The Ponovezher Rov, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, was once visiting the famous library at Oxford that contains many old seforim and manuscripts. The protocol there is that when a visitor comes to research a manuscript, he fills out a form and hands it to the librarian. Then he waits for the librarian to return with the item requested and is allowed a limited amount of time to study it there before returning it.
One day, after filling out the form, he met a Yid from Australia at the library. They got into an animated conversation about Jewish geography, finding out about acquaintances they had in common and other interesting topics. It was a most enjoyable conversation, said the rov, but then, all of a sudden, it came to an abrupt halt. They no longer said a word to each other. What brought about this change from an amicable chat to a chilled silence?
It was the librarian. He brought each one of them the study material that they had requested and they quickly became engrossed in their research. Now they had no time for simple talk. They knew that they came there for a specific purpose and that their time was limited, so they could not squander these precious moments on simple conversation, as enjoyable as it may be.
This incident, said the rov, gave him a new insight into a posuk that we say throughout Elul, the Yomim Noraim and Sukkos. Dovid Hamelech says: “One thing I asked of Hashem that I shall seek: that I dwell in the House of Hashem all the days of my life, to behold the sweetness of Hashem and to visit His sanctuary” (Tehillim 27:4). The seforim ask: If Dovid first asked Hashem to dwell in His house all of the days of his life, why would he also request to visit His sanctuary? After all, he would be there constantly and never leave it. Some commentaries explain “ulevaker beheichalo” to mean contemplating in His sanctuary and not visiting.
However, in light of his experience in Oxford, the rov explained that yes, Dovid Hamelech asked Hashem that he be able to dwell in His house all of the days of his life, but when we have a lot of time to do something, we don’t feel that pressured to utilize every single moment, for what we don’t accomplish now we can do later. However, Dovid wanted to maximize the use of his time and didn’t want to waste even one moment, so he also asked Hashem to instill in him that sense of urgency as if he was only visiting the House of Hashem and his time was limited. Then, not a second would go to waste.
The Kelmer Maggid was once giving a drasha about the importance of utilizing one’s time properly. Imagine, he said, if Eliyahu Hanovi would come to a cemetery and announce to the dead people that they should awaken and that they have one hour to live to do whatever they want. What do you think they would do? They have already seen the World of Truth. They have seen clearly what is considered important in Shomayim and what is trivial. Undoubtedly, they would make a mad dash for the bais medrash to learn Torah and daven. Perhaps some would rush to become involved in tzedakah and chesed.
What would happen if during this time a relative or an old friend would approach them to engage in conversation? They would be so harried and busy that they wouldn’t even notice them. And if they would, they would say that they have no time to waste. With this, the Maggid said to the audience, “And who says that we have more than one hour to live? We, too, must live our lives with a sense of urgency to accomplish as much as we can.”
Dovid Hamelech’s request to always dwell in the House of Hashem and to visit His sanctuary is followed by “ki yitzpineini besukko beyom ra’ah – For He will hide me in His shelter on the day of evil.” The Vilna Gaon says that the word sukko is a remez to the festival of Sukkos. In light of the Ponovezher Rov’s explanation of Dovid’s wanting to visit the Heichal of Hashem, we can explain its connection to the Yom Tov of Sukkos, for this is what the mitzvah of sukkah teaches us. “Leave your permanent residence and live in a temporary one” (Sukkah 2a). The sukkah teaches us that our entire life on this world is merely a temporary sojourn, for our real dwelling place is in the world of neshamos in Olam Haba. If we realize this, then our entire life is transformed throughout the entire year. Then our service to Hashem – the mitzvos we do, the spiritual footprint that we impress upon the world – takes on a new sense of urgency, because we realize that our time for important accomplishments here are limited and that we must utilize every moment wisely.
Just before the Vilna Gaon left this world, his talmidim saw him crying. They asked him, “Why is the rebbi sad when he knows very well the immense reward that awaits him in Olam Haba?”
The Gaon sighed, held onto his tzitzis and said, “Yes, Olam Haba is an amazing place with unfathomable pleasure. But there I will no longer have the tremendous opportunities that I had in this world, where for a couple of pennies one can acquire the mitzvah of tzitzis. These precious chances to perform mitzvos aren’t available in the World to Come. Hayom laasosam. Today, this world is meant for performing Hashem’s mitzvos, and that is something we only have down here.
