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ONIONS AND GARLICAdapted from a lecture by Moreinu v'Rabbeinu HaGaon HaTzaddik Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l, 5758.
IT'S A TEST
"All the affairs of the world, whether for the good or for the bad, are trials (nisyonos) for a person. Poverty on the one hand and wealth on the other. (Mesillas Yesharim, chap. 1)
Life is a constant series of nisyonos. Why is this? The Midrash gives us some insight:
HaKadosh Baruch Hu does not raise someone up to greatness until He tries and tests him first. When he passes the trial, then He raises him up to greatness. So we find by Avraham Avinu. HaKadosh Baruch Hu tested him with 10 nisyonos, and he passed them all. Afterwards, He blessed him, "And Hashem blessed Avraham in everything" (Bereishis 24:1). So, too with Yitzchak… So too with Yaakov… Also Yoseph was tested with Potiphar's wife, and he was imprisoned for twelve years. Then he was freed and became the king because he had withstood his nisyonos. This is the meaning of the possuk, "Hashem tests the tzaddik…" (Bemidbar Rabba 15:12)
Chazal tell us that our entire success depends upon our passing tests. If you pass the trial, you are a success. Life is a constant series of trials and tests. This is the simple meaning, and the common interpretation, of the word nisayon. HaKadosh Baruch Hu is testing you if you are strong enough so that you can be trusted for HaKadosh Baruch Hu's special missions.
Nisyonos - Opportunity for Greatness
There is, however, another way of understanding the term nisayon. The word nisayon stems from the root đń, nes - a flag or a banner: "'And Hashem tested Avraham,' as it says (Tehillim 60:6), 'You have given a banner to those who fear You, that it may be displayed because of the truth. Selah.' Nisayon after nisayon, growth after growth, in order to display them in the world…" (Bereishis Rabba 55:1). (See also the Ramban on Bereishis 22:1.)
Hashem wants to draw the person close, to grant him connection to ruchnius, to become attached to the Borei Olam. A nisayon is a way of becoming elevated and achieving preeminence. According to this, we translate the possuk: "Hashem lifted up Avraham (using the Hebrew term nisa, đńä, indicating raising a banner on high)." The Ramban explains that a nisayon is not to test the person to see if he will withstand the tests. Hashem knows that already. He gives nisyonos only to those whom He knows can withstand the nisayon. He does not give nisyonos to someone who cannot handle them. So what is the purpose of this nisayon? To help him, to strengthen him so that he can become raised up and great.
This new concept of the Ramban fits in very well with the Mesillas Yesharim. A person's life is a constant stream of nisyonos. If a nisayon is a test, a test can be given once a year, once a month; but not constantly, without a break! It appears more compatible to the concept of the Ramban: a nisayon is to lift the person up and make him greater and closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
There is a practical difference between these two ways of looking at tests. If a nisayon is to prove who the person really is, then he would have to be tested with very difficult trials which not everyone could pass. He would have to prove how much he is really ready to suffer and sacrifice. But it does not make sense to test him on the little things.
However, if nisyonos are there to help the person lift himelf up, then we can understand that Hashem, in His great compassion, prescribes events to help the person elevate himself slowly and gently, higher and higher. They are a special chesed from the Borei Olam. Even a light nisayon is beneficial, or even more desirable. This new concept makes it easier for us to understand that what Hashem is doing for us is good; what is happening to us is a blessing from Above. An easy nisayon is an opportunity to withstand that small temptation, showing self-discipline and choosing the good. Then the Ribono Shel Olam declares, "This is whom I have chosen."
This way of viewing nisayonos is novel, but it makes it easier for us to understand a difficult episode in the Torah, the parsha of the complainers (Parshas Beha'aloscha):
And when the people were like complainers of evil in Hashem's ears, and the Lord heard it; and His anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and consumed those who were in the outlying parts of the camp…. And the mixed multitude that was among them had a strong craving; and the people of Israel also wept again, and said, Who shall give us meat to eat? (Bemidbar 11:1,4)
First of all, what does it mean, "the people were like complainers"? Were they complainers or not? Why say, "they were like complainers"? The Siforno draws attention to this problem and comments that they really did not have anything to complain about; they were merely trying to complain.
Next, we have to understand the phrase "evil in Hashem's ears." Was it evil, or not? Why does the Torah specify that it was "evil in Hashem's ears"? The implication is that really, it was not evil, but the Ribono Shel Olam heard it as evil.
From the Siforno and others it appears that they were "like complainers." They lacked the joy they should have had from the unending hashgacha pratis of the Ribono Shel Olam. The Torah seems to be trying to give us this message: we have to feel joy that Hashem is here with us; He is taking care of our every need. Their lack of appreciation of Hashem's bounty stemmed from a small hidden attitude of complaint, and "in Hashem's eyes" this was considered a sin. The Torah does not explain what exactly they complained about. However, a little later on we find that those who survived "the fire of the Lord burnt among them," were still complaining. They whined about the lack of meat, and they missed the cucumbers and onions they had in Mitzrayim! It was much better for us there! What was so bad about Mitzrayim? "We remember the fish we ate in Mitzrayim - free!" They didn't want to march any further.
This monologue is totally unfathomable. We are talking about people who for over two hundred years were not just slaves, but slave labor. The Egyptians gave them some fish and onions to eat so they should keep on working. And which fish did they get? According to one commentary, they received the Egyptians' leftovers; fish that had already been out five days and were beginning to rot. These were the fish the Jews received. And now they're nostalgic about some rotten fish?
