Wednesday, Apr 24, 2024

Noch Oon Noch

We read in Koheles on Shabbos Chol Hamoed, “Lakol zeman vo'eis tachas hashomoyim,” for every thing, there is a season. The Chiddushei Harim points out that each of the various periods and situations listed in the posuk, such as “eis le'ehov ve'eis lisno,” begins with the letter lamed. There are two exceptions: when the posuk refers to “eis sefod, ve'eis rekod.” The verb doesn't include the letter lamed. Rather than saying that there is a time to mourn, the posuk refers to “a time of mourning.” Rather than saying that there is a time to dance, the posuk mentions “a time of dancing.”

The Chiddushei Harim explains that when a period in life calls for sefod, mourning, lo aleinu, or rekod, unbridled joy, then “ess tantzt zich alein.” When it is an “eis rekod,” you don’t have to make a conscious decision to dance. You become swept up with the joy all around you. The converse, in regards to mourning, is true as well.


Having just returned from spending Sukkos in Yerushalayim, those two words, “eis rekod,” replay in my mind against the echoes of slim black clarinets and shiny cymbals from so many joyous evenings. If there are two words that sum up Sukkos in Yerushalayim, they are eis rekod.


The Yom Tov danced and we danced along. The streets danced, the people danced, the Kosel danced, the Arba Minim danced, and we danced along.


In Yerushalayim, the strains of music come wafting out of the windows, pulling neshamos from every direction with invisible ropes, calling out, “Come dance with me. It’s Zeman Simchoseinu. Take a moment to focus on your many blessings and rejoice.” It’s like there’s a little switch in the Jewish soul that is flipped on during these days, a palpable fulfillment of our tefillah, “Veyismechu vecha Yisroel mekadshei Shemecha.


As I walked in the street, joining the throngs headed towards Meah Shearim on Simchas Torah, I was reminded of a story involving Rav Eliezer Gordon, the founding rosh yeshiva of the Telzer yeshiva in Lithuania. Rav Gordon had worked hard to arrange a visit to the yeshiva by a renowned philanthropist, Baron David Ginsburg. In order to impress the baron, Rav Gordon invited his rebbi, Rav Yisroel Salanter, to be present during the visit.


The baron was quite impressed. Upon viewing the hundreds of bochurim engrossed in learning. Rav Gordon was so overjoyed and filled with pride that he himself suddenly broke out in dance.


The precious days of Sukkos in Yerushalayim were filled with such moments, moments when aggravation and petty grievances disappear and true simcha floods the heart and mind. With so much going wrong in our world and the world in general, with so many problems out there, and with so much potential for international flare-ups, you could be forgiven for having thought that the Yom Tov spirit would be dulled this year.


But you would have been wrong.


Before we left, someone asked me why I would be going to Israel now. “Aren’t you worried that a war with Iran will break out any day?” he asked. During my stay, I heard about lulav and lavluv, about na’anuim and Ushpizin, about ma’amid and nisuch hamayim, but nothing about Iran. It wasn’t on anyone’s lips or mind.


Is the optimism based on huge doses of emunah, blissful ignorance, or a feeling of having survived so many awfully threatening situations? I don’t know. I do know, however, that the sense of being betzila d’Kudsha Brich Hu over Sukkos in Eretz Yisroel is acute. Everyone becomes swept up with the chag and everything else seems secondary. It’s impossible to remain immune to the warmth, joy and happiness with the mitzvos and life in general.


The day really does start much earlier there. The sun shines from a clear blue sky well before the first zeman Krias Shema – the early one, which most shuls there follow, making 7 o’clock the standard davening time for Shabbos and Yom Tov mornings. The Gemara in Maseches Sukkah discusses the Yerushalayimer residents of old who would circulate throughout the day with their lulav in hand. It’s still true.


Here, in America, we finish davening in the morning and head to our cars. We turn on the engine, lock the door, and too often become enveloped in our own little bubbles, cut off from the world around us for the rest of the day.


