“Whoever did not see the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah never witnessed a true simcha in his life” (Sukkah 52a).
Today, we, too, celebrate the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, but it cannot compare to the one that took place in the Bais Hamikdosh. It is said in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the most difficult mitzvah of Sukkos to fulfill is the mitzvah of simcha, because the other mitzvos of Yom Tov are performed through physical action, but simcha has to emanate from the heart. How do we manage to reach this simcha, especially in a turbulent world filled with problems and challenges?
The Gemara brings three examples of particular Tannai’m who celebrated the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah. “They said about Hillel that when he rejoiced at the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, he said, “If I am here, then everyone is here. If I am not here, who is here?” Rashi explains that Hillel was referring to the holy Shechinah. As long as we don’t sin, the Shechinah will be ever-present amongst us and everyone will continue coming. But if we sin and the Shechinah departs us, then no one will come.
The second example of a Tanna who rejoiced on this great occasion was Rabbon Shimon Ben Gamliel. They said about him that he celebrated by juggling eight torches at one time and they did not touch each other. He would also perform “kiddah,” an acrobatic feat that no one else could do.
Finally, a statement by Rabi Yehoshua Ben Chananya: “When we rejoiced at the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah, we did not get to sleep at all.” Amidst all of the activity in the Bais Hamikdosh, they only managed to catch a little nap on the shoulders of their friend (Sukkah 53a).
One would think that to be the center of the celebration, these three tzaddikim led comfortable and serene lives, but the opposite is true. In his early years, Hillel was a woodchopper who earned one coin a day, giving half of it to the guard of the bais medrash to allow him to enter. He barely had anything to live on. And even in his later years, when he was the nosi and gadol hador, the times were very difficult. The Romans had already planted their claws in Eretz Yisroel and ruled over the Yidden. Their puppet on the throne was the wicked Hurdos (Herod), who was responsible for much bloodshed and strife.
Rabbon Shimon Ben Gamliel was the nosi and head of the Sanhedrin at the time of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh. The years that preceded the churban were filled with inner fighting amongst Yidden and the corrupt Roman governors who antagonized our people.
Rabi Yehoshua Ben Chananya survived the churban, but lived through the tragic times that followed. On numerous occasions, he was forced to travel to Rome to plead with the rulers there on behalf of his people. He saw the oppression of his brethren and had to convince them not to rebel against Rome because fighting them was hopeless. All of these tzaddikim faced painful, trying times, yet they are used as models of celebration in the Bais Hamikdosh. How were they able to open their hearts in such a difficult era and exude such happiness?
What was the root of all of the festivity in the Bais Hamikdosh? The Ritva (Sukkah 51a) gives two reasons. One was because of our gratitude to Hashem that the Shechinah dwelled amongst Klal Yisroel. That Hakadosh Boruch Hu, Master of the universe with all of its galaxies and infinite planets, chose us of all nations to bless us with His presence. Secondly, because of the reward of Olam Haba that is given to tzaddikim.
These Tanna’im were very much aware of the times and they felt the pain of their people. Undoubtedly, they also suffered personally from the yoke of the foreign rulers. But they realized through all of their travails that they still had what mattered most, something that the other nations did not have: that close relationship with Hashem. As Dovid Hamelech says: “But as for me, nearness to Hashem is my goal” (Tehillim 73:28).
In addition, they were primarily focused on the ultimate goal. This world is merely a corridor that leads to the banquet hall, Olam Haba. World events were temporary, and merely a distraction for their main objective of preparing for the World to Come. Compared to the ultimate prize of bonding with Hashem and the pleasure in Olam Haba, everything else was just trivial. Nothing in this transitory world could detract from these simchos.
Rav Broka Chuza’ah frequented the marketplace of Beis Lefet. Eliyahu Hanovi often met him. One day, Rav Broka asked him, “Is there anyone in this marketplace who is a ben Olam Haba?” Two people appeared and Eliyahu said that they are bnei Olam Haba. Rav Broka approached them and asked them what their occupation is. They answered, “We are comedians. We make the sad people happy, and when we see two people in an argument, we try and make peace between them” (Taanis 22a).
It would seem from this Gemara that these acts of chesed in particular made the two comedians bnei Olam Haba. But don’t all mitzvos earn us Olam Haba? What was so special about these two? Another question that may be asked is: Were these the only two bnei Olam Haba in the entire marketplace? Doesn’t every Yid have a portion in the World to Come?
