Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Playing House

It is perfectly natural for children and teenagers to be envious of a classmate or friend who always dresses according to the latest styles and trends. That isn’t to say that we should be jealous of such a person After all, having a fashion sense or obsession will not make anyone into a better friend, a better listener or better company. Still, Hashem created humans with an inborn desire for honor and possessions, and being fashionable is often confused with one or both of those things.

Imagine, though, that a 9th grade girl walks into class one day sporting her mother’s fanciest shaitel and high heels. Would the other girls be jealous of her for being dressed so “fancy” that day? Or would they pity her for acting like a kindergartner playing dress-up?

On the converse, what about the 3rd grade teacher who shows up to school one day carrying a brand name briefcase on her back and sporting a headband with reversible sequins on her shaitel – both of which are the rage amongst her 3rd grade charges? Will the other teachers envy her for being “so in”? Would her own students be envious, as they’d be had any one of their own classmates come in with those items? Or would they wonder if she needs help for some serious unresolved issues?

Clearly, even when we do desire to belong to a certain “group” or “type,” we understand that it only suits us when we aim for that which is appropriate for us, specifically, within that group or type. Suppose I walked into yeshiva one day acting like an Englishman, having perfected the accent, mannerisms and dry wit. I might come across as charming. If, however, I’m also wearing the hat of a British policeman, or bobby, to further my “English” look, I would only come across as foolish rather than as more genuine. English yungeleit do not wear bobby hats.

Is the World Very Good, or Very Worthless?

So what does that have to do with Sukkos?

Every Sukkos (generally on Shabbos Chol Hamoed, if there is one) we lain the entire Koheles in shul. Koheles is chock full of wake-up calls reminding us about what is truly important in life and what is merely hevel havolim, vain pursuits that ultimately get us nowhere. If we would listen to and internalize even a tiny part of what we lain every Sukkos, we would become changed people.

There is one particular posuk, though, at the very beginning of Koheles, that is somewhat difficult to interpret. The second posuk begins, “Hevel havolim omar Koheleshakol hovel.” Everything, the posuk tells us, is futile. Rashi (ad loc.) explains, “Koheles koreh tager v’omer al kol yetziras shivas yemei bereishis shehakol hevel. Koheles issues a battle cry and declares everything created during the seven days of creation as being entirely hevel, worthless.”

In other words, everything in this world is worthless. The only items with any true value are ruchniyus pursuits, spiritual endeavors. All else is hevel.

Rav Chaim Epstein zt”l would ask, though, how that can be. When we learn about creation in Chumash, the Torah tells us that on the very first day (Bereishis 1:4), “Vayar El-okim es ha’ohr ki tov… And Hashem saw that it was good.” On the third day, again, twice ki tov, it was good. On the fourth day, ki tov. On the fifth day, the sixth day, ki tov, ki tov. It was good. At the end of the sixth day (1:31), “Vehinei tov me’od… And it was very good.”

How, then, can Koheles tell us (as per Rashi) that “kol yetziras shivas yemei bereishis, everything created during the seven days of creation, is all hakol hevel, entirely worthless,” when Hashem Himself called it “good” and “very good”? Is it hevel or is it tov me’od?

The answer, Rav Chaim would say, is that it depends on how a person uses this world. To explain, he would first bring a fascinating interpretation of a posuk in Mishlei from the Vilna Gaon, who himself was quoting an earlier sefer, the Ben Hamelech Vehanazir (from Rav Avrohom ibn Chisdai, who lived in the early 1200s). In Mishlei (8:21), the posuk speaks of “lehanchil ohavei yeish,” Hashem provides those who love Him with “yeish.”

Many may recognize this posuk, as it is recited at every siyum. What does it mean, however, that Hashem gives us “yeish”? What is yeish? The word’s literal translation is “it is.” In what way does Hashem give us “that which is”?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 100a) brings an interpretation wherein the word “yeish” is used for its numerical value. Yud (10) and Shin (300) is 310. In the future, says the Gemara, Hashem will provide each tzaddik with 310 worlds.

Still, Rav Epstein would ask, how are we to understand the simple meaning of the posuklehanchil ohavei yeish,” Hashem will give those who love Him “yeish”? A posuk must have a literal meaning as well (ein mikra yotzi midei peshuto).

