Everybody knows that Sukkot is Rabbi Elimelech’s favorite Holy Day. And everyone also knows that the Etrog is his favorite part of the holiday because its smell is so delicious. He has this yearly habit of inspecting other people’s etrogim trying to find the Etrog that is the most sweetly smelling and naming it “The Sweetest Etrog.” Some years ago, it was the first day of Sukkot and all the congregants were in the synagogue and they were in a festive mood. As Rabbi Elimelech stood at the lectern and began reciting Hallel, a very important part of the Festival Service (Psalms 113-118) , everyone was looking at him. There was something strange in the way he was holding his etrog. He lifted his nose and started to smell the air. It was evident that something caught his nose’s attention, by the look on his joyful but curious face.
The minute the praying was over, Rabbi Elimelech ran to where his brother Rabbi Zusya (who had come to spend the festival with him) was standing, and said to him “Help me find the etrog which is permeating the whole sanctuary with the smell of the Garden of Eden!” And so together they went from person to person, because everyone came with their own personal lulav and etrog, until they reached the far corner of the sanctuary where this guy, Mendel, was standing, lost in his own thoughts.
“This is the one,” called out Rabbi Elimelech. He asked the man’s name and Mendel told him. “Mendel, dear friend, tell me where you obtained this wonderful etrog?” The man, looked confused by this question, he lifted his etrog and said, “This thing? But, it’s barely yellow and I doubt it ever had a smell. And if it did, it wasn’t a good smell.” The Rabbi said, “Well, it smells great to me and I want to know how and where you got it! I am sure it will be a story worth hearing!”
Mendel started to tell his story. “I’m from Blue Bell and I have always regarded the shaking of the lulav with the etrog on Sukkot as one of my favorite mitzvot, and so, even though I don’t have a lot of money and could normally not afford to buy a beautiful and big etrog, my wife, who also is in belief of its importance, works as a caterer. She is independent of any help from me, and so I can use half my own earnings for spiritual matters. I work as teacher in center city which is not too far from my home. One half of our money we use for our food and other needs and with the other half I use it to buy an etrog in New York City.
In order not to spend too much money on the journey I usually go by train. This year, in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I was making my way as usual, with two hundred bucks in my pocket for an etrog, when on the road to New York I walked through the train cars and stopped to sit down. It was time for the afternoon t’filah so I stood in a corner and prayed. I was in the middle of my prayers when I heard someone crying and groaning. Someone was obviously upset. I hurriedly finished my praying so that I could find out what was the trouble, and if I could help in any way. As I turned towards the man who was in obvious distress, I beheld a most unusual and rough looking person, dressed in regular street clothes slumped over. He told me a confusing story, between his sobs and I managed to understand that the man earned his living as a taxi driver. He had a wife and several children and he barely managed to earn enough to make ends meet. And now, a terrible calamity had fallen on him. His car, without which he could do nothing, had suddenly broke down in the city not far from the train station, and was just parked there on a side street. He needed at least a hundred and ninety-five dollars to get it repaired. I could not bear to see the man’s despair and tried to encourage him, by telling him that he must not forget that there is a God who could help him in his time of trouble, however serious it seemed to him. ‘I’ll give you fifty dollar but just to help you out a little in your difficulty!’ ‘I don’t even have fifty cents, and he tells me I can get my car repaired for fifty dollars?’ the man said bitterly.
I felt I could not keep the money I had with me for an etrog when here was a man in such desperate situation that his very life and that of his family depended upon his getting his car fixed. So I said to the man, ‘How much do you need?’ He told me 195 dollars. So I said, ‘Here take 195 dollars.’ I immediately took out my wallet and handed him the money, the taxi driver looking on, his eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets in astonishment. He was just speechless with relief, and his joy was absolutely indescribable. ‘Now you see that the Almighty can help you, even when the situation appears to you to be entirely hopeless!’ I said to him as he hurried off to another car of the train as I did not want to be embarrassed by the thanks of the grateful taxi driver.
“I eventually reached New York with the remaining five dollars in my pocket, and naturally had to accept the fact that I would wind up with a pathetic etrog, maybe even a used one. Usually my etrog is the best in town, and everyone used to come and see it , but this year I was embarrassed to return home with such a poor-looking specimen, so my wife agreed that I should come here to Lafayette Hill, where nobody knew me.” “But my dear Mendel,” cried out Rabbi Elimelech, “yours is a most excellent etrog. Now I realize why your etrog has the fragrance of the Garden of Eden in its fragrance! Let me tell you the sequel to your story.
When the taxi driver whom you saved thought about his unexpected good luck, he decided that you must have been none other than the Prophet Elijah who was sent to help him. Having come to this conclusion the happy taxi driver looked for a way of expressing his gratitude to God, but the man did not know Hebrew, and he couldn’t say any prayers. He contemplated the best way of thanksgiving. Suddenly he had an idea, that he should start giving some people, who needed it, free rides in his taxi: ‘Dear God in Heaven, I love you very much! What can I do to convince you of my love for you? I promise to help people who are in need.’
One of the rides that he gave was for two children who were lost in a dangerous part of the city. Now these children were not just lost, they had been completely separated from their family for more than 12 hours and were sitting on the corner both crying and yelling for their parents. He told those kids that he would drive through the whole entire city, if they needed to, in order to find their parents, which he did. He was able to reunite the children with their parents who were sick with worry because they were visiting from California and didn’t know the city at all. They were almost hopeless. And now dear Mendel” concluded Rabbi Elimelech, “you see that all this was possible because of your mitzvah. Go back to Blue Bell, and get involved with your Jewish community! For you are certainly a mensch and maybe, even God agrees. But before you go, permit me to hold this wonderful etrog of yours, and award it the title of, ‘The Sweetest Etrog of 5779!’”