I t figured to be a seudas preidah like any other. A member of “the chaburah” was moving on, leaving Lakewood to accept a coveted position in an established yeshivah. As per the protocol, we filed into the host’s home, noshed on pretzels and cake, and waited for the derashos to begin. But what I heard that evening gave me a perspective on life that has stayed with me.

The venerated Rav Yehuda Jacobs shlita, segan mashgiach in Beis Medrash Govoha at the time, noted that this yungerman had spent his entire yeshivah career in Lakewood. No Brisk, no Ponevezh, no Mir — nowhere but 617 Sixth Street. Quoting the megillah of this season, Koheles (7:29): “asher asah haElokim es ha’adam yashar, v’heimah vikshu chishvonos rabim.” Hashem gave us all the capacity to live a straightforward “glatt” life, but we have the tendency to complicate things with all sorts of mental gymnastics. The tendency to assume that the grass is greener on the other side can prevent us from recognizing how good we may have it right where we are. This budding talmid chacham, the mashgiach said, lives with this sense of yashar, and found everything he needed in the one yeshivah he called home, until Hashgachah sent him to bring his talents to his own talmidim. Fittingly, over 30 years later, this person is still in that same position, continuing to mentor generations of talmidim.

This does not mean there is no place for a bochur to expand his horizons by moving on to a new yeshivah. The point is that that should not be a default, knee-jerk decision because “everyone” else is going. There is no virtue in over-complicating our lives when we already have what we need readily available.

Now that I have experienced a little more of real life, this message gives me pause. Do we live straight, “glatteh” lives? What drives the choices we make in life: the careers we pursue, how we raise our children, the lifestyles we adopt, or even our hashkafos, how we think? Do we sometimes drift from the path that is yashar?

In explaining this pasuk in Koheles, Meshech Chochmah (Devarim 30:11) points out that Hashem created the world in such a way that the more basic the need, the more easily obtainable it is. We can generally find oxygen to breathe with no effort at all; water is readily and inexpensively available; food is also easy to find. That is yashar. But when we raise the bar and accustom ourselves to delicacies, we introduce cheshbonos rabim and it becomes more difficult and expensive to satisfy our palates. We make life harder for ourselves by complicating what should be simple.

The same applies to our spiritual needs.

With respect to hashkafos, Meshech Chochmah extends this principle to false ideals and philosophies. Hashem created us with the yashrus to sense right from wrong, but we muddy the waters and confuse ourselves with ideas that are contrary to the simplicity and normalcy that we were created to maintain. How else is it possible that so many otherwise rational people are persuaded by society to contort previously self-evident facts — yashar — into a politically correct, virtual-reality pretzel that was unthinkable to all previous generations? We need to be vigilant to stay true to what is yashar.

Furthermore, Hashem has given us the tools and middos to accomplish our mission; it is up to us not to corrupt them. Do we allow ourselves to honestly assess the inborn talents Hashem has bestowed upon us and utilize them to their fullest? Can we come to terms with what we have and who we are and live a “glatteh” life, instead of looking at what others have or do, or who someone else is, forgetting that we already have what we need to succeed if we are honest about who we are?

Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz”l, rosh yeshivah of Yeshivah Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, not only understood this, but applied it in real-life situations. A certain bochur planned on leaving the yeshivah to strum his guitar on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village. Hearing about these plans, the Rosh Yeshivah offered to allow him to remain in the dorm and become the yeshivah’s “musician laureate.” And he stayed. He played at yeshivah functions, and ultimately became a professional musician, raising a beautiful family of bnei Torah. Out of the box? Sure. Yashar? Absolutely! As a genius mechanech, Rav Hutner knew what to do. Rather than try to change this boy, Rav Hutner found the key to his hatzlachah right there within him.

Yashar does not always mean to remain static, such as our friend in Lakewood; at times it mandates making significant changes. As some readers may recall from an earlier offering in these pages, when we were newly married, my wife commuted from Lakewood to Boro Park for work, and when we were expecting our first child, my rosh yeshivah, Rav Elya Svei ztz”l, asked me about our plans. When I told him that one option under consideration was for my wife to continue her job, he ruled it out, declaring that commuting each day from Lakewood to New York with a baby is simply not glatt. His determination was the beginning of the journey that led us to Chicago, to join the kollel there.