A look at the peirush of the Vilna Gaon (ad loc.) puts everything in a whole new light. “As the Ben Hamelech Vehanazir writes,” says the Gaon, “[it refers to] people [who] confuse that which is yeish with eino yeish,” they confuse that which is real with that which only seems real, “and they think that that which only seems real is truly real.”

Eat, Drink and…Then What?

The world of gashmiyus, of things and material items, is, in and of itself, meaningless. A person is here and then he is gone, and whatever he had or used is as if it never was. We can use our items, however, towards a purpose that is real. If we help someone with our possessions or with our talents, or if we use our worldly assets in the service of our Creator, we have turned them into something real, because we’ve used them for that which will last for all eternity.

Too often, we get so carried away with all the excitement of our various possessions and worldly pursuits that we forget that these things – all of these things – are actually meaningless in and of themselves. We look at that which is eino yeish as if they are yeish. In our excitement over all of our “stuff” as well – over our latest model toys and latest fashion clothes, over our exotic wines and carved meats, our thrilling vacations and beautiful homes – we tend to overlook those things that really matter, in our lives, in the long run. We confuse that which is yeish, which really count, as if they are eino yeish, as if they are mere trivialities we must attend to when necessary.

Thus, the posuk in Mishlei tells us “lehanchil ohavei yeish.” Those who love Hashem will merit an abundance of that which is truly real and lasting, that which is yeish. This is indeed a great merit, because so many feel blessed with an abundance of material items, not realizing that in the end it’s all eino yeish; it will leave them with nothing but a void. It’s mere emptiness and hevel.

This, then, is how we can understand how Hashem refers to each day of creation as ki tov, as being good, while Koheles tells us that it is all hevel havolim, complete futility and nothingness. Both are true – it all depends on what we do in, and with, this world. We can use it for tov, and even tov me’od, for truly good and meaningful purposes, when we utilize this world as a means to fulfill Hashem’s ratzon, to spread kiddush Sheim Shomayim, to help others and to come close to Hashem. We can use it for that which is yeish.

We can also completely abuse this world by utilizing it not as a means, but as an end unto itself. By itself, Koheles tells us, this world, all seven days of creation – and that includes even Shabbos, when used merely for its physical pleasures rather than to uplift us – is all hevel. It’s an eino yeish that we confuse with yeish.

Meaningful or Meaningless? You Decide!

This brings us back to our friend who is playing house. When we use this world for its own sake – for physical enjoyment, for pleasure, to pamper our bodies and our desires endlessly – we feel excited. We think we’ve made it. “This is the life!” we tell ourselves.

The problem is that it’s all fake. It’s an illusion. We’re playing with doll clothing and a doll house and we think it’s the real thing. We’re like the 9th grader dressed in her mother’s shaitel and high heels and thinking she’s fancy, when in reality it’s all an illusion. Her mother’s shaitel may indeed be worth many, many thousands. It can boast a part that is most natural – maybe even organic – and a hairline so custom one needs a visa to get through it, and a style so hair-raising that it comes with its own therapist. Still and all, the 9th grader bringing it to school isn’t fancy. She’s playing house.

By the same token, the pleasures of this world in which we might lose ourselves may indeed be the best and the greatest. They look good and they feel good, but they’re playthings. They’re eino yeish. They add no meaning and no value and no purpose whatsoever. It’s all an illusion in which we lose ourselves – to our own detriment and ultimate regret.

If we want to really enjoy life, we must first make sure that we’re in the real world of real joy. We should enjoy ourselves in this world – it can be tov me’od – but we’ll only get there if we’re careful not to lose sight of why we have that which we have and towards what purposes we should be using them.

On Sukkos, we leave our permanent homes and enter a temporary dwelling to symbolize that what we think is permanent is really fleeting and what seems temporary can have eternal value. Interestingly, we are not told to “rough it” out in our sukkos. On the contrary, we beautify the sukkah, and we bring our nicest and most helpful household items out into our sukkah (as best as can be practically accomplished).

Why is that? If the point is to stress the temporary and the transient, why not make sure not to bring out anything too comfortable or fancy? We aren’t we told to eat b’chipazon, quickly and hurriedly? Why do we bring our worldly comforts into our sukkah?

Clearly, the lesson is not to do away with everything of this world. Rather, it is of how to use what we have in this world towards a purpose that is far beyond this world. We bring our amenities and our worldly best into our sukkos to remind ourselves that the joys of this world are true and real – rather than mere play-acting – only when used not for this world, but for a world that is true and lasting as well.



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