Torah study

Snow and Chocolate

Your lips drop sweetness as the honeycomb, my bride; milk and honey are under your tongue. The fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
— Song Of Songs 4:11

Snow and chocolate. Now I have your attention. This week, a lot of the North East is covered in snow and after the initial appeal of its silence and beauty, it seems that it's put a lot of people in a bad mood. Digging out cars, wading in slush, recouping financial losses and occupying bored children and their parents can be trying, even for the most patient. This week, the world also lost a chocolate king: Mr. Michele Ferrero. The maker of Nutella and lots of well-known confectionary delights from Ferrero Rocher chocolates to Kinder Eggs, Ferrero died in his home in Monte Carlo at age 89. He was one of Italy's wealthiest men, and he made products that put people in a good mood. The message this week: fight snow with chocolate.

The human desire for sweetness is well-documented in the Hebrew Bible and usually associated with honey, the natural sweetener most common in the ancient Near East. The verse above from Song of Songs describes the lips of a lover as dropping sweetness as the honeycomb. On the face of it, the text is describing the potency and magic of a romantic kiss following the seduction of taste with the magnetic pull of fragrance. The sages of old reinterpreted the first part of the verse to refer to the study of Torah, which is like "milk and honey" under the tongue, and the second - the smell of clothing - as mitzvot related to clothing: tzitzit, tallit, the clothing of the priestly class.

A brief tour of verses from Proverbs and Psalms associates sweetness with Torah study, kindness and wisdom:

β€œThe wise in heart are called prudent, and the sweetness of the lips increases learning,”
— Proverbs 16:21
Kind words are like honey, sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.
— Proverbs 16:24
My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
— Proverbs 24:13
If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it out,
— Proverbs 25:16
How sweet are Your words to my taste. Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth.
— Psalms 119:103

These verses all suggest that language that is sweet will reach across the abyss of distance and create intimacy if eaten in moderation. If wisdom is associated with sweetness, it will have greater reach and impact. Just think of a harsh or particularly cruel teacher and how learning shriveled in his or her classroom. Sweetness expands our capacity for knowledge, kindness and self-discovery. Bitterness diminishes us and it diminishes learning. We don't often remember the specific lessons we learned from someone or the conversations, but the general emotional associations of sweetness or bitterness linger and leave a particular taste in our mouths long after distinct memories have faded.

According to The New York Times obituary of Michele Ferrero, Nutella was created during wartime rations. Because cocoa was hard to get and expensive, Ferrero's father - who owned a pastry shop - used hazelnuts and a cocoa blend to produce a less expensive but still very sweet spread. In 1964, his son rebranded the product as Nutella. A commemorative Nutella stamp was issued last year in Italy to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

The Ferrero family took the bitterness of war and offered us a product with lingering associations of sweetness. To amplify the importance of sweet associations, we have a very old custom that when children study Hebrew texts for the first time, we put honey on the letters that they lick off the page. The idea is that at the very germinating of literacy, a child associates Jewish learning with that which is sweet.

In the book of Judges, Samson killed a lion and later saw a honeycomb in its carcass. He created a riddle out of the experience: "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." [14:14]. Although it was a visual enigma, it was also offering a message to live with riddles, like the contradiction of something strong bringing forth sweetness. It's a worthy aspiration. Now close your eyes for a moment and think of a learning experience of strength and sweetness and a person who is strong and sweet. What ingredients combined to create that lingering association? Consider the lingering associations others - children, parents, colleagues -  have with your words, your actions and your wisdom.

Bitter or sweet?

Shabbat Shalom