that he wanted to ask me something, but he was apparently embarrassed to ask his question in the presence of other people. He waited for quite a long time, hoping that he would be alone in the sukkah with me, but it simply didn’t happen. Finally, I said to him, ‘Reb Yid, I see that you have a question for me. If you are trying to wait until there is no one here except the two of us, you will have to wait until Simchas Torah.’ Upon hearing that, he approached me and whispered his dilemma in my ear. ‘I have a very serious problem,’ he said. ‘I am in the process of learning how to daven and recite brachos, but I am simply unable to say a brocha.’
“‘Why is that?’ I asked him.
“‘How can I say the words boruch atah Hashem?’ he asked.
“I did not understand the question. There was a group of talmidei chachomim present in the sukkah at that time, and while they had overheard his question, none of them understood it either. Finally, the visitor explained, ‘How can I say the word atah when I am addressing Hashem? How can I speak to the King of all kings in the second person?’”
Rav Chaim Brim smiled his unique smile as he told this story. And when Rav Uri Zohar repeated it, Rav Chaim’s smile seemed to be reflected in his own expression. Rav Chaim looked at the talmidim to whom he was telling the story and said, “Do you know what the rest of us felt like doing when we heard this question? We felt that we should crawl under the table and hide ourselves in shame over the difference between his spiritual level and our own….”