Rav Yaakov Galinsky answers that, of course, every Jew has a cheilek in Olam Haba, but there is a special distinction being called a “ben Olam Haba.” This refers to one who lives his entire life with his eyes on the ultimate purpose of the World to Come. Such a person doesn’t care much about the trivial pursuits of this world. He is totally absorbed in what is important: the food of Olam Haba, Torah and mitzvos. He is busy storing for the future and does not take matters of Olam Hazeh seriously. There are many people who have a share in the next world, but only a select few live their lives in a way that they can wear the badge of honor of being called a ben Olam Haba even while they are still alive in this world.
According to this, we may say that these two comedians did not become bnei Olam Haba because of this chesed they did. Quite the opposite. Because they were bnei Olam Haba, they made light of the problems of this temporary world and were able to cheer up those who were depressed because of hardship. With this outlook that life in this world is transient, they were also able to bring peace between two people, convincing them that their issues are short-lived and it doesn’t pay to get bent out of shape because of them.
Rebbetzin Greineman, sister of the Chazon Ish, related that a short while after her sister married the Steipler Gaon, he told his wife about an incident that took place a number of years before. He was forced to join the Polish army, and come Shabbos, he boldly informed his superiors that under no circumstances would he do any work on the holy Shabbos. He faced a military tribunal, where it was decided that he would be permitted to keep Shabbos, but for a painful price. He would have to run the gauntlet, moving between two rows of soldiers as they mercilessly beat him on the head with the butts of their rifles. Without any hesitation, the tzaddik accepted the offer. He willingly absorbed the brutal blows and, in this way, he was able to observe the Shabbos.
Why did the Steipler relate this incident to his rebbetzin? He was certainly not the type to boast about his merits. He explained to her, “You should know that over the years, I told this story to numerous people. I wanted to hear what they felt about it. Do they feel the contentment and inner joy that I felt with each and every blow that I absorbed, as I realized that all of this was happening on account of my wanting to keep Shabbos? Not one person was able to honestly say that he felt my inner joy of that time. I wanted to know what your feeling was when you heard the story. To what extent did you empathize with the simcha I felt at that time?”
Those whose minds are up in the heavens, focused on the grand ballroom, barely feel the pain down here. To the contrary, a merciless beating can be transformed into true inner simcha. This is the classic illustration of a ben Olam Haba.
For the record, does anyone even know the names of those pompous judges on the military tribunal gleefully passing a decree on what they thought was a hapless Jew? And what about the soldiers who mercilessly beat a poor Yid as he was scurrying by them? No, not a trace of their memory exists. They have been relegated to the proverbial dustbins of history, never to be heard from again. But the name of the holy Steipler Gaon is eternal in both Olam Haba and in this world, as he is very much still alive in yeshivos all over the world that delight in his wonderful chiddushim.
Rabbeinu Bachya points out that sukkah is similar to the name given to Sarah Imeinu in the Torah, Yiskah (Bereishis 11:29). It means to look, because Sarah was able to see and perceive matters with ruach hakodesh. When we sit in the sukkah together with Hashem, we can also merit some degree of divine inspiration. In addition, the sukkah, a temporary dwelling place, gives us a perspective on life different from the other nations. It reminds us that we are here on this world only temporarily. Before we know it, we will pass on to a much bigger and better world. The sukkah beckons to us, “Don’t take the physical matters of this world too seriously. Be engaged in deeds that are a good investment for you eternally.”
When we view the world with this perspective, all the turbulence that is taking place around us becomes trivial. The cacophonous sounds of the crazed liberals, the political turmoil in the State of Israel, the saber-rattling of the Iranian mullahs, Russian aggression, and the constant threat of growing Chinese influence in the world are all merely distractions from what is truly paramount in our lives. Their noises are transient and, like powerful kingdoms and movements of the past, will fade with time.
“When evildoers approach me to devour my flesh, my tormentors and my foes against me, it is they who will stumble and fall… He will hide me in His sukkah on the day of evil” (Tehillim 27). We have the only thing that really matters, the only force that is eternal. We are bound to Hakadosh Boruch Hu and the Torah. As long as we are faithful to Him and keep the mitzvos, we are guaranteed eternity both as a nation in this world and life in Olam Haba. And that is something to really rejoice about.
A chag someiach to all.