The Sweetest Lettuce is the Bitterest
Life-Changing Passover Seder Gems #2: Give Me Some Passion!
1. Not the Cookie Cutter Model
“The Torah speaks of four children: One is wise, one is rebellious, one is simple and one does not know how to ask.”—Passover Haggadah
This simple, brief passage of the Haggadah contains profound pedagogical insight. To begin with, three critical points are being conveyed:
#1: No two children are alike and not two children can be spoken to alike. We sometimes want to create a “cookie cutter” model, where one size fits all. 3,000 years ago the Torah told us it will not work. The message you give one child is not the one you can give to a second child. There are different types of children—with different personality types, skills, challenges, and gifts. You must find the proper words to speak to each one; you must discover the proper mechanisms through which to penetrate each one of them.
#2: Despite these four being so different they are all your children. Never give up on any of them or tell yourself that this one is too difficult for me to deal with. All four are your children. They may differ in so many years, but what unites them is that they are your children. You must and can be here for each of them. You have the power to touch each of them and to make their souls shine.
#3: The Torah speaks to each of the four children. Do not think that the Torah is a general document that works for many or most children. But there are some outcasts, misfits, to whom the Torah does not relate. That is never the case. The Torah speaks to every child. Judaism contains truths that can be related to every single child. We must search for the proper words and approach of how to make the Torah relevant and palpable to these children. We must discover how to give them the Torah in a way that they will appreciate how it speaks to their individual lives.
2. Give Me Some Passion
“In the beginning our fathers served idols; and now G-d has brought us close to His service.”—Passover Haggadah
Why would we begin this section of the Haggadah with the observation of how morally degraded our ancestors were? Besides, which of our ancestors worshiped idols? Abraham, the first Jew, our first father, smashed the idols of his father Terach and embraced Monotheism! True, it took Abraham some time till he discovered that the Pagan idols were futile. But why would we make mention of that at this point?
The answer to this is powerful. The Haggadah is not simply describing our ugly past. “In the beginning our fathers served idols; but now G-d has brought us close to His service.” Rather, the Haggadah is explaining why indeed G-d brought us close to His service. “In the beginning our fathers served idols”—that is why “now G-d has embraced us.” Had our fathers not worshiped idols G-d could have never brought us to His service!
What indeed constituted the difference between the father Terach and his son Abraham? If Abraham rationally realized that the statutes of his father were lifeless, stone images, and that the universe must have a transcendental designer and creator, why could his father not understand the same principle?
The foundations of Judaism do not require blind faith. They are rational. To assume that a house was built by a contractor, not as a result of an avalanche randomly combining the bricks that built the home, is quite rational. To embrace the notion that the 40 trillion cells of one human body, each cell organized with mind-staggering coherence, skill and order, did not occur randomly, is not primitive. (And this is only one body of one human. Now multiply these mind blowing structures with every other organism on our planet!). Similarly, for the Jews standing at Sinai it was rational to belief that G-d wants them to observe the Torah.
So here is the question: Why are some people are like Abraham—they will reject the deities of the time and embrace truth, while other will be like Terach, and continue to stick to the old, comfortable irrational notions?
The answer is: “In the beginning our fathers served idols”—and that is why “now G-d has brought us close to His service.” Abraham worshipped idols! That is the key. He took faith seriously. He craved to know the truth. He was idealistically searching to discover what is at the core of life. He served idols with passion and commitment, believing that they constitute the answer to life’s deepest questions.
His father Terach was not searching for truth, only for comfort. The pagan statues provides a safe business and he would not be disturbed by questions of truth.
Do you care for truth or not? That makes all the difference. Our forefathers worshipped idols for real, they passionately believed this was “it.” When they found the real G-d they now channeled their passion toward truth.
But if you are a person who does not worship anybody or anything, only your needs and comforts at the moment, then even if you understand the truth about the universe it makes little difference. (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.)
3. The Secret of Romaine Lettuce: Pharaoh, Hitler and the Frog
What is the proffered ingredient to use for maror, the bitter herbs?
The Talmud states that one can perform the mitzvah of eating maror through one of five vegetables. In the words of Maimonides: “The bitter herbs referred to by the Torah are Romaine lettuce, endives, horseradish, date ivy, wormwood. All of these five species of vegetable are called maror.”
Yet, as the codes of Jewish law state, the most preferable item to use is romaine lettuce. It is just that if one cannot obtain romaine lettuce, then he can use one of the other types of maror. Many have a custom to eat both romaine lettuce and horseradish. But it is the romaine lettuce that takes precedence.
