In addition to being rabbi of his community, Reb Mordechai of Neshchiz was a prudent businessman. After every business trip he would set aside money from his profits to help the poor. He would also set aside a small sum in order to have enough to buy a fine esrog for Sukkos. As the holy day drew near, Reb Mordechai collected his esrog money and set off to Brody to purchase the fruit.
When he arrived at the edge of the city, he came across the town’s water carrier, sobbing on the side of the road. Reb Mordechai stopped and asked the man what troubled him.
“Do you see my wagon over there? It is a fine strong wagon. When it is filled with barrels of water and harnessed to a strong and loyal horse, I can do a fine day’s work feeding not only myself and my family, but the poor as well.”
“So what is the trouble?”
The barrels I have,” said the man. “The water I know where to get. And the wagon, well, there it is.”
And the horse,” Reb Mordechai said softly.
“Yes, the horse. My horse is dead. Died this morning, and with her my livelihood as well.”
“Wait here,” the rebbe said. “Let me see what I can do.” Walking into town, Reb Mordechai found a horse trader and bought a strong young horse with his esrog money. He returned to the man and presented him with this fine horse. “I came to Brody to buy an esrog; instead, I have purchased a horse. But it is all the same, for God commands us to buy an esrog, and God commands us to help others in need. So, my friends, they shall say their blessing over a fruit; I shall say mine over a horse.”
“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life that you and your descendents may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Making choices for life is at the heart of all spiritual discipline. It may be the most important discipline of all, for it forces you to face the choices, determine which is for life, and then act accordingly. Facing the choices means slowing down enough to notice them. Determining which is for life requires you to have cultivated the presence of mind and clarity of insight needed to distinguish between the desires of the self and the needs of others. Acting accordingly necessitates cultivating nonattachment so that you can save all year for an esrog and yet use those savings to buy a horse for a stranger. Choosing life isn’t an alternative to other spiritual practices; it is the culmination of the practice in the ordinary moments of your everyday life.
Esrog (Hebrew for citron): One of the four species of plant (along with palm, willow, and myrtle) that is used in the harvest festival of Sukkos (Leviticus 23:40). These four plants are held together and waved in the six directions (north, south, east, west, up, and down) to thank God for the bounty of nature that surrounds us.
Sukkos (Hebrew for “booths”; singular, sukkah): One of the three pilgrimage holy days mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (the other two are Passover and Shavuos). Agriculturally, Sukkos is a harvest festival celebrating the earth’s bounty and looking forward to good rains for the next harvest. The main observances of Sukkos are the waving of the four species (see above) and living in temporary huts called sukkos. These huts are reminiscent of the temporary shelters in which the Israelites dwelt during their forty years of desert wandering, and are constructed in honor of those Israelites in Sinai.