Yom Tov can be nice here as well, spent in the comfort of family friends, neighbors and our favorite shul/bais medrash. But the golus here is more obvious. The entire city and culture are not infused with the Yom Tov spirit. You don’t feel the joy and frenetic anticipation in the air, the streets and wherever you go, as much as you do in Yerushalayim.


There, in Eretz Yisroel, the flood of activity sweeps you along. With the commotion of Yom Tov, streets fill from early morning to late at night with people scurrying around looking for Dalet Minim and everything else they need for Yom Tov.


The hurrying of Yiddishe feet along the pavement might very well be what gives the streets their electricity. Mah yofu pa’amayich bane’olim. You see the people. You feel them. You sense their energy as they hustle and bustle.


Up until the moment Yom Tov begins. Then, a serene calm overtakes the city, enveloping its inhabitants and visitors in a massive sukkas sholom. The simcha shel mitzvah runs through the streets like a current, the lines of worry and weariness erased from so many faces, replaced with a happy glow. An inner sense of satisfaction is evident all around, even on the faces of people you know live in cramped apartments, making do with very little.


Everyone is so into the Yom Tov, it overtakes you in a way that is hard to describe. The Yom Tov and its observance become your essence. The sugyos of Yom Tov are the currency of value, traded and cherished. There is nothing else going on in your life besides Yom Tov. And that is the way it is meant to be. Is that not something to dance about?


Then the peace is broken with the arrival of Chol Hamoed and its many Simchas Bais Hashoeivah celebrations every night in every nook and cranny where people gather to daven and learn. The yeshivos are packed with returning talmidim, the music blaring into the wee hours of the night. And the neighbors don’t complain. They are also out and about. The eis rekod has overtaken everyone. Toldos Aharon is packed to the rafters. It must be 100 degrees in there, but young and old don’t seem to mind. It is an eis rekod and the words “bederech hatorah neileich lekadeish sheim Shomayim” are echoing off the ceiling and charging everyone with energy and purpose.


The roads are filled with people on trips to visit rabbeim, family, the Kosel, mekomos hakedoshim and other sites.


For so many years, our eyes have been turned towards the gedolei Eretz Yisroel for leadership and blessing. Being there for Yom Tov, one gets to imbibe their special fragrance at this special time. How can one worry or feel anguish when he is privileged to sit with gedolim, rabbonim and roshei yeshiva? Young and old, they are filled with so much chochmas haTorah. It is reassuring as we seek direction in a turbulent world.

Sometimes it is with humor. We met Rav Moshe Shternbuch. He told us of a time long ago when he was living in South Africa and a man came to him before Rosh Hashanah seeking a brochah for the coming year. The man told the rov that everything was going well for him. He was healthy, his business was doing well, and he was having nachas from his children. “Please give me a brochah that Hashem shouldn’t eisek zach with me,” the man said.


Encountering younger gedolim, such as the Chevroner rosh yeshiva, Rav Dovid Cohen, is so heartening. We spoke about inyonei deyoma and much else. With humility and brilliance, he offered a clear understanding and explanation of myriad topics.


Of course, being in the presence of Rav Chaim Kanievsky is always a source of chizuk. Observing him and simply being in his dalet amos reminds us that it is possible for a yelud isha to attain the highest levels of Torah and gedulah.


Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman sits in his humble apartment on Rechov Chazon Ish, dispensing advice, chizuk and daas Torah to people from around the globe. You look at him and his surroundings and realize that there is nothing in it for him. He barely derives any physical enjoyment from this world, except when he is learning or delivering one of his regular shiurim in that same apartment.


Rav Gershon Edelstein is 90 years old and delivers regular shiurim and shmuessen in Ponovezher Yeshiva. When we arrived at his home, he was delivering a shmuess to bochurim and yungeleit, reminding them that the effects of Sukkos must last longer than seven days. He gave them the tools to work on themselves in order to retain it all year.