This is strange. Romaine lettuce is not bitter in the slightest. We eat lettuce with our salad all year round, and it is not bitter. If anything it is quite sweet tasting. So why eat lettuce to commemorate the bitterness of Egyptian slavery? And why would the lettuce precede the horseradish which is visibly bitter?
It is here we can discover the subtlety of many Jewish laws, and their psychological intricacies. The answer is provided by the 17th century sage, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (known as the Chacham Tzvi).
The sweet piece of lettuce is a sneaky little vegetable. Its nature very closely parallels the Egyptian slavery experience—and that it why it is the most preferred item for maror.
Lettuce has a gentle and pleasant taste only because we pick it when it is young. But leave the lettuce stalk in the ground for a bit longer, and it turns bitter and pungent. What starts off sweet, turns sour in the end.
This was the exact course of events in Egypt. Pharaoh did not begin enslaving and crushing the Hebrews conspicuously. It began very slowly, enlisting them into the task force for pay. (The term “avodas perech,” crushing labor, is explained by our sages as “peh rach,” a soft mouth.) Once he had the Jews working for him under his domain, once the Jewish defenses were down, the harsh labor and slavery began. Like the lettuce stalk, it all seemed sweet at first, but given some time it turned bitter.
I once read of a fascinating scientific experiment. If you were to place a frog in boiling water, it would jump out. Its instinct protects itself automatically from danger. But if you were to deceive its natural instincts by putting the frog in cold water, and then slowly warm the water, the frog will remain in the water and it will, in fact, boil to death.
That’s the way slavery, oppression, and all other forms of degradation function. If you throw a person into a terrible, degrading experience suddenly they are going to fight it. But if it is slowly incorporated into them, and it becomes a habit, then their natural instinct to rebel is dulled.
Pharaoh and Hitler
That was the cleverness of Pharaoh, and the meaning of his words in the opening of the book of Exodus: “havah nischakmah lo,” ‘let us treat the Jews cleverly.” Pharaoh didn’t just take them and throw them into ghettos. He didn’t make them slaves right away, only gradually, little by little, taking away their rights, and before they realized it, they had the status of slaves. It became a habit and they themselves became accustomed to it. That water was comfortable at first, but slowly and surely, it began to heat up. Before they knew it, it was boiling over.
Hitler used the very same tactic to take away the sense of freedom and independence from the Jews, and turn them into subhuman objects. The prescribed program for the Jewish people was first the Nuremberg Laws, and little by little, layer by layer, peel by peel, their rights were removed. Jobs were taken away, identification badges were required to be worn on garments, no Jew could run for political office; their status as honorable law-abiding citizens of Germany no longer existed. Hitler’s trick was to heat up the water slowly, so that the Jews would not realize immediately where he is heading. Gradually the water became hotter, until before they knew it, they were slaves to the Nazi regime.
I’d like to believe that had Hitler announced, upon taking office in 1933, that all the Jews were going to be burned in ovens, to purify the Aryan race from Jewish vermin, the Jewish people would have fought back to stop the horror.
Decay and degradation do not just happen suddenly. They have a clever way of creeping up and robbing you of your capacity to fight back. The instinct of fight or flight is taken away and like the robber who cuts the wires to the alarm system before he does his dirty work, so too, Pharaoh or Hitler, or others, weaken the defenses of the victims with an insidious, pernicious, step by step program.
Breakup of the Family
This is true in our personal lives as well. Couples don’t get divorced in one day. Children don’t get alienated from parents in one day. People don’t become alcoholics or other addicts in one day. Burney Madoff did not become a mega-thief in one day. It is a gradual process. We make small mistakes; we ignore small symptoms; we fail to challenge the small habits and instincts. We ignore the small daggers at our heart. We deceive ourselves that it is all still sweet, functional, and fine. And then, before we know it the monster has grown strong and we are drowning in despair and grief.
So at the Seder we eat lettuce. Not the mature and embittered type, but rather the lettuce that is still tasty and sweet. Because the sweet lettuce is the bitterest of them all. In life, beware of the lettuce. Kill the devil when it still appears to be benign.
4. We All Do Our Part
A remarkable ceremony was instituted by the Chassidic master, Rabbi Naphtali of Ropschitz. The cup of Elijah, symbol of the messianic future, was passed from person to person at the table. Each person poured a little wine into Elijah’s cup from his own cup, until it was filled.
The tradition expressed the truth that Elijah’s cup is filled from all of our wines. We must act together, each contributing his or her own best talents and energies, to bring Elijah’s promise to the world. No one is excluded from the work of bringing our world toward redemption. Each of us has something to do to ignite the world with love.