by Linda Feinberg
The Vilna Gaon stated that the most challenging mitzvah to fulfill is the mitzvah to rejoice throughout the entire holiday of Sukkos. How is it possible for all of Am Yisroel — men and women, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and hurting — to forget their everyday concerns and sorrows and remain in an elevated state of bliss for every
moment of the entire week?
Rav Avrohom, the Vilna Gaon’s brother, gave some advice for how this seemingly superhuman feat could be accomplished. He commented that the solution could be found in an explanation the Gaon once gave for these words in Tehillim 27:5: “He will hide me in His sukkah.” The experience of being “hidden” in the sukkah during the holiday increases
our faith and trust in Hashem, which in turn helps us believe wholeheartedly that Hashem will protect us from all harm. Indeed, says the Vilna Gaon, the minimum requirements for
a kosher sukkah attest to this relationship between the sukkah and emunah and bitachon. A sukkah must be at least seven tefachim long by seven tefachim wide, and its height must
be at least ten tefochim. Multiply these three numbers and you get 490, the gematria of “tamim” — simple, straight-forward faith and trust in Hashem. When a person has this
kind of trust in Hashem, it follows that nothing will disturb him, and he will be happy.
Throughout the years, the Vilna Gaon imparted many other teachings about the Yom Tov to his talmidim. But the true test of whether the Gra’s disciples had internalized these teachings came in the year 5558, when the Gra was niftar during Chol Hamoed Sukkos.
Somehow, the distraught talmidim got through the to the final days of Yom Tov. But
there was yet another challenge looming ahead: Simchas Torah. Could they really be expected to sing and dance when their hearts were so broken?
The sky grew dark, signaling that Yom Tov was beginning — but that darkness was nothing in comparison to the gloominess that had settled upon the Vilna shul. Finally Rav Chaim Volozhiner stood up and banged his hand on the bimah.
“We sit here and cry because our beloved rebbi has left us,” he said. “But do you realize where his holy neshomar is sitting now? Does anyone know who his companions are in Shomayim?”
“He is with the Rashba and the Ramban,” said a talmid.
“Although our rebbi lived many centuries later, he achieved their level of greatness in Torah, and so it is fitting that he should be with them.”
“I think he must be with the Tannaim and the Amoraim,” said another talmid. “After all, he made their words accessible to us and the generations who will come after us.”
“And rebbi mastered the secrets of kabolah,” said a third.
“Therefore, he must be with Rabi Shimon bar Yochai.”
Others offered their opinion, and as they did so, their spirits began to lift. Then Rav Chaim said, “I cannot say which of you are right. But I can say, and I’m sure you will all agree, that our rebbi has acquired very lofty place. And yet—”
Rav Chaim grew silent. The scene of the crowded shul faded from his eyes and he recalled a different scene — one which took place a few days earlier, in the Vilna Gaon’s home.
“you all recall rebbi’s last moments,” said Rav Chaim, “how he wept that he was leaving a world where a mitzvah could be acquired for just a few rubles. Even though he knew
there was an incredible reward waiting for him in Olam Haba, how he wished that he could
remain in this world for just a little while longer! How he longed to acquire just a few more
mitzvos, learn just a little more Torah!”
Rav Chaim then began to sing. “Olam Haba is a gutte zach, lernen Torah is a beser zach. Varf avek fun dir der yach, lernen - Torah noch un noch — The World to Come is a good thing, studying Torah is a better thing. Throw away every other yoke from yourself, learn Torah more and more.”
Soon the other talmidim joined Rav Chaim in his song, and as they sang they began to dance. Yes, they still hurt from their loss. But they also rejoiced, knowing that it was a privilege to be alive, to learn Torah, and to do Hashem’s will with simple emunah and bitachon.