Chacham Ovadiah Yosef just celebrated his 92nd birthday. After davening every day, he delivers a halachah shiur, clear and detailed. His brachos are effusive, his smile warm and engaging. He spends his days engrossed in learning like a young man, adding to his encyclopedic knowledge. The chiddushei Torah still flow from his pen throughout the day, a clear, fresh ma’ayan hamisgaber in Har Nof.


We met unsung Yerushalayimer tzaddikim, such as Rav Yaakov Trietsky, who bubbles over with old Yerushalayimer chochmah and chein, even in his current weakened condition. He reminisces of the old days, when the Jews were forced from the Old City, and sings a tune that Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer brought over from Volozhin. His simplicity and saintliness are overwhelming, yet this may be the first time his name appears in a newspaper.


Rav Zundel Kroizer is another such person. Though he’s achieved a larger measure of fame, he is virtually unknown beyond his small circle. Rav Chaim Kanievsky says that it is because Hashem loves Rav Zundel that He allows him to maintain his privacy, so that he can learn undisturbed.


Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz says shmuessen around the world via hookup and interacts with people on an individual basis, providing chizuk and reassurance to those who may otherwise slip through the cracks. Yet, when you see him in Zichron Moshe, he looks like just another holy, simple, Yerushalayimer Jew.


Isn’t spending time around such Yidden, seeing how Hakadosh Boruch Hu has planted such giants among us to lead, inspire and teach, a reason to dance?


In Eretz Yisroel, you are never too far from a remembrance of the days gone by thousands of years ago when our forefathers walked those same streets and when the Bais Hamikdosh stood. What a chizuk in emunah it is to visit an excavation of a mikvah along the road that leads from Chevron to Yerushalayim upon which the avos are said to have walked and on which Yidden traveled to Yerushalayim in the days of old.


So much has been lost over the centuries, but we still have the Kosel Hamaarovi, the serid Bais Mikdosheinu, from where the Shechinah never left and where we can go pour out our hearts in tefillah, along with tens of thousands of others who flow there by bus, taxi and foot throughout Chol Hamoed. All types of Jews, including those who you’d never guess are Jews, are there. The eis rekod sweeps them along as well.


Touching the past makes it so real and brings the words of the nevi’im to life.


We experienced, as well, a special simcha that, in its own way, was the greatest reason to dance – hope for the future.


It was expressed in pure, unadulterated joy of the yeshiva bochurim, with whom we spent the Simchas Torah of bnei chutz la’aretz on Rechov Chagiz in Geulah, who were far from home and family, dancing with the Torah.


With boundless energy and unsurpassed joy, out of shape young men, who spend their days and nights in the bais medrash treading along the daunting, difficult road towards becoming real talmidei chachomim, danced and danced and danced some more, with more energy than anyone knew they possessed. These bochurim in their early twenties, with simcha and a connection to Torah not so different from that of the elderly gedolim and gaonim, demonstrated that the Torah is a morashah kehillas Yaakov, accessible to every single Jew.


In their dance was evident the teaching of the rebbe of P’shischa, who said that the word rokeid, meaning to dance, is related to the melacha on Shabbos of meraked, sifting. Through dancing for a mitzvah, the pebbles and chaff that get mixed in with pure wheat are removed. The bochurim were leaping and spinning, shedding themselves of anything that wouldn’t directly help them grow.


Late that night, which was Motzoei Simchas Torah for the locals, most people joyfully celebrated at hakafos sheniyos. I made my way to a tiny second-story shtiebel deep in Meah Shearim. Inside was a pulsating mass of Yerushalayimer Yidden, resplendent in their gold bekeshes, emulating the timeless dance of Dovid Hamelech, bechol oz lifnei Hashem.


There were no cameras, tourists, nor spectators to the awesome scene of completely authentic love for the Torah. There was nothing except the precious scrolls in their arms, and it was clear that there was nothing else of significance to them. Old men together with young men and their children were overcome by the “eis rekod.” Simchas Torah was over, Zeman Simchaseinu had ended, but they wouldn’t let go.


