Sunday, February 7, 2016

Week 22 (From the Book): To Complement Each Other in Happiness

The sea monsters[1] say: "Praise G-d from the land, the sea monsters and all the depths." (Psalms 148:7)

Rabbi Dusta'i the son of Rabbi Yannai would say in the name of Rabbi Meir: Anyone who forgets even a single word of this learning, the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life. As is stated, "Just be careful, and verily guard your soul, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen" (Deuteronomy 4:9). One might think that this applies also to one who [has forgotten because] his studies proved too difficult for him; but the verse goes on to tell us "and lest they be removed from your heart, throughout the days of your life." Hence, one does not forfeit his life unless he deliberately removes them from his heart.

Chesed shebeNetzach (kindness within the context of victory and endurance)

In the twenty-second week, in Perek Shirah, the sea monsters sing that the Lord is to be praised on earth as well as in the depths. (Psalm 148:7) This is the week of Rosh Chodesh Adar. The month of Adar corresponds to the zodiac sign of Pisces. Therefore, it is very much appropriate that the water creatures in Perek Shirah be the ones to sing during the four weeks of this month.

Adar is the month of Purim, and when it begins, we “increase in joy.” The depths mentioned in the song of the sea monsters refer to the deep and hidden miracles that Hashem performed for us during this month, especially on Purim.

The month of Adar is represented by the tribe of Naftali. Naftali, and Adar as a whole, is also connected to the quality of being an emissary, a sheliach. Jacob’s blessing of Naftali describes him as an ayalah shlucha (a gazelle that is sent-off). Naftali was sent as a messenger on various occasions. In Moses’s blessing at the end of the Torah, Naftali is described as seva ratzon, satisfied will. The attribute of ratzon, will, is part of the sefirah of keter, the highest of the sefirot, which literally means crown. Interestingly, Naftali is the only tribe described as a feminine animal, and its link to keter appears to be connected to the fact that the hero of this month is a woman who was sent on a mission to obtain the crown, Queen Esther.

Like Queen Esther, the tribe of Naftali is also a symbol of self-sacrifice and humility. Even though the tribe was known for its speed and alacrity,[2] its prince accepted to be the last ones to bring an offering during the inauguration of the Tabernacle.[3] Being a sheliach requires enormous nullification and submission to the one that sends him or her, as well as tremendous will power, ratzon, to see to it that the mission gets accomplished.

The sheliach qualities and self-nullification of Naftali also appears to be related to the phrase, “Ve‘anochi Tola’at ve lo Ish,” which means, “I am a worm and not a man.” Velo Ish, not a man, has the same numerical value as Sheliach. This phrase is taken from Psalm 22 (the same number as this week), which has in its open verse, the term “ayelet hashachar, the gazelle of the morning. As mentioned above, the gazelle is connected to Naftali. Our sages teach us that “ayelet hashachar” is also a reference to the planet Venus, the last “star” to appear in the sky before morning, and a reference to Queen Ester, the last prophet to appear before redemption.

Similarly, Adar is the last month of the Jewish calendar counting from Nissan. As mentioned above, the prince of Naftali was the last tribe to bring an offering at the inauguration of the Tabernacle, wrapping up the work done by the previous tribe, Asher, and that of the other tribes. That is the work of the sheliach and ours as well, to wrap up the work done by those before us, and bring Mashiach.    

Adar is the only month in the Jewish calendar that is often counted twice. Seven times every nineteen years, the Jewish calendar contains two Adar months: Adar I and Adar II. Adar II is represented by the tribe of Levi. As would be expected, there are strong parallels between Levi and Naftali. Like Naftali, which was known for its speed and alacrity, the Levites, especially the kohanim, were known for their alacrity and care in the performance of mitzvot. Furthermore, the Levites (and again, the kohanim in particular) served as emissaries for the entire Jewish people when performing their service in the Temple. As further explained in the weeks ahead, the Levites service was characterized by tremendous self-sacrifice. There is also another interesting link between the tribe of Levi and the sea animals we read about during this month. The animals in the sea did not perish during the Flood. Similarly, the tribe of Levi was never enslaved by the Egyptians.
As demonstrated by the above paragraph, Adar contains a very strong theme of duality. The zodiac sign of Pisces is also related to duality: its symbol is two fish facing opposite directions. Unlike other redemptions, the Purim story has not one, but two main heroes: Esther and Mordechai. It is also in the month of Adar that we fulfill the mitzvah of giving the half-shekel. The half-shekel was a contribution made to the Temple in order that sacrifices could be brought on behalf of the entire public. The mitzvah is still done during the month of Adar, although for now it plays more of a symbolic role. Each person’s giving a half-shekel, as opposed to a whole one, symbolizes the idea that no Jew is complete by him or herself. Each of us complements the other.

The number twenty-two represents the total number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Hashem used these letters to create the Torah and the world by combining them to each other. In this sense, each of the letters complements the other. Similarly, the Torah begins with the letter beit, representing the idea of duality and relationship, the relationship between Hashem and His creation.

Duality and relationship are also found in the song of the sea monsters. At first glance it appears strange that the sea monsters should be singing about praising Hashem on land as well as in the depths of the sea. However, the sea monsters understand that their song is not enough by itself. It must be complemented by the songs in the land as well.

