T

he Elul–Tishrei holiday season.

Try describing it to those who are unfamiliar with the rituals.

On Rosh Chodesh Elul for Sephardim or in late Elul for Ashkenazim, we begin rising extra early to recite Selichos. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, in most communities, we rise extra, extra early. On Rosh Hashanah itself, we spend an incredibly long time davening in shul, and then some more time at Tashlich. The seudos on Rosh Hashanah feature a series of exotic symbolic dishes, possibly accented by the head of a lamb as a centerpiece. Aseres Yemei Teshuvah is similarly intense and exhausting, with shlugging kapparos added for good measure. Then comes Yom Kippur: even more time in shul and no food at all. Upon its conclusion, we scurry around to select our arba minim and put up a succah that will hopefully withstand all that fall has to offer. We then move in and make our best efforts to sleep peacefully, with mosquitoes, bees, and assorted wildlife for company. As Succos progresses, some stay up all night on Hoshana Rabbah, after which we celebrate on Simchas Torah by dancing with all our might.

Clearly, our holidays, with this seemingly grueling “program,” are quite different from a typical holiday marked by our neighbors — think leisurely barbecues, or sitting on the couch watching a football game after enjoying a lavish meal. Wouldn’t we be better able to observe the mitzvos of the Yamim Tovim and daven better if we were rested and relaxed? What is the purpose of the progression of exhausting rituals?

Perhaps we can understand this by way of a contemporary mashal. Imagine that a chesed organization is running a raffle with the top prize being the opportunity to spend 24 hours as a companion to Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita. One lucky winner travels to Bnei Brak and, after an 11-hour transatlantic flight, rises at 2:30 a.m. to learn with the gadol, after which they head to the early morning vasikin minyan. They follow with intense chavrusa learning for a few more hours, until it’s time for some morsels for breakfast. Then it’s back to learning until Minchah, followed by answering sh’eilos sent from around the globe, a little lunch to keep going, yet another seder followed by Maariv, a photo shoot for a tzedakah campaign, and kabbalas kahal until the wee hours of the morning. The day is through, and so is our winner. After flying home, his friends and neighbors clamor to find out how it was.

“Awesome!” he replies.

After he describes his limited sleep and food in that 24 hours, someone asks him, “Weren’t you exhausted and starving?”

Our raffle winner answers incredulously, “Are you kidding? For an entire day I was in Rav Chaim’s world — who was thinking of eating and sleeping? I was in a veritable Gan Eden!”

Herein lies the answer to our question. Dirshu Hashem b’himatzo — we are in Hashem’s company now. We are in an otherworldly place, and hopefully in the state of mind to match. To the true oved Hashem, what can possibly match the ecstasy of being in His presence? In His world, there is no sleep, there is no food; the only reality is closeness to Hashem.

The great among us live with this reality. A group of chassidishe yungeleit once paid a visit to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky ztz”l and asked if he could share a “litvishe mofes” with them, akin to the myriad stories that abound about chassidishe rebbes. In response, the great sage shared an anecdote about his own rebbe, the Alter of Slabodka, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel ztz”l. As the Alter was davening Shemoneh Esreh one day during World War I, a bomb exploded near the building, causing the ornate chandelier to fall from the ceiling and shatter. The Alter continued davening, and when he finished, he asked one of the talmidim how the chandelier had wound up on the floor. “That,” said Rav Yaakov, “is a litvishe mofes.”

How could the Alter not hear the explosion? Because he was not in this world, but in the world of Hashem. In that world, there are no distractions or explosions, only His audience with me.

We had the great zechus of hosting the Mirrer Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Shmuel Berenbaum ztz”l, in our home when he traveled to Chicago for a simchah and his regular host was away. After landing at 2:30 p.m., he made a beeline for the local kollel, where he said a shiur. He then headed to the wedding straight from the kollel, first arriving at our home close to midnight. As I escorted him to the guest room downstairs, I asked him if he needed anything, and he asked for a Gemara Kesubos, as he eyed the desk and chair in the adjacent family room. After he left the next morning, I couldn’t help but notice that the bed wasn’t even touched. Mind you, he was in his eighties at the time. When his regular host returned to Chicago, I shared my amazement with him, and he told me, almost matter-of-factly, that in all the years he’d had the zechus of hosting the rosh yeshivah, the sheets on his bed had never been disturbed. Rav Shmuel was living in Hashem’s world — a world with no sleep.

