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A yungerman shopping at Altein Esrogim found exactly what he was looking for; he just wasn’t sure how he would come up with the $500 it cost. Rabbi Mendel Altein agreed to put it aside for a few days to give him a chance to rustle up some money. A week later, a distinguished gentleman visited the store and Mendel tried to help him find an esrog, but nothing was good enough. The visitor insisted that they must have more stock, and then Mendel remembered the esrog he had put away. He showed it to the man who was immediately satisfied and agreed to the price. “I must first call that yungerman and ask if he still wants it,” Mendel explained. He made the call right then and the yungerman said that sadly he still did not have the money, but he would really appreciate one more day to try. The visitor who was prepared to buy it on the spot did not appreciate the runaround, but confident the esrog would be his the following day, he left the store. The store was now quiet; only one customer remained. He approached Mendel and said, “Excuse me for prying, but I overheard your conversation and I’m wondering, what is the price of this special esrog?” Without balking, he took out $500 cash and handed it over. “Please call that yungerman and tell him his esrog is paid for.”
With far less money to spend on his own esrog, he put down the nicer ones he had been sifting through and chose a much simpler one. As we gear up for a COVID Sukkos, this story speaks volumes. In 5714 (1954) the Rebbe said that with all the good America has, there’s also a major plague we need to contend with: the kelipa of advertising and publicity. People are losing their gauge for doing the right thing simply because it’s right; instead all they consider is whether others will know about it. And that was in 1954! Today, events themselves have lost much of their intrinsic value. Sadly, if it wasn’t shared; it’s as if it didn’t happen. When we start to find that our tzedakah, Torah, or outreach accomplishments feel meaningless until they’re recognized by others, we know that even our Yiddishkeit has been infected by this American disease. There is, of course, a place for publicizing good deeds. In fact, at that very farbrengen the Rebbe talked about harnessing this kelipa for good. When our joy and vigor for Yiddishkeit is so strong that we feel compelled to share it with others, that is the time to publicize. But it is not the publicity that makes our Yiddishkeit meaningful. One of the blessings of the COVID era, perhaps, is the opportunity to reexamine this element of our lives. Having seen events, parties, and milestone celebrations take on all kinds of new configurations, we now know how beautiful an experience can be even if it’s not necessarily “share-worthy.” We also now know what it’s like to connect to Hashem on a personal level, without the usual crowds and fanfare. Do we want to make the change? The choice is ours. We can approach the upcoming COVID Sukkos with an attitude of, “Tell me if shuls will be open so I know what kind of esrog to buy,” or we can consider that this virus may help us finally cure the “American disease” that has only escalated since the Rebbe discussed it. The hero in Altein’s Esrog Center exemplified the hallmark Jewish value of “walk discreetly with your G-d.” We do what’s right because it’s right, not to earn validation from others. His own esrog that year wasn’t “share-worthy,” but to Hashem it was priceless. How did I come to hear the story of the esrog? As a result of another discreet act of kindness. My esrog became pasul on the first day of yom tov and I was told that Rabbi Yossy Altein always had spare ones at home. Although I hadn’t even purchased my esrog in his store, he graciously gave me a beautiful replacement and insisted that it be his gift to me. When I thanked him, he shrugged and said: “You want to hear a real story of kindness with an esrog? Call my son Mendel!” Gut Shabbos and Gut Yom Tov, Rabbi Lipskier