With respect to lifestyles, the “culture of plenty” that surrounds us has done a great job of convincing us that simplicity has no value — in fact, the society is disdainful of this concept. A furrier in Chicago sells merchandise under the tagline: “Feel the warmth and luxury that you deserve.” Really? Since when do we deserve it?

If my budget only covers a Chevy, why should I deserve — or need — a Cadillac?

We only victimize ourselves by adopting lifestyles brimming with mandated “needs.” Why should families feel compelled to spend fortunes on myriad self-imposed — or society-imposed — expenses that run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars per month? If we have created a culture that we cannot sustain, are these not cheshbonos rabim? Is it yashar? Was this not Koheles’s message, to live “glatt” and within our means?

This also applies to things that have intrinsic value, but still need to be evaluated in regard to each family’s specific circumstances. Who dictated that every child needs to be sent overseas after graduating high school if the expense is unaffordable? Is it ratzon Hashem for families to go begging to cover the cost of sending a child to Eretz Yisrael? And even if a family can afford the cost, who says that every child’s hatzlachah will only be found “mei’eiver layam”? Certainly, for many young adults, it is a life-altering experience, but is it right for you and your child?

We need to muster the courage to take a hard look at the choices we make, to ask ourselves: Are we using our talents properly? Are we living within our means? Are we guiding our children to actualize their potential? There are no pat answers or quick fixes. We need to think — deeply — about why we do what we do, and have the courage to buck the trend if following the crowd is not leading us to where we really need to go.

Hashem created us with the capacity for yashrus. If we tell ourselves that we are incapable of making the correct choices, we are selling ourselves short. We need to tune into our inner selves, and not get distracted or led astray by the noisy cheshbonos rabim of society. We are not doomed to be lemmings who blindly follow the crowd or monkeys who do what they see. We are better than that.

Sometimes, it takes a mentor to objectively guide us back to yashrus because we have gotten too close to the picture to get a panoramic view. And we can strengthen our resolve to live yashar by finding like-minded friends for moral support.

Koheles’s mandate of yashrus may just be our marching orders going forward after this Yom Tov. The grand finale of the Yom Tov season is Shemini Atzeres, a celebration of a preidah of a different sort. Rashi (Vavyikra 23:36) teaches that Hashem says, “Kashah alai preidaschem,” our parting is difficult for Him to bear, which is why we stay for an extra day after Succos ends. This last day is one extra day alone — just Hashem and His children — to diminish the pain of our departure.

The obvious question is: how does staying one extra day alleviate the difficulty? It only postpones it.

Perhaps the answer lies in a comment from the Vilna Gaon on the pasuk of “v’hayisa ach sameiach.” The Gemara (Succah 48a) derives from this pasuk that Shemini Atzeres is included in the mitzvah of simchah. But the word ach generally limits what is being discussed. What are we limiting with ach sameiach?

The Gaon explains that whereas Succos requires many mitzvah objects — a succah, lulav and esrog, hoshanas — Shemini Atzeres does not require any physical items. We only need to be sameiach.

This is the inherent gift of the last day of the Yom Tov. We can’t take the succah and lulav with us after Yom Tov. But the simchah that comes from dveikus with Hashem requires nothing but ourselves, and it is something we can take along with us.

This affirmation of simplicity is Hashem’s parting gift to us. We can continue this relationship moving forward. Shemini Atzeres teaches us that in reality, we are not parting at all, because we are taking Hashem with us.

As we make our way through this zeman simchaseinu, let us never lose sight of the ultimate goal: to revel in the newfound relationship that we have forged with Hashem from Elul through Shemini Atzeres, to sustain it throughout the year and build on it.

We need not seek cheshbonos, rabim or even muatim (few). But we do need to keep our sense of yashar.

It cannot be coincidental that the very last word of the Torah, read as we wave goodbye to Yom Tov, is “Yisrael,” a contraction of the words “yashar E-il.” That is the farewell message of our Torah. Hashem is yashar; the pasuk describes Him as tzaddik v’yashar (Devarim 32:4). And so are we, for we carry with pride the title Am Yisrael — yashar E-il — considering what we have accomplished and gained since the Yamim Noraim began.

We have all we need to succeed. We need only to recognize it, appreciate it, and live with it. (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 680. Rabbi Henoch Plotnik is the mara d’asra of Congregation Bais Tefila and a ram in Yeshivas Meor Hatorah in Chicago)