A Rosh Yeshivah we know confided to us that for years he would search for the perfect esrog. But he never found it.
Each year, he would turn over dozens of esrogim in his search, but even when he thought he had found it — the one that in its pristine beauty spoke to him; the one that was meant for him — in the end there would always be some imperfection. Not anything to make it passul, but some scratch or tiny mark that detracted from the splendor of the specimen.
Finally, he came to a realization. He asked himself, “And why should I be zocheh to a perfect esrog? Am I perfect? No. None of us is perfect.”
Perfection is the goal for which we strive; but until we get there, we have to know our actual level. We have to learn to accept ourselves and the esrogim that we are zocheh to.
He realized, too, that until we get there, perfectionism has its pitfalls. As we scrutinize not only esrogim and sifrei Torah for flaws, as our critical eye falls on other people, the search for perfection often becomes a discovery of imperfection.
As Chazal say: “Kol haposel, b’mumo posel — whoever disqualifies another person does so with his own imperfection.”
There is a difference between criticizing and disqualifying. While it is legitimate and even necessary to assess the character of others (say, to take precautions against those who are dishonest or dangerous), disqualifying someone due to some perceived character flaw is another matter.
Chazal are telling us that when we do so it is because the imperfection we perceive in others reminds us of the same imperfection in ourselves. If we are unwilling or unequipped (we are likely not even aware of it) to face up to it and accept it in ourselves, we disqualify others when we perceive it in them, so as not to be reminded of our own imperfection. Thus, we must try to be aware that if we disqualify someone because s/he is not what we think s/he should be, it may well be because we know, if only subconsciously, that we are not everything that we should be, and have those same faults that we see in another.
The corollary is that if I am aware of my faults and accept them (in the meantime, while working gradually to improve), then when I encounter the same problem in others, I need not shun them. For the reflection of myself in others is already familiar and no longer so disturbing. If I accept myself as I am, I can accept others as they are as well. Self-acceptance is the path to love, and an esrog is as good a place to start as any.
But in the unlikely event that one does find what seems like the perfect esrog? Then what? Was it deserved, because the glad new owner is a tzaddik, worthy of the perfect instrument for his avodas Hashem?
One might be tempted to think so. But it would likely be a mistake.
The Arizal wrote that the notarikon of esrog is (the letters stand for) “al tevoeini regel gaavah — let not the foot of pride come unto me” (Tehillim 36:12).
Chazal say the esrog symbolizes those who possess Torah and mitzvos, unlike the other of the four species which represent those who lack one or the other or both. It is for that reason the esrog is at most risk for being prideful.
Yet, without the lulav, the hadas and aravah, the esrog alone is valueless; its value lies in being part of the four species. Only one who feels himself to be part of Klal Yisrael and has Torah and mitzvos is of true value. Indeed, we make the brachah not on the esrog, presumably the most important of the four species, but on the lulav which, bound with the hadas and aravah, has more components.
A well-known Rebbe is said to have stated that there is no reason to struggle against pride; all one has to do is remember one thing: “Nine Rebbes don’t make a minyan. But 10 wagon drivers do, and they can say Kaddish and Barchu, and the Shechinah awaits their arrival” (Brachos 5b).
“And there was in Yeshurun a King, in the assemblage of the heads of the people, together the tribes of Israel” (Devarim 33:5). Rashi comments: When they come together in one bunch (agudah) and there is peace among them, He is their King, and not when there is division among them.
During the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah we make special references to Hashem’s Kingship in our prayers. The entire theme of Rosh Hashanah is accepting Hashem as our King.
After Yom Kippur we omit these special prayers and return to the everyday text. But that does not mean we abandon the work of recognizing Hashem’s Kingship. Rather, the time for verbal declarations is over; now we must begin to infuse our lives with the consciousness that Hashem Hu HaElokim, as we declared at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
On Sukkos, when taking the four species, dancing and singing at the simchas beis hasho’eivah and on Simchas Torah, we do so together, in shalom, accepting ourselves and our fellow Jews as we are. We know that we can be greater, and must strive for that; but this is who we are now, and Hashem loves us all nonetheless.
That is the ultimate expression of accepting Hashem’s Kingship. And that, as Rashi says, is when He is our King.