“Worshiping G-d Wholeheartedly”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

There is a wonderful Sukkot story told about the Gaon of Vilna, Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, 1720-1797, who was the foremost leader, scholar and sage of Lithuanian Jewry, also known as the “Gra.”

It is said that Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, avidly strived to appear before G-d in a state of beauty and grace. Consequently, he always wore a beautiful talit, had specially made tzitziot and tefillin, and on the holiday of Sukkot would always make a special effort to acquire the most exquisite etrog (citron fruit). This story occurred before the advent of the railroad, so traveling was long and arduous. Consequently, the etrog merchants would set out several months before the holiday to bring their wares to the various European locations.

Once, in a year of drought, there were no etrogim to be found. Emissaries from Vilna were on the road for weeks and months, but all returned empty-handed. There was an uproar in the city of Vilna. Could it be that an entire community would be without an etrog to perform the mitzvah? But what most distressed the city elders was their concern for the Gaon of Vilna. The elders gathered together and decided that in times of great paucity it is possible to do away with the communal etrog, but they were not prepared to allow the great tzaddik of Vilna to go without an etrog!

Consequently, they dispatched a special emissary, with clear instructions to find at least one etrog, no matter what the price.

The emissary went from city to city and from state to state, and, despite all his efforts, was unable to find anything. Despondent and ready to return home, he entered an inn and noticed that the innkeeper had an etrog, in fact a very beautiful etrog.

He immediately said to the innkeeper, “Sell me the etrog.” “No,” replied the hotelier, “I am not an etrog dealer. I bought this etrog for myself!” The emissary continued his effort to persuade the innkeeper by raising the price of his offer, but the innkeeper turned a deaf ear. Finally, confided the emissary, “I wish to acquire this etrog for the Tzaddik of Vilna.” When the innkeeper heard this, he immediately acceded to the petitioner’s request, “For the Tzaddik, the Gaon, I will give the etrog for nothing.” The emissary’s eyes lit up. “However,” added the innkeeper, “I will give the etrog with one caveat, on one condition.” “What is your condition?” asked the emissary. “On the condition that the mitzvah that the Gaon of Vilna will receive for taking hold of the etrog, will be credited to me.”

The emissary was confounded. How could he possibly fulfill this condition? He started to argue with the innkeeper, “With whom are you making this condition,” he shouted indignantly, “With the righteous Gaon?!” Nevertheless, the innkeeper stood his ground. All he wanted was the credit for the mitzvah itself. And so, against his better judgment, the emissary accepted the innkeeper’s condition, took the etrog, and went on his way.

When he returned to Vilna, the entire city erupted in joy. The people were ecstatic that an etrog had been found for the great tzaddik. And how beautiful it was!

But the emissary himself was like a mourner among bridegrooms. His heart was pained, and his demeanor forlorn. How can he approach the Gaon and inform him of the innkeeper’s condition?

On the eve of the holiday, the emissary gathered his courage and entered the Gaon’s chamber to tell him the entire story. “Y’yasher kochacha, G-d bless you!” said the Gaon to the befuddled emissary. “You finally made it possible for me merit a pure unadulterated mitzvah. For the first time in my life, I will be able to perform a mitzvah entirely for its sake alone, without expecting any compensation or reward from Heaven. May G-d bless you!”

Whether this story is factually true is not a primary consideration. What is important, is that the tale conveys a number of significant messages. It underscores that Jews have always been committed to eagerly perform mitzvot. No matter how poor, no matter how disenfranchised, the Jews’ greatest desire was to be in a position to perform a mitzvah, even at great personal sacrifice and cost.

Jewish history is replete with many such stories and tales: Emaciated and sickly Holocaust victims who gave up their meager rations of soup for a chance to make a blessing and put on tefillin for but a brief fleeting moment. Throughout the ages, myriads of Jews chose to give up the comforts of an economically viable domicile in order to reside in the less economically viable environments that were rich in Jewish spirit. Many mothers and fathers of the previous generations took on extra jobs in order to provide their children with a more intensive Day School education, which they could hardly afford. And many, but still too few, are those Jews who forgo the blandishments of America, in order to join their beleaguered brothers and sisters in the land of Israel, and live under less than comfortable and secure conditions.

This is what is called Mesirat Nefesh, commitment, preparedness to give of one’s self to G-d in order to feel the Master’s palpable presence in their midst. And although many Jews made many sacrifices, it is wrong to assume that there was no compensation. And what a payback it was! When children saw how great and how costly their parents’ sacrifices were, they realized how precious the treasure of Judaism was to their parents. The children were then inspired to follow in the footsteps of their parents’ devotion to Judaism and to G-d.

While those of us who are blessed to live in a most affluent society do not often have the opportunity to perform true acts of sacrifice, we certainly have the opportunity to fulfill the biblical dictum derived from the verse in Exodus 15:2, “Zeh Kay’lee V’ahn’vay’hoo,” This is my G-d and I will make him beautiful. And, so when we leave the protection of our well-stocked homes to enter the flimsy Sukkah, the beauty of sacrificing for our faith serves as the most glorious ornaments for our temporary dwelling. It is our preparedness to go outdoors and expose ourselves to the raw elements that gives us the true sense of security. It is the bare walls of the Sukkah that make us feel truly wealthy, and the nondescript furnishings that transform the hut into a dwelling of blinding beauty during the holiday.

While we may not be able to perform each mitzvah entirely for the sake of heaven, as the Vilna Gaon was able to do, we can certainly let Heaven know that we are happy to perform these mitzvot wholeheartedly for Heaven’s sake.

May you be blessed.

Happy Sukkot.