The Sukkah and the Piano: Which Plays the Most Lasting Notes?

My sukkah is still up, but that is not the only reason I was thinking about this topic. I was recently struck by a fascinating article someone brought to my attention. I never read about real estate, because my house is quite real but I have no estate, so I don’t bother. However, Newsday (October 25, 2019) recently featured a column titled “Out of Tune.” James Kindall catalogues the downfall of the once ubiquitous and venerable piano. “It’s a shock for people,” he quotes from the owner of a piano store, that “something once revered is no longer considered to have any value.” He reminisces wistfully that “there was a time when pianos were in every household.”

I, too, recall that growing up many of my friends had a piano centrally located in the living room, whether or not anyone could actually play a single note. Apparently, not only are they no longer selling, but you can’t even give them away. Newsday provides a public service for Long Island called “How to dispose of a piano, by town.” To add insult to injury, “fraternities have been known to hold piano smashes as fundraisers where participants pay $1 to whack a dilapidated instrument with a bat and $2 to use a sledgehammer.”

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Although everything from the economy to radio to “the introduction of small and cheap digital pianos” has been blamed for the debacle, the “day of the piano” seems to have come and gone.

The Sukkos connection is obviously Koheles and his message of downsizing. Shlomo Hamelech adjures us to consider what things in life merit the title of necessity and what can we get along very well without. The Ramban, in his famous Drasha on Koheles, points out that Shlomo Hamelech had the credibility to offer us this advice because, as the most powerful king of his time, he had everything (see Koheles 2:4 and Sanhedrin 20) and could declare that it was all worthless. Someone who never had two nickels to rub together could not conclude that hakol hevel, because he never experienced wealth.

The almost sudden disappearance of the piano is one of those subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – reminders of the ephemeral quality of our material possessions. Hashem periodically sends us this message so that we concentrate on the truly important things in life.

Our baalei mussar remind us, however, that this attitude is not meant to denigrate, G-d forbid, the beauty and grandeur of this world. On the contrary, Chazal (Pirkei Avos 4:22) teach that “better one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the entire life of the World to Come.”

I remember walking once with Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Telshe, when he looked up at a beautiful sky full of stars above his beloved yeshiva. His inimitable voice rang out powerfully with the words of Yeshaya: “Se’u marom eineichem ure’u mi bara eileh – Raise your eyes on high and see who created these things” (Yeshaya 40:26). Rav Gifter lived in a tiny dorm apartment, but his vision encompassed the universe. He didn’t need a piano or any other trappings of this limited earth to traverse the cosmos.

The Vilna Gaon cried at the end of his life for the glorious world he was leaving, where he could wear tztizis and gain sublime and eternal bliss, unlike the world to which he was going, where no new accomplishments were possible. He did not bemoan anything material, but lamented the loss of Torah and mitzvos.

Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman zt”l, the Ponovezher Rov, founded one of many yeshivos for young children near his great yeshiva in Bnei Brak. He would often inculcate in the young boys the temporary nature of the attractions of this world compared to the eternal staying power of everything in the World to Come. One day, he spoke to the boys in the dining room after the nourishing meal he made sure they all enjoyed.

“Tell me dear children,” the rov inquired, “do you all know the posuk that represents your name that we recite at the end of Shemoneh Esrei?” After each one of them had told him proudly his own posuk, the rov continued, “Does anyone know why we say this posuk three times a day?”

One young talmid remembered learning that the Shela Hakadosh writes that it is a segulah – a tried and true method – for remembering one’s name at the Day of Judgment after 120 years on this earth. The rov praised his young charge for the correct answer and continued his lesson.

“So tell me my dear, Moishele, how many times do you hear your name called by your rebbi and your friends? Surely it must be dozens of times a day. Yet, this will not help us on the Yom Hadin. But the three times a day we say a posuk will never be forgotten. Why is that?”

When no one knew the answer to this question, the rov himself told them the secret.

“Listen, my dear children. The fear of judgment on that day will be so great that everything will be forgotten, even a person’s own name. The only thing that will be engraved upon our hearts and soul will be the Torah we have learned in this world. The pesukim we recite at the end of Shemoneh Esrei are all Torah, and therefore we will be able to declare our name to the heavenly tribunal.”

Children who were present at that memorable meal never forgot the timeless lesson with which the Ponovezher Rov left them that night.

“Please always remember that that all of the toys you have here and at home, all of the toys you will have in your lifetime, are all empty and worthless. Only the Torah you study will stay with you forever. So learn well, with geshmak and joy, and you will never forget a single word” (Chochmas Koheles 1:8).

Why, indeed, are we so obsessed with making another dollar, buying another shiny item to show off to our friends and spending beyond our means?

Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt”l, instead of condemning this behavior as evil, seeks to explain it in a psychologically benevolent light. He writes (Michtav M’Eliyahu 1:100) that people accumulate useless possessions “because they feel a spiritual hunger; their soul is yearning for perfection and fulfillment but it has nothing which satisfies it. A person has 100, but he wants 200 because of this deficiency and so he is always searching for more.”

Thus, Shlomo Hamelech concludes, “There is a sickening evil that I have seen under the sun: riches hoarded by their owner to his misfortune… As he had come from his mother’s womb, naked will he return as he had come” (Koheles 5:12-14). The Medrash here illustrates with a parable that has become famous. A fox spies a vineyard full of delicious grapes that has only one narrow break in the fence. He fasts for three days, enters, and eats, but then cannot escape until he fasts again. He is of course left with nothing. We, too, take with us only the Torah we have studied and the mitzvos we have accumulated.

The well-known story with the Abarbanel also dramatically reminds us of what is and is not ours. His jealous enemies in the already anti-Semitic and hostile palace of Ferdinand and Isabella had framed the famously moral rabbi as having embezzled from the king. Confronting his old friend and advisor, the king interrogated the great tzaddik. “How much money do you have in the bank?” the king demanded. The Abarbanel thought for a moment, calculating swiftly, and mentioned a certain figure. “How can you lie to my face?” the red-faced monarch thundered. “I have the exact numbers right here,” he screamed, waving official-looking papers in his face. The Abarbanel, however, calmly responded, “The amount that I mentioned to you is that which I have given to charity. That is the only amount that I actually own forever. Everything else belongs to you, as is proven by this very interrogation.”

Indeed, all that we have to call our own is that which is deposited in the heavenly safe-deposit vault. Everything else is evanescent and fleeting, here today and often gone in a flash.

The Chofetz Chaim saw this lesson shining forth from a posuk in Chumash: “What a man gives to the kohein shall be his.” The Hebrew words “lo yihiyu” are ambiguous. Do they refer to the kohein or the giver? The Chofetz Chaim answers that of course the kohein will receive his due, but the one who gives him terumah will have something forever.

Rav Yechezkel Sarna zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chevron, once invited a select group of philanthropists to a fundraiser for the yeshiva. He debated with himself whether to invite one of his past donors who was no longer capable of giving. To prevent the man from embarrassment, he did not invite him, but the man came anyway. At one point, he stood up and made the most important speech of the evening. “I want you to know that I used to give large sums to this wonderful yeshiva, but now I struggle for my family’s daily bread. I have nothing left except what I donated. Nothing else counts and nothing else is of any importance.”

The piano can undoubtedly play beautiful music and can add to our pleasure and mood. But it can also become passé and irrelevant, whereas our Torah and mitzvos never go out of style and importance. I suppose I will soon have to take down my sukkah, but in the meantime it reminds me of the lessons of Koheles and downsizing. In the wintery days ahead, let’s indeed remember what’s truly important in our lives.