They complained that they remembered the onions and garlic of Mitzrayim. How many people were lacking onions and garlic? Most of them could taste onions and garlic in the Mann if they wanted to. The whole Klal Yisroel made a tumult just because a few individuals couldn't taste onions and garlic in the Mann?! They made a demonstration, they went on strike. "We are not going until everyone gets garlic and onions!" This was Klal Yisroel's nisayon? It doesn't make sense. The rest of the Yidden should have made a counter-protest, "What are you complaining about? What do you want? For a few onions you want to go back to Mitzrayim?"
It seems that the best of the Jews, even the leaders, were also "like complainers." Not that they complained. They were only "like complainers," because they didn't protest: "Kinderlach, what's bothering you? What are you making such a fuss about? You're talking nonsense. You want to stop just because of some rotten fish with onions and garlic?" We should have heard something from them. But we hear nothing. This acquiescence made them "like complainers," and this was considered "evil in Hashem's ears." The Ribono Shel Olam wanted them to rise above this petty quibbling, and they failed.
Until now, we thought we understood why the Creator gives a nisayon. The recipient now has a choice whether or not to do Hashem's will. If he chooses correctly, then he develops an intimate relationship with the Ribono Shel Olam. This then elevates him, consequently granting him an even stronger connection. Here, however, we observe a nisayon about such a petty issue that seems ridiculous. No sensible person thinks like this. They should have discarded the complaints right away. "What is all this nonsense about onions and watermelon?"
Chazal tell us that the mann had all the possible flavors in the world. Whatever the Jews wanted to taste, they tasted in the mann. Even the way it fell was miraculous. First, there was a layer of dew underneath like a tablecloth. And then on top of it was another layer to cover it like a challah cover. They were served like kings! HaKadosh Baruch Hu could have just thrown them a package of mann for everyone to grab. No. He gave each one special delivery. A simple person, not of such a high spiritual standing, received his delivery in the field, slightly far from his tent. The tzaddik received his delivery to his doorstep. Everyone received his delivery exactly according to who he was. They viewed miracles every day.
So the seventy elders probably received their mann in the most honorable fashion, special delivery. What more did they want? They should have developed a deep appreciation of Hashem's infinite benevolence. No. "We remember the fish with the onions and garlic." This is astonishing! But as absurd as it is, this is the lesson the Torah has revealed to us. There is a boundless inclination in the person toward pettiness. We do not understand this. But do not think they were the only ones who felt connected to onions and garlic. Each one of us has similar bonds.
The Five-Dollar Baby
At a Pidyon Ha-Ben the Kohen asks the father a totally incomprehensible question. The father declares to the Kohen that this is his firstborn son. Then the Kohen asks the father, "Which do you prefer: to give me your firstborn son or to redeem him for five shekalim?" Did you hear what was just said?! We take this new father with his first son and ask him which is more important to him, his son or five shekels! You must be surprised that we can ask him such a question. I've always wanted to know what would happen if someone told the Kohen to take the baby. We've never come across such a case. Of course, everyone knows that the father wants his baby. And even if he wanted to say it, he wouldn't. What kind of question is that, to ask him, "Do you want your child?" But everyone stands there respectfully, with the Rabbi and all the honorable guests, and the Kohen takes his money, and we have never heard anyone ever question the ceremony. Someone should speak up, "What's going on here?! You're making fun of this new father by asking him such a silly question."
The answer is that we are not asking him such a simple question if he wants the baby or the five shekels. We are giving him a lesson in life: "Listen, you, new father, you're now entering a new stage of your life. You've just become a father. You've just become a teacher. You now have to run a household. The first thing you have to know is that there is a very important question: which do you want more? Do you want the child more, or do you want the five shekels more?" This question accompanies the father and mother the whole day, the whole year, their whole life.
There comes the day they have to choose a kindergarten. But there are two kindergartens. One has good children from good homes, and the other is okay, but not as good. So what's the question? How much does the better kindergarten charge? They take five dollars more each month. The other one is cheaper. "Five dollars! Oy vey. Five dollars isn't really that much money. But it adds up. Every month five dollars! What does he need the kindergarten for anyway? He's only going to play. He can stay at home and play. Five dollars is money. I'll take the cheaper one." What was the deciding factor? Five dollars.
Then they have to move. They have to buy a house. There are two homes to choose from. One is in a better neighborhood, a religious section. But it costs $5,000 more than the other one. What is going to be the deciding factor? The chinuch of the children or the price? "Which is more important? Your child or the gelt?" And so we inform this new father: Yungerman! Now you're entering life as a father. You have to remember this very basic principle: you are constantly being asked, "Which do you want more?" And this decision that you have to make now at the Pidyon Ha-Ben you'll be making for the rest of your life.
So you see that this question of whether the new father wants the five shekels or not is not such a simple one. We are asking him a very profound question that he has to internalize into his very being and remember his whole life. In the end, as simple as it appears, it is a nisayon. "Which do you really prefer?" If a person can give his freedom away for some onions and garlic, he can give away even the greatest things. He sees in front of him a few onions and garlic. He can't see the future. He only sees what is in front of his eyes: the onions. Right now he's a bit nearsighted. And if he's nearsighted now what happens a year later when his wife gives birth to another child? He doesn't think into it so deeply. What is going to be? And it all started with the decision about kindergarten. He asks himself this lifelong question, What is going to be? How am I going to make it? Is he going to make his decision in favor of the five dollars or the more important issues in life?
Wishing everyone a Gut Shabbos!
Shema Yisrael Torah Network