2007 Esrogim and a Revival of Jewish Spirit
Chananya Weissman
September 19, 2007, The Jewish Press

“And you shall rejoice in your festival” says the pasuk at the end of Parshas Re’ei (16:14), and this is actually a mitzvah. I suspect that this is not intended to be one of the more difficult mitzvos for us to fulfill, yet for many hard-working Jews the Yomim Tovim are far greater sources of stress than joy.

The commercialization of basic religious requirements has not only tarnished the sublimity of an observant Jewish lifestyle but has made such a lifestyle a luxury that ordinary people just can’t afford. It has transformed the concept of mesiras nefesh from valiance under the duress of a malicious host nation to taking it for granted that people with an objectively healthy income should have to pinch pennies just to educate their children, marry their children off, buy kosher food, and survive the holiday season. Rejoice in your festival, indeed!

This situation isn’t helped by the fact that neither the principles of a free economy nor the safety measures of an apolitical high Jewish court hold much sway in our situation. A small number of people control the supply of religious needs, a small number of people control the regulations on their business practices, and the latter group is just as likely to profit with the former as it is to enforce regulations for the greater good. I have yet to meet an observant Jew in the food industry who is not fed up with shady dealings, politics disguised as religion, and even intimidation, but has no better response than to keep a low profile. The powerful positions in this world are not held by honest, God-fearing people.

Nevertheless, I believe that the good Jews in this world still greatly outnumber the bad ones. Our weakness is not in the numbers department, but in a personal and collective lack of spirit and aspiration. We want Moshiach now, but we’re not ready to really do what it takes to usher in the moment. We want change in Israel, but we’re not willing to consider anything bolder than complaining about the government (while continuing to fully support it) and flying orange ribbons on our SUV’s. We want all Jews to be united, so long as they are united in following our own narrow party line. We want the rules in the shidduch marketplace to change, but only after all our children and grandchildren are taken care of. We want to voice our opinions and protests, and we want everyone to listen, but we want to do it anonymously.

In other words, we want the most difficult things imaginable to be accomplished without us having to change our behavior, apply any serious effort, assume the slightest potential risk, offend a single person, or draw the slightest bit of attention to ourselves.

This generation is not much different than the one that left the slavery in Egypt. They had the most wonderful things delivered to them on a silver platter, yet merely taking a few uncertain steps forward into Israel proved too challenging for them. Interestingly, they frequently mustered the energy to run back to slavery, and were willing to kill their own for the privilege. For independence, however, they were not even willing to let Hashem do most of the work. Only their children, who grew up without the shackles of slavery and inertia, were able to take those steps forward and conquer Israel. Only their children believed in the partnership between themselves and Hashem enough to make Jewish destiny more than a distant dream.

I hope we do not need to wait for a new generation to more boldly address the serious problems that we would rather dismiss or dejectedly tolerate.

Of all the holidays Succos is the one most associated with joy. How unfortunate it is that many families must agonize over the cost of the arba minim. Their joy in performing this mitzvah is made bittersweet by the dilemma of spending additional money that they really cannot afford or appearing in public with an inferior set. It is also socially expected nowadays for every member of the family to have his own set, which can run the total cost well into the hundreds of dollars. (Perhaps this is yet another segulah for parnassa — but for whom, the merchant?)

I have a suggestion that will alleviate the high, even crushing cost of the arba minim without compromising one’s dignity. Families should purchase no more than one set, which will be shared by all members of the household. (For the first day it is perfectly acceptable to perform the mitzvah by receiving the arba minim as a gift that must be returned, and on the other days it is sufficient to borrow them. Only minors should not be given the set on the first day, since they are unable to return a gift.) Those who are willing to endure a relatively trifling inconvenience may share a single set with friends and neighbors.

The money that is collectively saved would not be spent on a vacation, but donated to tzedaka. This would demonstrate that the effort to save money is due not to stinginess or lack of appreciation for the mitzvah, but because we recognize that there are more efficient and urgent ways for us to spend our mitzvah dollars. There is absolutely no reason why a family with eight children needs to purchase ten sets of arba minim for hundreds of dollars. It is nothing more than an extravagance whose religious advantage is mostly cosmetic. With so many worthy causes that are desperate for money, this is a no-brainer that does not require the deliberation of a Sanhedrin.

If one is concerned about compromising the chinuch of his children by not purchasing a set for them, I maintain that being more careful about how one spends his money for the express purpose of giving more money to tzedaka would send a powerful chinuch lesson to one’s children that can hardly be rivaled. It would also provide a more conducive opportunity for the family to communicate about the mitzvah.

I realize that I am asking people to think of things in a slightly different way than they are used to and to reconsider their priorities. This is not exactly the strong point of this generation of Jews. But I hope that the prospect of collectively raising millions of dollars for needy causes, setting a powerful chinuch example to one’s children, and sending a message to those who may exploit the religious needs of the masses for excessive profit will galvanize people to act boldly and prudently without compromising halacha in the slightest.

Our ancestors were more than happy for the opportunity to share a single esrog with their entire shtetl, and if they got their hands on some extra money they would hardly have used it to purchase a second one. It is interesting that of all the practices of our European ancestors that are adopted strictly for reasons of presumed “frumkeit”, this one that is so sensible for our time is not even being considered.

If we can help raise the salaries of teachers, alleviate the cost of education, help the ravaged communities of Israel, or spend millions of dollars on an esrog for everyone, I hope our priorities will be in the right place. Let’s not wait for the next generation to become more gutsy and proactive.

Chananya Weissman is the founder of EndTheMadness (www.endthemadness.org). His collection of original divrei Torah, "Sefer Keser Chananya," can be obtained by contacting him at admin@endthemadness.org.