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Can One be Religious and Cruel?

by Rabbi Dov Greenberg


Library » Holidays » Sukkot » Essays | Subscribe | What is RSS?


The Etrog 

There is a moving story about the holiday of Sukkot, authored by Israeli Nobel Prize laureate and novelist, S. Y. Agnon.

Jewish law ordains that a Jew acquire an etrog before the holiday of Sukkot, and recite a blessing over it each day of the festival (except on the Sabbath).

Agnon relates that shortly before Sukkot in his Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, he ran into one of his neighbors, an elderly rabbi from Russia, at a store selling etrogim. The rabbi told Agnon that since Jewish law regards it as uniquely special to acquire a very beautiful, aesthetically perfect etrog, he was willing to spend a large sum to acquire this ritual object, notwithstanding his limited means.

Agnon was surprised, a day later, when the holiday began and the rabbi did not take out his etrog during the synagogue service. Perplexed, he asked the man where the beautiful etrog was. The rabbi told him the following story:

I awoke early, as is my habit, and prepared to recite the blessing over the etrog in my Sukkah on my balcony. As you know, we have a neighbor with a large family, and our balconies adjoin. As you also know very well, our neighbor, the father of all these children next door, is unfortunately a man of short temper. Many times he shouts at them. I have spoken to him many times about his harshness but to little avail.

As I stood in the sukkah on my balcony, about to recite the blessing for the etrog, I heard a child weeping. It was a little girl crying, one of the children of our neighbor. I walked over to find out what was wrong. She told me that she, too, had awakened early and had gone out on her balcony to examine her father’s etrog, whose esthetical appearance and delightful fragrance fascinated her. Against her father’s instructions, she removed the etrog from its protective box to look at it. She unfortunately dropped the etrog on the stone floor, irreparably damaging it and rendering it unacceptable for ritual use. She knew that her father would be enraged and would punish her severely. Hence the frightened tears and wails of apprehension.

We are summoned to build a society out of holy lives and generous deeds. Sensitivity, along with kindness, stands at the very core of Jewish values
I comforted her, and I then took my etrog and placed it in her father’s box, taking the damaged etrog to my premises. I told her to tell her father that his neighbor insisted that he accept the gift of the beautiful etrog, and that he would be honoring me and the holiday by so doing.

Agnon concludes: “My rabbinic neighbor’s damaged, bruised, ritually unusable etrog was the most beautiful etrog I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Serving G-d by Helping Man

I love this story because, in its gentle way, it reminds us of how a Jew should behave. We are summoned to build a society out of holy lives and generous deeds. Sensitivity, along with kindness, stands at the very core of Jewish values. Judaism is not just a faith of sacred moments set apart from daily living. It is a religion that should infuse the texture of everyday life, of daily deeds, words and relationships.

In the blazing first chapter of Isaiah, the prophet denounces those who are scrupulous in offering sacrifices, yet who neglect the poor, or abuse the weak. Judaism is not Judaism if we disconnect our duties to G-d from our duties to our fellow human beings. To be a Jew is to be alert to the suffering of others. This is beautifully expressed in a famous line in Psalms:1 “I was young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread.”

The question is obvious: Surely throughout history there were times when the righteous were forsaken?

One beautiful explanation can be found in the key words of the verse: lo ra'iti, normally translated as “I have not seen.” The verb ra'iti, though, occurs twice in the Book of Esther with a quite different meaning. “How can I bear to watch (eichachah uchal vera'iti) the disaster which will befall my people?” And “how can I bear to watch the destruction of my family?”2 The verb here does not merely mean “to see”. It means “to stand by and watch, to be a passive witness, a disengaged spectator.” Ra'iti in this sense means to see and do nothing to help. That, for Esther, as for the Psalmist, is a moral impossibility. A Jew may never be indifferent to the needs of others.


  • 1. 37:25.
  • 2. Esther 8:6.


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Mitzvot » Love thy Neighbor
Holidays » Sukkot » Four Species
Jewish Identity » Love thy Neighbor
Philosophy » Character

Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
A seven day autumn festival commemorating the miracle of the Heavenly Clouds which enveloped the Jews while traveling in the desert for forty years. On this holiday we dwell in makeshift booths and shake the Four Species.
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
The temporary structure in which we are required to dwell for the duration of the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah must have at least three walls and its roof consists of unsecured branches, twigs or wooden slats.
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
A citron; a greenish-yellow citrus fruit. We are required to take an Etrog on the holiday of Sukkot and shake it together with a palm branch, a myrtle and a willow.
1. Jewish wife of Persian King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BCE. Foiled the plot of Haman, the prime minister, to exterminate all the Jews. The holiday of Purim commemorates this miraculous salvation. 2. One of the 24 Books of the Bible, which chronicles the abovementioned story.
First Jew, and first of our three Patriarchs. Born into a pagan society in Mesepotamia in 1812 BCE, he discovered monethieism on his own. He was told by G-d to journey to the Land of Canaan where he and his wife Sarah would give birth to the Jewish People.
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
1. One of the greatest prophets, lived in the 7th century BCE. 2. One of the 24 books of the Bible, containing the prophecies of Isaiah. The book is filled with prophecies concerning the Messianic redemption.
The Book of Psalms. One of the 24 books of the Bible. Compiled by King David; mostly comprised of poetic praise for G-d. A large part of our prayers are culled from this book.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.