The succah actually represents this very idea. In the oft-quoted words of the Zohar Hakadosh, the succah is called “tzila d’heimenusa,” the shadow of emunah in Hashem. According to the sefer Oneg Yom Tov, the essence of mitzvas succah is the acknowledgment that we are under Hashem’s direct Hashgachah without any intermediaries.” The succah is a world unto itself, the world of Hashem. Indeed, the Targum Yonasan renders the words in Tehillim, Vayehi b’shalem succo as V’hava b’Yerushalayim Beis Mikdashei. The succah is that otherworldly Beis Hamikdash, the house of Hashem, the world of Hashem. In fact, Chazal refers to the Beis Hamikdash as Beis Olamim, the house of worlds. It is another world, Hashem’s world. And we are fortunate to dwell in it for seven glorious days.

The Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 651) cites an incredible story from Rabbeinu Menachem Rikanti that illustrates our unique standing in Hashem’s world on Succos. The Rikanti related that the secret of the significance of holding the esrog together with the other three minim was revealed to him in a dream on the first night of Succos, when he hosted an pious Ashkenazi named Rav Yitzchak, better known to us as the Arizal. In his dream, he saw the Arizal writing the four-letter Name of Hashem, but with the last letter, hei, distant from the other letters. The Rikanti asked the Arizal what he was doing, and the Arizal answered, “This is the custom in our place.” The Rikanti protested, and the Arizal proceeded to write the Name of Hashem normally. Upon awakening, the Rikanti didn’t understand what he had seen in his dream, until the next day, when he saw the Arizal shaking the lulav, hadassim, and aravos, without the esrog. When he told the Arizal about his dream, the Arizal began holding the esrog together with the other minim.

Can we fathom the depth and impact of shaking the arba minim bundle on Succos? We are, kiveyachol, building the Sheim Hashem with our own hands, and, as the Gemara teaches, dictating the power of the winds for the coming year. Whose world are we in at that time? The world of Hashem, for sure.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaChaim 1:4) cites the Zohar’s statement that a person is an olam katan, a microcosm of the world, and his heart corresponds to the Kodesh Hakodoshim. Consequently, entertaining foreign thoughts in one’s heart is akin to bringing an idol into the holiest place on earth. Rav Shach expounded on this thought in the context of the Yamim Noraim. All year long, our hearts might be hard as stone, and our job in Elul and throughout Yamim Noraim is to soften our hearts and open ourselves up to Malchus Shamayim. Just as the walls of Yericho were felled by the blasts of the shofars and sank into the ground, so, too, does the shofar make our hearts shudder, knocking down those otherwise impenetrable walls of stubbornness.

Rav Shach goes on to describe the progression we experience during the Yamim Tovim of Tishrei, culminating with Succos. When reciting Avinu Malkeinu, we open the door of the aron for a brief moment, symbolizing our hearts opening up somewhat. On Yom Kippur, we open the aron for Kol Nidrei and Ne’ilah. The aron is open; our hearts are open. And then Succos arrives, and we open the aron for Hoshanos. One sefer Torah is held near the bimah, and we parade around it. On the seventh day, Hoshana Rabbah, we take out many sifrei Torah and circle the bimah seven times. Not only is our heart open, but Torah is pouring out of it. But even that is not the climax. On Shemini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, we take out all the sifrei Torah, and we celebrate nonstop. This is our real joy, reflecting what is truly in our hearts: “Ein b’libeinu ela Echad.”

We say L’Dovid Hashem Ori every day from Rosh Chodesh Elul through the end of the season. Ori, Chazal tell us, is a reference to Rosh Hashanah; Yishi alludes to Yom Kippur; and Ki yitzpeneini b’succo refers to Succos.

As we take leave of this precious time of year, let us focus our thoughts and hearts as we say for the last times, Achas shaalti… shivti b’veis Hashem kol yemei chayai. Our only request going forward from these Yamim Noraim and yemei simchah is to live in Hashem’s house and Hashem’s world always. We have tasted it for almost two months. Let’s make it last. —

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 728. Rabbi Plotnik,a talmid of the yeshivos of Philadelphia and Ponevezh, has been active in rabbanus and chinuch for 25 years and currently serves as ra”m in Yeshivas Me’or HaTorah in Chicago.