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One of the early hassidic masters was known simply as HaYehudi HaKadosh, the Holy Jew (1766-1814). The Holy Jew studied the book of Deuteronomy every day because he held that it was the most powerful book of musar, or ethical teachings, ever written. He was also an innovative thinker and well known for his allegorical Torah commentaries.
When he looked at the word "shofar," the Holy Jew saw an abbreviation for "shoresh poreh rosh ve-la'anah," which translates as "a root growing poison weed and wormwood" (Deuteronomy 29:17). No matter how low we may have sunk, even to the extent of feeling like a bitter and poisonous plant, that very bitterness has transformative power, symbolized by the uplifting sounds of the shofar. Hassidism teaches that the only way we can make sense of our sins is by seeing them as opportunities to do more profound teshuva than ever before, so that we can scale previously unimagined heights of holiness.
Professor Yehuda Feliks, the noted botanical scholar, has identified rosh as hemlock (Conium maculatum), whose extract was famously used in the potion that put Socrates to death. Feliks observed that the name rosh may have been given to hemlock because of its white flower clusters that stand above the plant much like a person's head stands above his body. Hemlock grows wild throughout the Mediterranean basin, including in the Land of Israel, whether along streams or in roadside ditches, wherever moisture is readily available. La'anah, by contrast, is a species of Artemisia, commonly referred to as wormwood, indigenous to the parched Arava.
Hemlock belongs to the carrot family, whose members include parsley, cilantro, dill, cumin, and fennel. All of them are recognized by their attractive, finely cut foliage and flowers that appear in clusters called umbels, which look like inverted parasols. Parsley (Petroselium crispum) is richer in Vitamin C than any other leafy vegetable. Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is used as a spice in guacamole, soups and salads. Dill (Anethum graveolens) is soaked in the brine that pickles cucumbers. Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) flavors chili powder and curry. Common fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) has the scent of anise or licorice and its flowers, except that they are non-toxic and yellow in color, look very much like those of the deadly hemlock.
All these members of the carrot family attract bees and other beneficial insects. A garden in the Land of Israel will benefit, in particular, from plantings of cilantro and fennel since they are drought tolerant, deter insect pests, and produce abundant seeds for continuous planting from year to year. Fennel has the added bonus of attracting those breathtaking black and yellow swallowtail butterflies.
La'anah (Artemisia herba-alba Asso) is called wormwood because of its ability to cure stomach disorders, long associated - inaccurately - with the presence of worms. The distinctive taste of vermouth - verm means worm in German - is provided by wormwood extract. Absinthe is another drink distilled from Artemisia or wormwood.
Feliks sees significance in the juxtaposition of a moisture-loving (hemlock) and a drought resistant (wormwood) species. The Torah speaks of these opposite types of plants as having a common root or stock. The ability to indulge in every desire - even those opposed to your holy nature - and still prosper is the ultimate boast of the arrogant one who thinks "I will have peace, whatever whims possess me" (Deuteronomy 29:18).
It is as though exaggerated living at the extremes is feasible because of some uncanny ability to thrive under any conditions. The idol worshiper - who makes every circumstance a tool for his pleasure - is compared to a hemlock-wormwood hybrid, a botanical monstrosity that could theoretically live under both wet and dry conditions. But the idea of unregulated indulgence without consequences is an illusion. The very act of prospering in all environments turns a person into a toxic, even deadly creature. It was perhaps for this reason that God made the Land of Israel dependent on rainfall, which was often sparse. In this way, people could not take their prosperity for granted and, in praying for rain, would be compelled to direct their attention toward heaven.
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