“I have often been downcast, but never in despair; I regard our hiding as a dangerous adventure, romantic and interesting at the same time. In my diary I treat all the privations as amusing. I have made up my mind now to lead a different life from other girls and, later on, different from ordinary housewives. My start has been so very full of interest, and that is the sole reason why I have to laugh at the humorous side of the most dangerous moments.” -Anne Frank
At one point in my biblical studies, I came to the sad realization that the life of a biblical character was filled with pain and misery. The heroes from the holy pages rarely live happily ever after. Their lives are filled with struggle, hardship and disappointment. Adam, the first man to commune with God is exiled from the Garden of Eden, cursed, and lives to see one of his children murder the other. We see Noah, the new hope for mankind, drunk and cursing his disappointing son. Even the great patriarch Abraham goes from one trial to another and never lives to see the multiple promises of God fulfilled in his lifetime. The list goes on. Isaac and Jacob, similarly lead lives of fear, mourning and anguish. Moses, the great redeemer, leader and lawgiver, is subject to constant harassment and disappointment, the last being the prohibition of him entering the Promised Land, the land to which he so faithfully led the nation of Israel.
Nonetheless, or even perhaps because of their trials and how they faced them, we look up to these figures, to these ancestors. Their stories are filled with lessons and their personalities often serve as role models for how we should live our own lives.
One of the common threads that join the progenitors of the Jewish nation, from Abraham onwards, is how they continued, overcame and even triumphed in the face of adversity, as per the adage, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
The lemonade phrase is a curious one and perhaps one that overly maligns the innocent yet highly useful lemon. In researching the sources of the phrase it becomes apparent that in the early uses of the citrus fruit, it was not thought of very well as a fruit. Its first use was strictly ornamental. Over the centuries it started to be used for its sharp flavoring, as on salads and fish, and then for medicinal purposes, including preventing scurvy amongst sailors. Lemons have also been used for their acid content as well as a cleaning agent. But lemons were always considered a second-rate fruit whose sourness made you pucker your lips and the term was administered to many second-rate, unpleasant items in life, and most specifically in later years to faulty cars. The phrase “He sold you a lemon,” would become ubiquitous with purchasing a defective automobile.
Only in recent history has the lemon triumphed as a major juice product thanks to the addition of copious amounts of sugar. Hence the even more popular cliché: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” (First credited to Elbert Hubbard in 1915, but also attributed to Dale Carnegie, who himself credited Julius Rosenwald). The phrase has come to represent an optimistic attitude of overcoming adversity, turning it somehow to your advantage and making the best of a bad situation.
In honor of yet another painting by the talented artist, Mrs. Nira Spitz, commissioned by noted art patron, Mr. Egbert Pijfers, of a picturesque lemon tree, the author thought it appropriate to explore the lemon/lemonade dichotomy in biblical and rabbinic sources.
But first, as it has become our custom, a brief analysis of the famed painting itself.
One can immediately see why the lemon tree was sought and prized initially as an ornamental tree. The bright, lush, vibrant fruit is a colorful contrast to the multi-hued greens of the foliage. There is an appealing geometry and size to the tree that invites the viewer to reach out and pick its yellow/orange fruit. The asymmetry of the trunk to the geometrically full branches instinctively draws ones interest to the greco-roman bannister. It is clearly not an accident that the color and the lighting upon the human construction so nearly replicates the colors of the divinely-designed fruit. In the distance one can make out what is surely the Mediterranean coast within view of the veranda of this ancestral home. One can imagine the modern-day descendant of some Roman patrician or freed legionnaire, sitting on the porch, gazing upon the horizon, while the humidity of the summer air shimmers and rises in waves from the ground in a continuous mix of blues and whites until the eye reaches the gentle white clouds of the stratosphere. The tanned descendant lounges in shorts and a T-shirt, sipping on some cool lemonade, the ice tinkling in his tall glass.
But let us return to the symbolism of converting bitter lemons to sweet lemonade. Back in our biblical review, we noted the theme of suffering and even failure in our ancestral heroes. They struggled, they lived lives of trial and disappointment, rarely, if ever, living to see the hoped-for promise or salvation. Why do we venerate these people? Why are they models in the Jewish tradition? In the modern age of the ambitious drive to success and the diligent search for happiness, do these antiquated figures still have a role to play? Do we truly want to learn from these sad men and women? What about their lives do we wish to emulate? What deeper understanding of these personalities can provide lessons to modern man?
The answer is simple, yet profound, ties directly to our tree and its fruit, and its message is perhaps more important now than ever in the history of humanity. The lemon is a fruit that does not lend itself to instant gratification. One cannot bite into it as one would an apple and savor its delectable flavor. One cannot even squeeze it as one would an orange and expect to enjoy its sweet and rejuvenating juice. No. To enjoy a lemon is a relatively long and complicated process as far as fruit are concerned. It must be squeezed and then it must be sweetened. Only then is the lemon useful, meaningful, enjoyable.
So too with our ancestors. Nothing was handed to them easily. There was no instant gratification. In most cases they did not live to see the sweet fruit of their efforts. But that did not make it any less worthwhile. If anything, it teaches us a vital lesson. A lesson that needs to be shouted, repeated, reinforced and replayed so that cultures around the world will hear it. Ours is not the quick race. Ours is not the selfish, self-centered, self-indulgence that thinks of nothing else but oneself, of ones self-gratification, of ones personal glutenous happiness and material success to the exclusion of all else, of anything meaningful or important or lasting. Ours is an eternal march, passing the baton from one generation to the next, of making investments and sacrifices that will only be enjoyed by our descendants, of not only hoping for a better today, but planning and working for a better tomorrow, of constructing for our children the infrastructure and tools, the physical, intellectual and spiritual capacity to reach higher than we ever could. That is what we struggle for.
There is a famous story in the Talmud of a sage seeing a man planting a carob tree. This tree was attributed as giving fruit only after seventy years. The sage asks the man: “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”
Our ancestors who planted trees, who dug the land and sowed the seeds, knew what they were struggling for. They knew they wouldn’t live to see or enjoy the ultimate fruits. They more often than not lived lives of suffering and anguish. Such is the human condition. But it did not deter them. Against incredible odds, with tremendous dedication, they persevered. They retained the greater goals and ideals in the face of opposition and even rationale human hope. They carried faith as a precious ember that was passed from father to son, from mother to daughter, from teacher to pupil. That is an indomitable will. That is the significance of being part of an eternal chain of tradition. That is the patrimony our ancestors have left us. That is how we can look at a lemon and instinctively see the sweet and refreshing.
“Search for the seed of good in every adversity. Master that principle and you will own a precious shield that will guard you well through all the darkest valleys you must traverse. Stars may be seen from the bottom of a deep well, when they cannot be discerned from the mountaintop. So will you learn things in adversity that you would never have discovered without trouble. There is always a seed of good. Find it and prosper.” -Og Mandino