We have finished the first of our four glasses of wine. We have just sat down after the first of the two hand washings. Now, we partake of a vegetable dipped in salt water or vinegar. With the blessing of borei pri ha’adamah on our lips and the first sign of spring in our hands, we eat our first food of the evening. Like a reenactment of Persephone’s return from Hades, we connect to this first taste of spring. However, our excitement of this rite of spring is overshadowed by the salty taste reminding us of the sweaty, backbreaking labor of slavery.
But what of those who dip in vinegar? How are they to connect the vinegar to a deeper message about the day or the ritual of dipping? There is a story from the Talmud that seems pertinent to us in this moment. We learn:
Once, four hundred jars of wine belonging to Rav Huna turned sour. Rav Yehudah, the brother of Rav Sala the Pious, and the other scholars—some say: Rav Adda ben Ahava and the other scholars—went in to visit him [Rav Huna] and said to him: The master ought to examine his actions.
He [Rav Huna] said to them: Am I suspect in your eyes?
They replied: Is the Holy One, blessed be God, suspect of punishing without justice?
He [Rav Huna] said to them: If somebody has heard of anything against me, let him speak out.
They replied: We have heard that the master does not give his tenant his [lawful share in the] vine twigs [i.e., fair wages for his work].
He replied: Does he leave me any? He [the tenant farmer] steals them all!
They said to him: That is exactly what people say: If you steal from a thief you also have a taste of it!
He said to them: I pledge myself to give it to him [in the future]. Some report that thereupon the vinegar became wine again; others that the vinegar went up so high [in value] that it was sold for the same price as wine. (Berachot 5b)
Rav Huna, a third-century CE amora, was unwilling to see his misfortune as mere happenstance. As the head of the Academy in Sura, it is clear that Rav Huna wanted to improve himself. After some coaxing, his peers informed him that he was not providing the tenants of his vineyard what was perceived as a fair wage. So, instead of punishing the tenants for stealing from him, Rav Huna paid them a fair wage. The taste of the vinegar was a reminder to Rav Huna to be meticulous in his business dealings, and the ensuing miracle speaks to the significance of his redemptive act.
While there are profound demands on us to see to an end to dire poverty, the very same Rav Huna challenges us to say that this is not enough. We learn:
When he [Rav Huna] had a meal he would open the door wide and declare, “Whosoever is in need let him come and eat.” (Taanit 20b)
It was not just on Passover that Rav Huna opened up his home to the needy. Rav Huna also teaches us that we need to be punctilious in business dealings and not just focus on the most needy or impoverished. Every working person needs to be paid a fair wage, especially those responsible for bringing food to our tables. Rav Huna further teaches us to open our homes and our hearts not only to those who are starving, but to anyone in need. Passover is an occasion for us to reflect on our behavior throughout the whole year. If we allow ourselves to taste the vinegar of the karpas, we will come to taste freedom all year.