Reb Yosil Rosenzweig
FROM THE BITTER CAN COME SOMETHING SWEET
The High Holy Days with all their solemnity and seriousness are over, and we now find ourselves celebrating the most joyous festival in the Jewish calendar, the holiday of Sukkot – Z’man Simchateinu – the festival of our rejoicing. How do we rejoice and express our gratitude to HaShem for the many blessings which He grants us? The Torah mandates the way: “And you shall take unto yourselves the fruit of a goodly tree” (VaYikra, Leviticus 23:40). We express our joy by taking a fruit called an Etrog (citron) in our hands and then together with the Lulav (date palm branch) and myrtle and willow branches, we wave them in all directions as an acknowledgment of HaShem’s sovereignty over the entire world.
The Etrog is indeed a lovely fruit, attractive in appearance and possessing a fragrant aroma. But if we look to our rabbinic literature we are amazed to learn that the Etrog did not always enjoy such an exalted status.
One of the Midrashic rabbis tells us: “The forbidden fruit which Adam and Eve ate in defiance of HaShem’s command was the Etrog” (Midrash Bereishit, Genesis Rabba 15). A careful examination of Scripture yields no reference to the nature of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. And yet some of our rabbis identify the fruit which brought about Adam’s downfall from the Garden of Eden as the beautiful Etrog, on which we spare no expense, which we handle so gently and respectfully and on which we recite blessings every day except Shabbat during this joyous festival.
What an amazing paradox we have here! Because of this fruit, Adam and Eve were cursed with a life of toil, struggle and pain. And yet this is the fruit chosen by the Torah to express our joy on this festival. The Etrog, which was the symbol of our downfall, is to be the means of our rejoicing.
This strange paradox, however, reflects an aspect of the basic personality of the Jew. If you want to know how Jews were able to survive so many calamities and disasters, look to the Etrog. We survived because of our innate ability to wring a blessing out of a curse. It is Jewish to find the blessing in the curse, the good in the evil, and the opportunity in the catastrophe.
Jewish history is rich in examples of making the best out of the worst and of finding the blessing in the curse. The Temple and its sacrificial service were destroyed, so our ancestors developed prayer as the most sublime form of religious expression. In the Middle-Ages the Jew was made an outcast, imprisoned in ghettos, forbidden to own land. And so our ancestors cultivated their minds instead of their land, and produced brilliant works of scholarship and literature.
Over sixty years ago, the British government closed the gates of Palestine to hundreds of thousands of refugee Jews, so we set about creating a State of Israel which today serves more than 7 million free and proud citizens of our faith. Indeed, from the ashes of the Holocaust emerged the miracle of Israel reborn, from the bitter can come something sweet. We Jews are the masters of making lemonade out of lemons.
Misfortunes have their redeeming qualities, and they can be found if we are prepared to look for them. Death brings an appreciation for life. Tragedy can bring relatives closer together and awaken dormant loves and loyalties. Failure can spur one on to success never dreamed of. In the curse itself often lies the seeds of blessing.
It has been noted that Passover reminds us that we are the only people who learned to eat the bitterness – and recite a blessing over it. Sukkot goes one step further. It reminds us that we are the only people that can take an Etrog and rejoice with it. We are a people that have always been able to wrest victory from defeat.
This is the secret of Jewish history, why we are here today. From the Etrog we have learned the secret of survival. We survived because we were able to transform catastrophes into religious observances, defeats into victories, and above all, curses into blessings.
Chag Samei’ach –have a joyous festival.