Tuesday, February 07, 2006

This Is My God

R. David Silverberg's discussion of the concept in this week's Torah portion of beautifying articles for commandments (I, II) reminded me of my oral entrance examination to Yeshiva University, some 15+ years ago. In my (co-ed) high school, we were learning the third chapter of the Talmudic tractate Sukkah. I was coached by one of my teachers to refer to the chapter by its name, "lulav ha-gazul," and not its number.

So I showed up at the Yeshiva College admissions office and had a nice chat with the admissions officer who, after looking at my transcript, said I'd have no problem getting in and then discovered that we had both lived at one time in the same town in upstate New York. Easy enough. Then I went for my Talmud examination with the "examiner" (bohen), R. Feivel Paretsky. Nothing could have prepared me for that. Here was this elderly rabbi who opened with a joke and kept telling me how impressed he was with the boys from my (co-ed!) high school. I was expecting some ultra-serious rabbi who looked down on me. Nothing could be farther from what I experienced. I later got to know Rabbi Paretsky a little better and discovered that he had learned under leading rabbis of Eastern Europe (the Marheshes and the Hafetz Hayim). But he still managed to connect with me, not to mention the "yellers" (his name from the high school students in the room next to his office) who joined me in college the next year. He asked me what I was learning and I dutifully answered "lulav ha-gazul." So he opened up to the first page of the chapter and had me read the top Tosafos.

The Mishnah states that a dry lulav (palm branch) is invalid for use on Sukkos. Why? Rashi explains that the requirement is from a verse in this week's Torah portion: "This is my God and I will glorify Him" (Ex. 15:2). This verse implies that commandments should be performed in the most pleasant way possible, thereby invalidating an unpleasant, dry lulav.

Tosafos counter that this could not be the source for the invalidation of a dry lulav because the requirement of beautifying a mitzvah is only ab initio (le-khat'hilah). However, if a mitzvah is performed in an unpleasant manner it is still, ex post facto, valid. As proof, Tosafos cite an earlier passage (11b) that it is a mitzvah to bind together all of the four species because of "This is my God and I will glorify Him" but, if one fails to, it is still valid. Therefore, Tosafos suggest that the source for the need to beautify the lulav is a comparison with the esrog, about which the verse explicitly requires a beautiful fruit.

That's all I explained. Then Rav Paretsky asked me how to answer Tosafos' question. I responded that I don't know, what does he think. He then suggested that there are two levels of beautification, one of basic presentability and another of additional beautification. A dry lulav is so unpleasant that it does not even satisfy the basic requirements of presentability, which is why it is invalid. An unbound collection of four species is certainly presentable but lacks an additional beautification, which is why it is still valid. He told me that the Meiri offers this explanation.

And that was it. He gave me a scrap of paper with something scribbled on it that, I later found out, said that I should be put in the top first-year Gemara class. I'm still baffled by that placement and ended up spending the next year trying to catch up with my peers and figure out what was going on in the class.

It was two or three years later that I walked into the main beis midrash one morning and saw a sign announcing the passing of R. Shraga Feivel Paretsky. This was my first brush with death in yeshiva and I assumed that it must be someone else who had passed away and not the vibrant R. Paretsky we all knew and loved. I went straight to R. Baruch Simon and asked him whether it was our R. Paretsky who had passed away. It was. The subsequent funeral was the first of many for older Roshei Yeshiva in which I took part, all with R. George Finkelstein's (the principal of MTA at the time) moving rendition of the Kel Malei Rahamim prayer, which I can still hear echoing in my head.

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