The Blooming Onion: Recipe for a Peopleby Rachel Eden February 26, 2018
A video recently popped up on my social media newsfeed that I just can’t shake. A young boy, no older than two, was taking an apple from the counter when his mother objected and told him that his snack was, in fact, a raw onion. The boy was undeterred and insisted his little hands held an apple and, to prove his point, he took a big juicy bite. This is the moment in the story where we assume he spits out the onion and cries, but this boy’s cognitive dissonance is astounding (and hilarious). He perseveres, somehow chewing and swallowing that first bite though wincing slightly, and insists that he’s eating an apple. He continues to bite into the raw onion and by the end of the short video, his eyes are tearing, he’s grunting, and yet, he’s intently eating his alleged apple.
While I find the boy charming and funny, I see his actions as fascinating. Obviously, he is being unreasonably stubborn and could save himself from an unpleasant experience if he just considered that his mother was right. However, his desire to be correct outweighs any physical discomfort, a pure mind-over-matter feat that defies his young age.
The mind is what propels human beings to set aside their animalistic instincts for self-preservation and show kindness toward others. Judaism acknowledges this and tasks us with delaying immediate gratification in favor of a holy union, an elevated meal, or an honest exchange. We choose integrity, generosity and loyalty over deception, stinginess and betrayal. We must be honest enough to admit that we’re eating an onion yet strong enough to eat an onion as if it were an apple.
There is no worthy goal that doesn’t require a strong mindset to conquer a baser will. Any ambitious professional, personal trainer, or tranquil meditator can attest to that. Battles are fought and won, revolutions are created, nations and cultures are forever changed thanks to this perseverance that transcends comfort, apathy and our general desire for a pain-free existence.
This focus of honoring the mind defines the Jewish people and our stubbornness to stick to our principles, like the little boy with the onion, it’s reminiscent of our essence. After all, just open Exodus to read, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
After God’s “stiff-necked people” declaration to Moses following the infamous national sin of the golden calf, something curious happens. Moses asks God to forgive the Jewish people, as he says, “because [the Jewish people are] a stiff-necked nation, and forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” Why would Moses expect the Jewish people to be forgiven for our worst crime as a nation by labeling us with the same description that we are given in the heat of God’s anger?
I came across a fascinating article by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, addressing this enigma. He points out that Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum, who lived and died in the Warsaw ghetto, explains that Moses was noting that our biggest national weakness is also our most meritorious feature. As it turns out, being stiff-necked has its advantages.
After all, was Mordechai not “stiff-necked” when he refused to bow down to Haman? Didn’t Esther remain steadfast in her Torah observance despite living in a lavish kingdom as Queen of Persia? We have miraculously survived generations of persecution and, often in the most hostile of societies, have reached heights of service, contribution and adherence to our practices. Jews are indeed stiff-necked as we have proven historically that we are ready to die for our faith.
So that little tot? The one who ferociously ate a raw onion as though it were a sweet apple? I’m just speculating, but he may very well be a member of the tribe.