The simcha was in their hearts and souls. They were pulsating with life. They jumped and danced round and round, their neshamos aflame and their faces aglow. Then they took off their shtreimels and fell to the floor, doing somersaults in front of the Sifrei Torah, an embodiment of “mecharker bechol oz.”


Mi shelo ro’oh zos lo ro’oh simcha miyomov.


I was sharing my feelings about that bais medrash’l with a friend from Montreal, and he told me about an elderly, respected talmid of the alte Mir, Rav Yaakov Moshe Magid, a veteran marbitz Torah umussar who lives in Montreal. The rov is ill and infirm and has been unable to leave his home for months.


In the middle of Simchas Torah, seized by the joy of the day, he felt compelled to find a way to get to shul to join in the simcha. He turned to his son-in-law, Rav Steinfeld, a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan, and asked to be taken to shul. Determined, the rov was assisted to a nearby shul, Eitz Chaim, where the rov, Rav Yoel Chonon Wenger, welcomed the distinguished visitor, who had seen Hakafos in the Mir and Grodna of old.


The elderly Rav Magid clutched a Sefer Torah close to his chest and the olam grew silent, eager to hear the ruminations of his heart.


Quoting the words of the famous piyut, “Sisu v’simchu b’simchas haTorah,” Rav Magid asked, “Why do we refer to the simchas haTorah, rather than being happy with the Torah itself – sisu v’simchu baTorah?”


He answered, “We know that we, the recipients of this great gift, are happy with the Torah. Our question is whether the Torah is happy with us! On this day, we feel that the Torah rejoices with us as well, so we say, ‘Sisu v’simchu b’simchas hatorah.’ Let’s soak in the joy that the Torah itself feels!”


Watching the bochurim dance, seeing the Yerushalayimer Yidden rejoice, we felt that the flow went both ways. We sensed the love that they have for the Torah and the love that the Torah has for them.


The Brisker Rov, Rav Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik, was famously serious most of the time. He allowed himself to be overly joyful on two days of the year, Purim and Simchas Torah. But there was a difference. On Purim, once the day was over, his serious countenance returned almost immediately. But even after the sun had long set following Simchas Torah, he remained joyous. When asked about this, he explained, “On Purim, there is a din that it be a ‘yom mishteh v’simcha,’ a day of feasting and merriment. The obligation of simcha ends when the day ends. However, the mishteh v’simcha of Simchas Torah is a result of completing the Torah. That joy is not tied to the day, and even after Simchas Torah ends, the simcha lingers.”


The eis rekod refuses to expire.


It was already a few hours into the Hakafos on leil Simchas Torah and no one could be blamed for running out of steam after having danced the whole evening. A bochur drenched in sweat left the line and was headed out of the hot bais medrash. His chaver saw him on the way out and said to him, “What’s going on? Where are you going?”


The bochur responded that he needed a break.


“Now? In middle of this niggun? How can you leave in middle of this niggun? You have to wait at least until this niggun ends.”


The bochur who was spent a minute ago said, “You know what? You’re right. I’m going back in.”


What was the niggun? It wasn’t some new hot melody. It was a golden oldie, sung all over the world on the day we celebrate the siyum of the Torah. “Olam Haba iz ah gutteh zach, lernen Torah iz ah besser zach, varf avek yeden yoch, lernen Torah noch oon noch, Olam Haba iz ah gutteh zach.”


As many times as that niggun is sung, it’s never enough. The words keep churning in your head. Noch oon noch. Lernen Torah noch oon noch. Lernen Torah iz ah besser zach.


And it is.


May the wellsprings of joy opened over the past few weeks fuse with the purity of Yom Kippur and the malchus of Rosh Hashanah to create a rushing river that will carry us through the long, cold, months ahead, with the song and mantra of bederech hatorah neileich lekadeish sheim Shomayim loud and clear in our homes and hearts.


Noch oon noch.



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