Plants and Wheelchairs
There is an old saying that a candle in the sunlight serves no
purpose. Dazzled by the bright illumination of the sun, we really gain
nothing from one small candle. But does this always hold true? The
Passover Seder would seem to contradict this concept.
What happens at the Seder? We read the Haggadah, which tells
the magnificent story of the Exodus, the pain and suffering in bondage,
the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb, the glory of our redemption. But we
also place a whole array of symbols on the table. Bitter marror herbs to
remind us of the bitterness of our suffering. Wine to remind us of the
blood that was spilled. The matzah and the Seder plate to remind us of
the Paschal sacrifice. What do we need these symbols? What do they
add to the dramatic and magnificent story? Do we need candles in the
The commentators find a strong parallel to this issue in this week’s
Torah portion. We read about the purification process of the metzora, a
person afflicted with lesions because he spoke improperly about other
people. One of the items he must take is the hyssop, a lowly plant that
grows close to the ground. Why the hyssop? Our Sages observe that
the hyssop symbolizes the metzora’s lowly stature. It reminds him that
he is a speck in the universe and teaches him humility, the first step in
his spiritual rehabilitation.
But the question still remains: Why isn’t it enough for the priests to
take him aside and talk to him about the virtues of humility and the evils
of malicious speech? Why is there a need for the hyssop?
The commentators explain that true change must come from within.
The priests could talk to the metzora endlessly about the importance of
being humble, about how insignificant he is in the grand scheme of
things, and it would have no genuine effect. No matter how much lip
service he will pay them, in his own mind he will remain arrogant. But
when he considers the hyssop in the privacy of his own thoughts, he
embarks on a journey of introspection, reflection and self-analysis. And
when he arrives at his destination, he will have achieved true humility.
At the Passover Seder as well, the mere telling of a story cannot
penetrate to the very depths of our hearts. Therefore, we have the
symbols that lead us to associate with the experience of our ancestors
and to reflect deeply on their significance. Only in this way can we
achieve a true feeling of personal redemption.
A teacher was telling his students about the dangers of riding a
bicycle without the protection of a helmet. In case of an accident, he
warned, head injuries were very likely to occur. He then told them a
number of stories about teenagers who had been paralyzed by falls
The students listened to the stories wide-eyed and open-mouthed,
but the next day they were again riding blithely down the road, their
helmets dangling from their bicycle seats.
The frustrated teacher sought the principal’s advice.
“I know they believed the stories,” he said. “I could see it in the
shock and the concern on their faces. If so, why didn’t they start
wearing their helmets? I don’t understand it.”
“It’s just human nature,” said the principal. “You hear the stories,
but somehow, you never relate them to yourself. Listen to me.
Tomorrow, bring a wheelchair into your classroom and leave it there for
a few days. In their own minds, they will begin seeing themselves in the
wheelchair. Mark my words. In a week, they will all be wearing their
In our own lives, we have an intellectual understanding the
Almighty’s goodness and kindness, but sometimes that awareness does
not penetrate to the depths of our hearts. How then do we accomplish
this? By taking note of the myriad symbols of His benevolence that
surround us; everywhere we turn, everywhere we look, we encounter
manifestations of it. Let us not take for granted our health, our families,
our homes, the birds in the sky, the very air that we breathe. Let us
rather reflect on these symbols of His presence and engender
awareness at the core of our being.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanebaum Education Center.