Rabbi Avi ShafranThe writer is the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America. He is also a contributing writer to Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought and opinion.
Olivewood is beautiful. It reminds me of Eretz Yisrael and little carved camels; it has a delicate, calming hue. And silver, well, it is pure and shiny and smooth, and brings sefer Torah ornaments to mind. The esrog boxes made of ornately carved olivewood and elegant, glimmering silver are most fitting containers for holding an objet d’mitzvah.
My personal preference, though, is cardboard.
Not any cardboard, that is, but my cardboard, the white heavy-paper stock box in which an esrog of mine, many years ago, was packed when I bought it. These days, the standard-issue boxes tend toward illustrated green affairs.
The old-fashioned white ones were more bland, but also better canvases on which a child’s imagination could assert itself.
And so my old esrog box—or at least its panels, re-attached now to a more sturdy modern box, covering up the garish green—is unique. Its sides and top feature a young child’s rendering in colored markers of, respectively, an esrog and lulav; a sukkah; a smiley-face;and (inexplicably but endearingly) a turtle whose shell is a sukkah covered with schach). The artists are now either mothers or “in shidduchim,” but some of us like, on occasion, to time-travel. We look at our grown children and see five-year-olds where they stand.
The artwork was beloved to me many years ago when it was created; it’s no less beloved to me now.
And so, in my own personal ritual, I yearly unpack my new esrog from its sale-box and delicately place it in the one whose panels have enclosed each of my esrogim over nearly twenty years. It’s not olivewood, and not silver. Not even gold or platinum. It’s more precious than that.
I admit I get some stares in shul. Some may think I’m a cheapskate, unwilling to shell out a few dollars for what they think would be a more respectablecontainer for a holy object, or insufficiently aware of the importance of hiddur mitzvah, the ideal of “beautifying a commandment.” Others, though—at least I like to imagine—understand the ethereal beauty of my unusual esrog-box, and perhaps are brought to some memories of their own, and even to some thoughts appropriate to Sukkos.
The word sukkah, sefarim note, can be seen as rooted in “socheh”—“to see” or “to perceive.” A sukkah, it seems, can afford us a deeper perspective on life. Most people—and Jews are people too—go through life trying to “get stuff.” What storehouses of gold and silver once conferred on their owners is today bestowed by new-model cars and luxurious homes built on the ruins of less luxurious predecessors. But stuff is stuff.
And even those of us who buy used vehicles and live in modest homes are far from immune to the “get stuff” societal imperative. We may apply it differently, limited as we are by reality. But we still feel the push to add to the inventories we’ll never take with us.
When we sit in our primitive week-house, though, outside the homes that harbor so many of our possessions, we may find it easier to realize that our accumulations are not essential. We can exist without them. They do not define us. They will one day be left behind for good.
It might seem odd, but that thought—after all, Sukkos is zeman simchaseinu, “the time of our happiness”—is a joyous one. For true happiness begins with the realization of what doesn’t really make us happy. Possessions may provide a rush but, like any drug’s, it quickly wears off. The soul is not satiated, which is why, as per Chazal, “No man dies with half his desires in hand.”
True joy comes from things more rarified than what can be purchased. It comes from our relationships not with things, but with people—our parents and our children, our teachers and our students, our friends and our neighbors.
What we really have in life is not what we own, but what we are.
Some who have seen me walking to shul on yomtov with my reconstituted cardboard esrog box proudly in hand may have wondered why I hadn’t opted for a hiddur mitzvah. What they failed to comprehend is that I did.
© 2012 AMI MAGAZINE