Chag ha’Succos: Lessons from the Esrog

Chag ha’Succos 5783, zman simcha’sainu – the time of our rejoicing. 

In regard to the mitzvos of Succos, the Torah tells us: וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙ כַּפֹּ֣ת תְּמָרִ֔ים וַעֲנַ֥ף עֵץ־עָבֹ֖ת וְעַרְבֵי־נָ֑חַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּ֗ם לִפְנֵ֛י האֱלֹק֔יכֶ֖ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽיםAnd you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the hadar tree (esrog), date palm fronds (lulav), a branch of a braided tree (hadassim), and willows of the brook (aravos), and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d for seven days; וְחַגֹּתֶ֤ם אֹתוֹ֙ חַ֣ג לַֽהשִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה חֻקַּ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם בַּחֹ֥דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תָּחֹ֥גּוּ אֹתֽוֹAnd you shall celebrate it as a festival to Hashem for seven days in the year; an eternal statute to your generations, in the seventh month, you shall celebrate it; in succos you shall dwell for seven days, all citizens in Israel shall dwell in succos; לְמַ֘עַן֮ יֵדְע֣וּ דֹרֹֽתֵיכֶם֒ כִּ֣י בַסֻּכּ֗וֹת הוֹשַׁ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּהוֹצִיאִ֥י אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִםin order that your generations should know that in booths I had the children of Israel dwell, when I took them out of the land of Egypt, I am Hashem, your G-d (Vayikra 23:40-43).

To commemorate the miraculous exodus, when G-d ensconced us in booths of protection as we sojourned in the desert (and protected us with the ananei ha’kavod, the clouds of glory, during our desert travels – see Rashi to v.43), we dwell in the Succah for seven days, we take the arbah minim each day of the festival, and we rejoice before Hashem. Each of these mitzvos represent different aspects of the chag and our service of G-d.

In regard to the arbah minim – the four species of Succos – the esrog, lulav, hadassim and aravos – the Torah classifies the esrog as a פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙, the fruit of a tree of splendor.  Interestingly, there is another time in the Torah a mitzvah is classified as hiddur.  In Parshas Kedoshim, the pasuk commands us: מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם וְהָדַרְתָּ֖ פְּנֵ֣י זָקֵ֑ן וְיָרֵ֥אתָ מֵּאֱלֹק֔יךָ אֲנִ֥י הYou shall rise before an aged person and you shall glorify the elderly, and you shall fear your G-d. I am Hashem (Vayikra 19:32).  

Whenever a word in the Torah is used in different contexts, the usage of the same word can always be connected to teach us a lesson.  The following story of Rav Aryeh Levine zt’l (1885-1969), the venerated sage and renowned tzaddik of Jerusalem, teaches us the importance of hiddur mitzvah and the respect we must show to our fellow Jews.

A number of days before chag ha’Succos, R’ Aryeh Levine entered the Rubinstein seforim store in Meah Shearim, which also sold the arbah minim before Succos.  Turning to the man behind the counter, he asked, “Did you pick out an esrog for me, like I requested?”  Nodding, Mr. Rubinstein took a wrapped esrog box out from under the counter and handed it to R’ Aryeh Levine.

R’ Aryeh thanked the proprietor, paid for the esrog, turned and hastily left the store.  A young bachur, who happened to be in the store at the same time, watched this entire exchange with great interest.  As soon as R’ Aryeh left the store, the young man ran after the rabbi and called out, “Rav Levine, I have a question!”  With a degree of chutzpah, the young man asked the Torah scholar, “About the esrog the rav bought, doesn’t the rav want to at least look at the esrog before purchasing it?  At least to see if it’s mehudar!”  

R’ Levine looked at the young man with glowing eyes.  “This is indeed a good question,” he said after a moment.  “But I have an even better answer.  You see, twice in the Torah, the word ‘hadar’ is used in regard to mitzvos.  Once regarding the mitzvah of the esrog taken on Succos: וּלְקַחְתֶּ֨ם לָכֶ֜ם בַּיּ֣וֹם הָרִאשׁ֗וֹן פְּרִ֨י עֵ֤ץ הָדָר֙And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the tree of splendor, and a second time with regard to the mitzvah of honoring the elderly: מִפְּנֵ֤י שֵׂיבָה֙ תָּק֔וּם וְהָדַרְתָּ֖ פְּנֵ֣י זָקֵ֑ן you shall rise before an aged person and honor the presence of an elder.”  Rav Levine continued, “Now, some people are only careful when it comes to the hadar of their esrog: checking, searching and examining to make sure their esrog is the finest in the land.  This is indeed an important and admirable mitzvah, one that is relevant at this time of year.” 

Rav Levine smiled as he delivered the lesson, and message, to the young man.  “I, on the other hand, try to be careful with the other mitzvah of hiddur as well, the one dealing with the honor of an elderly person.  As a result, since I am now on my way to an old-age home to visit a man who has no visitors and no one to talk to, I placed more emphasis on the hadar of this person, than the hadar of the fruit!” (Torah Tavlin, Israel Bookshop, R’ Dovid Hoffman, p.477).

The mitzvah of the arbah minim and the hiddur of the esrog teaches us about the importance of mitzvos bein adam la’Makom – the mitzvos we do ‘between us and G-d.’  But there is another category of mitzvos that we must make sure is mehudar – glorified, beautiful and full of splendor – as well, and that is the category of mitzvos bein adam la’chaveiro – ‘between man and his fellow.’

On multiple occasions, I have heard Rabbi Shay Schachter relay in shiurim the following about his father HaRav Herschel Schachter shlita: When the Rosh Yeshiva would go to purchase his arbah minim the boys selling the sets would always want to show the Rosh Yeshiva the most expensive sets.  Rav Schachter would insist he did not need the most expensive esrog and lulav set, and a more basic, absolutely kosher, arbah minim set would be fine.  After purchasing his arbah minim, Rav Schachter would go home, take out his checkbook, and write a check for tzedaka for the difference between the more expensive set the boys wanted to sell him and the one he purchased at a lower cost.  

The great tzaddik, the Beis haLevi, Rav Yoshe Ber ha’Levi Soloveitchik of Brisk (1820-1892) zt’l zy’a, said, “While performing the mitzvah of giving charity, the poor person should be treated with at least the same respect and dignity that we give to our esrog on Succos” (Great Jewish Wisdom, Artscroll, R’ Moshe Bamberger, p.154-155).  

In this way, the mitzvah of hiddur is applied both to the fruit of the tree of splendor, and our concern, love and care for our fellow man.

בברכת שבת שלום, בשורות טובות, וחג שמח,


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