April 20, 2024
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Nitzavim: Of Lemonade and Wormwood

Devarim: 29:17

Three New Jersey rabbis sat together at the Delectable Nosherei Emporium of North Bergen (formerly the Delancey and Eldridge Market) having brunch on an unusually warm Sunday morning in September. They sat outside under a large, red umbrella with a beautiful view of Kennedy Boulevard. Rabbi Moshe Aronson of Congregation Chofetz Chaim of Secaucus and Rabbi Shlomo Zahari of Congregation Tehilat David of Lyndhurst had their suit jackets off and had rolled up the sleeves of their white shirts. Rabbi Yitz Mendelowitz of the Magen Avraham shtiebel in Union City sat with his jacket still on and his tie unloosened. It wasn’t really that hot.

It was a tradition—some might even call it a minhag at this point—that the three rabbis had developed over the years. A week before the High Holy Days began, when the truly intense workload for a pulpit rabbi set in, the three would sit down together, take a load off and shoot the breeze. Perhaps younger men might have gone for pancakes or omelets, but for these three it was big, hulking deli sandwiches or nothing, cholesterol be damned.

The three were snacking on pickles, waiting for their orders to arrive, when the waiter brought three lemonades.

Rabbi Mendelowitz took a sip. “Ooh. That’s not so good.”

Rabbi Zahari also sipped. “No, not good at all.”

Rabbi Aronson took his turn. “Actually, it’s quite bitter.”

“Yes, bitter would be the best description. Extremely bitter.”

Yes, but how bitter exactly?”

And thus the gauntlet was thrown down.

“Do you know how bitter this is?” Rabbi Mendelowitz queried. “It’s as bitter as the slavery of the Jews in Egypt. It is as bitter as the unrelenting suffering by the hands of a taskmaster as he oppressed our people, with no end in sight. It is the bitterness that led us to call out to God for salvation from our woes. It is the bitterness that led us to eat marror to commemorate just how bitter it was.”

“That’s rather bitter,” Rabbi Zahari agreed.

All three rabbis nodded. Rabbi Aronson slipped a quick look toward the kitchen door to see if their orders were imminent, as his stomach was growling.

“But the bitterness of Egypt ended in our redemption,” Rabbi Zahari continued. “And some people even savor the taste of marror, as it is associated with a mitzvah. So I’m forced to say no, our lemonade is more bitter than the slavery of Egypt.”

Rabbi Zahari continued. “Do you know how bitter this lemonade is? It’s as bitter as Naomi was when she was returning from Moav with Ruth. Naomi had lost everything, her husband and her sons, all her worldly possessions. She was feeling quite low, with no prospects to speak of. She even says to her well-wishers, don’t call me Naomi anymore. Call me Marra, from the root word ‘mar,’ meaning bitter. Now, that was true bitterness, much like our cold, yellow, unpleasant lemony brew.”

“I must say, that is quite bitter,” Rabbi Aronson agreed.

Once again, the three rabbis nodded in unison.

“But, still, the Naomi story ends with Ruth being redeemed by Boaz, and Naomi ended her days in comfort and with the satisfaction of knowing that the house of King David would rise from her family. So, although the story began quite bitterly, I would say it ended quite sweetly, something that will never happen to this lemonade.”

The sandwiches arrived. Rabbi Aronson had the roast beef with Russian dressing. Rabbi Mendelowitz had the hot pastrami with mustard. Rabbi Zahari went with a half tongue, half smoked turkey with no condiments, as he was on a diet. All three were on rye, naturally.

The three rabbis rose, washed their hands, returned, made the bracha of Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, bit into their small slices of heaven on earth, and resumed their conversation.

Do you know how bitter this lemonade is?” Rabbi Aronson continued. “It is as bitter as a phrase from this week’s parsha, Nitzavim.”

Now the other two rabbis perked up, for not only was Rabbi Aronson famously learned, but now he might say something that they could use in their speeches to their congregants in their respective synagogues this coming Shabbat morning.

“In this week’s parsha, Moshe Rabbeinu describes a man who rejects the Torah completely. He is described as ‘shoresh poreh rosh vela’ana, a root that produces hemlock and wormwood.’ Now, both hemlock and wormwood are quite bitter. I might venture to suggest that each of them is as bitter as our lemonade. But what makes this phrase so powerful is the word ‘shoresh.’ This is a root that is bitter from the start. This man is bitter against the Torah from every fiber of his existence. Some commentators suggest that this bitter root will produce leaves and branches that will also be bitter. It is inevitable that all his fruit will be acrimonious.

“Other commentators suggest that this man is the bitter root from which a whole family of rebellion will arise. His bitterness contaminates all his descendants. It’s as if the lemonade will make everything around it bitter, including our beautiful sandwiches, chas v’shalom.”

“Chas v’shalom,” the other rabbis agreed.

“So we should take the example of this unmitigated bitterness and purge all rancorous thoughts from our hearts so that, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur just around the corner, we can return to our Creator with no bitterness in our hearts whatsoever.”

Both rabbis agreed and raised their glasses in affirmation, though no one drank. And the rabbis went back to their sandwiches.

So, after much deliberation and soul searching, they sent the lemonades back.

By Larry Stiefel


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