This summer I reread one of my favorite Israeli authors, S.Y. Agnon. Of course, in order to receive the full delight and experience of this Nobel Laureate’s writing, you need to read him in the original Hebrew, or at the very least in a proper translation.
His mastery and affection for irony and contradiction are executed with the perfection of the craftsman par excellence that he is. His writings, almost like a Biblical commentary, are mutilayered with the obvious and the covert. His stories, so rich, are laced with biblical language, sometimes giving the feeling of a re-knitting a biblical narrative in modern day form. Agnon’s storytelling is a treasure.
In honor of Sukkot, in which the etrog plays a starring role almost as much as the sukkah itself, I will share a summary of two vignettes by Agnon that focus on the etrog. While the sukkah is central to this holiday, the etrog, small and portable, is with us daily as well, albeit in a more intimate way. Wrapped and cocooned like a fragile baby, swaddled with cotton or flax of a muted bleached wheat gold, this fragrant, sunshine-y accoutrement with which we pray each day, is the only one of the four species that is complete in its attributes.
It is tradition to buy as enhanced an etrog as possible with which to recite the benediction, oftentimes triggering the legendary, at once quirkily charming and OCD-like, search for that perfect etrog.
Below are mere summaries. For your pleasure, do read these stories from the source. The first story, “Etrog Shel Oto Tzaddik, That Tzaddik’s Etrog,” is found in the collection “The Inviting Stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov.” The second story, “Etrog,” is found in the collection “Im Atzmi (With Myself).”
The holy Reb Michly was poor as a pauper. His house was empty. Most of the time, he had nothing except a stale piece of bread hidden within his hat, in case a beggar would appear at his door. The way he would not be sent away in shame, empty-handed. Reb Michly was absorbed in spiritual matters, meditating upon G-d and His Torah, in prayer and good deeds.
Reb Michly’s wife, unlike some other wives coping with the emptiness of poverty, who were contentious toward their husbands, knew her husband’s nature and honored his need for holiness.
One Sukkot eve, Reb Michly’s wife found herself with literally nothing for the upcoming holiday. Having no choice, she went to discuss and share this distressing circumstance with her husband. She entered his study, his place of meditation, and said, “It is Sukkot this evening, and I am without the necessary food for the holiday.”
Reb Michly, covered by his tallit, revealed his face as he placed his hand upon his tefilin and turned to his wife:
“You are worried about meat and fish and I worry about the etrog that I don’t yet have.”
His wife kissed the mezuzah and quietly left the room. This tzaddik, Reb Michly, was distraught, searching his home — perhaps, perhaps he could find an article of value and in sacrifice sell it in exchange for an etrog. He comes up with nothing of value.
His mind then shifts to his tefilin that, at this very moment, are on him. Why, for the eight days of Sukkot, tefilin are not donned. And his precious tefilin were not written by just any old scribe. They were of a particularly holy, pure, scribal interpretation, and have been used for the holiest of prayers. These tefilin are worth a lot!
Promptly, he goes to the study hall and offers to sell his beloved tefilin. Immediately, a buyer is found. He gives the saintly Reb Michly a golden dinar and Reb Michly relinquishes his tefilin.
Sure enough, with the generous sum of a golden dinar, Reb Michly acquires an etrog that is the jewel crown of etrogs. With tremendous joy, Reb Michly returns home to his meditation study, etrog in hand. Having heard her husband had been at market, she enters his study. She saw his glowing face, and felt certain he had returned with the necessary shopping for her to prepare for the holiday.
“I see the look of happiness on your face; surely you brought home the holiday needs. Please, give them to me as I better get started with the hour getting late.”
Reb Michly, with a deep sense of gratitude to the Alm-ghty, tells her of the etrog. She asks him how he could afford an etrog. He recounts the story of the tefilin.
Gladdened, his wife then requests that he give her the leftover change from the golden dinar. “There is no change. The etrog was one golden dinar.”
Holding back, swallowing tears, she asks to see this special etrog. Reb Michly obliges, explaining the remarkable attributes of this particular etrog. With an outstretched hand, she accepts the beautiful etrog. Staring at its beauty, she is reminded of the anguish of their home, of the anguish of her cuildren. Sukkot is on its way, pervaded by emptiness, by absence; she has nothing with which to celebrate it.
Gripped by this anguish, suddently her hands weaken, the etrog slipping to the floor. Its pitom is shattered, the etrog rendered unworthy of the benediction. The tzadik looks at his fallen etrog. He understands his etrog is no longer worthy of benediction. He raises his hands in despair. “Tefilin I don’t have, an etrog I don’t have, nothing remains for me but anger. But I shall not become angry, I has not become angry.”
The second story I will share is really just the final vignette, an epilogue, that closes the larger short story of “Etrog,” a story replete with Agnon charm, capturing the search for an etrog like no other.
In a reply within a conversation that takes place between the narrator-protagonist of the story and an elderly rabbi he finds in the synagogue who needs to borrow an etrog to recite the benedication over it. Upon the protagonist’s curiosity as to why he does not have an etrog, the rabbi responds with the following:
In my neighborhood dwells a man, a hardened man prone to anger, a temperamental kind of person, who nonetheless is meticulous in his observance of mitzvoth. For Sukkot, and for a price, he acquired a magnificent etrog. Proudly, affectionately, he showed us, his neighbors, the majestic traits of this particular etrog.
The following morning, broken sounds of weeping rose from his home. I turned to my wife: “Those are the sounds of a little girl’s tears. Do you mind checking to see why this little girl is crying?”
His wife reported back, “This little girl was playing with her father’s expensive, cherished etrog when she accidentally dropped it, breaking its pitom.”
And where is her father now? I asked.
“Where is he? He ran to immerse in the mikveh in preparation for blessing the etrog and the four species.”
The man took his etrog (the story recounts his efforts to qcquire it) and walked over to this little girl: “Don’t cry, here is my etrog.”
The little girl receives a beautiful etrog to gently place back in her father’s oval etrog holder, while the man walks away with the broken etrog — perhaps the most beautiful etrog of all.”