There is another aspect of this hashkafah of this world being only a temporary dwelling place. There is a Medrash pliah, a puzzling Medrash, that says: “Iyov complained to Hashem about the pains that he was suffering, until Hashem showed him three walls of the sukkah… Two of them must be full walls and the third even a handbreadth.” How was the sukkah a consolation for Iyov’s woes?
The Aruch L’ner, Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, explains that one of the main lessons of the sukkah is to realize that our lives on this world are only temporary, a passing short phase of time. Our existence in the World to Come will go on forever. Here we are only guests, and when we go the way of all men, we will arrive at our permanent destination.
Iyov at first thought that this world is of great importance, with man finding fame and fortune. When he saw this world coming apart, he was shattered and complained to Hashem. Hashem showed him the sukkah, a model of what this world is really like. It is a flimsy hut open to the elements that is certainly not a permanent dwelling place. No one can feel secure, and it is only meant as a temporary stop before we arrive in the next world. Hashem was conveying the message that Iyov shouldn’t get upset about the travails of this world, for very soon he’ll be leaving it for a much better place, where he will be happy.
What a great comfort this is to all of us. Every one of us has things that bother us, various needs unfulfilled and personal gripes. We tend to dwell on these complaints, some of them real, serious, and even very painful. But the good news is that these are only temporary glitches to test us in our emunah and to refine our character. Chances are that before we know it, the hardship will pass, but even if it lingers on, we have the comfort of knowing that this life is only a temporary one. The more we internalize this idea, the easier it is to bear the pain. There were tzaddikim throughout the years who had to endure great misery and yet were besimcha, because this idea was ingrained in their hearts.
Someone once stood next to the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rav Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, while he was saying Hallel on Yom Tov. The person overheard the rebbe saying the posuk of “Yasor yisrani Koh velamovess lo nesononi – Hashem has pained me exceedingly, but He did not let me die” (Tehillim 118:18) and repeating it over and over again. The implication was that despite the fact that the rebbe suffered the loss of his entire family during the war, and despite the untold torture that he was put through in the concentration camps with its aftereffects, he was still most grateful to Hakadosh Boruch Hu that he was alive. For every moment on earth is precious and there is so much to achieve. All of the rebbe’s amazing accomplishments were a result of this hashkafah.
On Sukkos, each individual is required to perform two separate mitzvos, the mitzvah of taking the Arba Minim and the mitzvah of dwelling in the sukkah. It appears from the reading of the Torah that each mitzvah has its own reason. The taking of the Arba Minim is associated with the celebration of the harvest, as the Rambam says that we rejoice over the fact that we left the midbar, a desolate place, and went to Eretz Yisroel, a place flourishing with fruit-bearingtrees and rivers (Moreh Nevuchim 3:43). The mitzvah of sukkah is that our generations will know that Hashem caused the Bnei Yisroel to dwell in booths when He took them out of the land of Mitzrayim. Simply speaking, these two mitzvos are independent of each other. But the minhag of the Arizal is to take the Arba Minim with a brocha in the sukkah. What is the connection between the two? Many reasons are brought in the seforim.
In light of what we have said that one of the lessons of the sukkah is to impress upon us that life on this world is transitory, it is understandable, for when we are celebrating the bounty of our land with the Arba Minim, the sukkah reminds us not to get too caught up with our gashmiyus. Yes, we must be grateful to Hashem for what He has given us, but at the same time, we must remember that we shouldn’t get too caught up with our physical acquisitions, as our life here is temporary. There are more important avenues to pursue. The rich harvest is merely a means to support us in serving Hashem and providing for ourselves in the eternal world of Olam Haba. As Dovid Hamelech says, “For nothing upon his death will he take at all, his glory will not descend after him” (Tehillim 49:18).
Rav Yaakov Galinsky related that when he was in Siberia during World War II, a Yid was bemoaning the fact that the Communists had confiscated all of his wealth and now he was left penniless. While he was lamenting his pitiful situation, he cried, “I am not mochel the Kovna Rov and the Ponovezher Rov.” When asked what his complaint against them was, he said, “When they would come to me to solicit tzedakah, I gave them a paltry donation. Why didn’t they force me to give more money to tzedakah? Had they done this, I would have much more to show for all the money I had earned. The tzedakah I could have given would still be mine!”
Yes, this is a lesson of the temporary dwelling of the sukkah. Our earthly acquisitions are not with us forever. The only acquisitions that we cannot lose are the spiritual ones. This is a lesson that we must carry with us and live throughout the entire year. Chag someiach.