The duality of the month of Adar is also one the contrast between “the hidden” and “the revealed.” The miracle of Purim was performed through “hidden” means, and despite the hand of G-d being more than apparent in the events that led to the Jewish redemption of this month, the actual name of G-d does not appear in the Purim story found in the Megillah. The name of the scroll we read, Megillat Esther, is further evidence of this duality. Megillah comes from the verb nigleh (revealed) and nistar (hidden). In the song of the sea monsters, the sea depths represent that which is hidden, while the land represents that which is revealed.

The song of the sea monsters is also reminiscent of the blessing Jacob gave to his two grandchildren, Ephraim and Menashe (here again, the number two appears): "You will multiply like fish in the face of the land [not the water].” Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh explains that the gematria of Naftali, which represents Adar, is equal to the gematria of Ephraim and Menashe.

This week, the lesson in Pirkei Avot comes from Rabbi Dusta’i the son of Yannai, who states that forgetting one’s study is comparable to committing a mortal sin. One of the main mitzvot of the month of Adar is remembering the evil done by Amalek and the Divine commandment to destroy it. If we do not remember to destroy evil, we put our own lives in danger.

The combination of sefirot for this week is chesed shebenetzach, kindness within victory. In the month of Adar, we increase in joy. This week marks the beginning of two months of victory and redemption - netzach - associated with Purim and Passover. We celebrate the kindness G-d showed us by being more joyful than usual. (This week would also represent the “eighth week,” of Shavuot and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of Tiferet)

The lesson in self-improvement we learn from the sea monsters is that it is not sufficient to praise G-d just by ourselves. We must also think of those who are distant, just as the sea monsters think of those on land.

[1] Rabbi Lazer Brody translates this animal as “giant sea creatures.”
[2] Rashi explains that the gazelle runs quickly, and that this is the meaning behind Jacob’s blessing to Naftali. (Genesis 49:21, Rashi; See also the Rebbe's sicha, chassidic discourse, for the 12th Day of Nissan, 5747, available at: Rashi also explains there that the men of Naftali dispatched towards the enemy with alacrity, zrizut. Zrizut is also the main characteristic of the Kohanim, of the tribe of Levi, which is also represented by the month of Adar, as further explained below.
[3] Ryzman, p. 109

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Week 21 (From the Book): To Keep Things in Perspective

The fly, when Israel is not busying itself with Torah, is saying: "The voice said, 'Call out'. And he said, 'What shall I call out? All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field.' ‘…The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord shall endure forever.’" "I will create a new expression of the lips: Peace, peace for him who is far off and for him who is near, says G-d, and I will heal him." (Isaiah 40:6,8; 57:19)
Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, "How beautiful is this tree!", "How beautiful is this ploughed field!"---the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.
Malchut shebeTiferet (kingship within the context of beauty and balance)
On the twenty-first week, coming to the end of the month of Shvat, in Perek Shirah the fly calls out to the Jewish people when they are not engaging in the study of Torah. The song of the fly appears to be a kind of dialogue. One voice exclaims, "Call out!" and then a second voice responds, "What shall I say? All life is like the grass and the flower of the field… the grass withers and the flower fades... but the word of the Lord our G-d shall stand forever. The Creator of speech of the lips is saying, Peace, peace to the distant and to the near, says the Lord, and I shall heal." (Isaiah 40:6-8 and 57:19). This week marks the yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe’s wife, on the 22nd of Shevat.
Soon after Tu B'Shvat, when we emphasize the importance of trees and nature, the fly comes to remind us that nature and life itself, although beautiful, pleasurable, and meaningful, are ultimately fleeting. Even though they are a reflection of the Creator, but it is ultimately only the Creator Himself, and those indelibly attached to Him, that are eternal. Interestingly, flies do not disturb the tzadikim. Perhaps this explains why we only know the song that the fly sings when the Jews are not studying Torah. When we are truly engaged in the study of Torah, we are all tzadikim. Flies do not approach us, and therefore we cannot know what they are singing.
The fly reminds us of one of the most beautiful and happy stories of our people linked to a woman: the story of Ishah Shunamit, the Shunammite woman. This woman performed the great mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, hospitality, based on a tradition inherited from our father Abraham. She prepared a special room for the prophet Elisha to always be able to stay with her and her husband. The Talmud and the Zohar explain that she understood the greatness of the prophet Elisha, because she never saw a fly land on his table.[1] This story is about the sanctification of pleasure – Elisha’s table was like the Temple’s altar, where there were never any flies, despite the constant meat and blood.
Even though she was childless, the Ishah Shunamit was always very satisfied with what she had. When asked by the prophet if she needed anything, she replied by stating, "I dwell within my people." Her behavior towards Elisha the prophet, the disciple of Elijah, is one of the prime biblical examples of humility, modesty, kindness and hospitality.
These characteristics also find expression in the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. The Rebbetzin also had no children of her own, yet considered all her "people," the Chassidim, to be her children. She was the Rebbe’s best friend and most devout partner throughout his life. The Rebbetzin was also known for her great kindness, hospitality, and modesty, which she learned from the home of her father, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. (See Week 19)
The number twenty-one is the sum of the first three letters of Hashem’s name. Interestingly, 21 is also the square root of 441, the gematria (numeric value) of the Hebrew word Emet, truth, which, as explained in Week 4, is G-d’s “seal.” This continues building on the above themes of maintaining the proper focus on Hashem and his eternal truth. 
The lesson in Pirkei Avot for the week after Tu B'Shvat, taught by Rabbi Yaakov, continues on this same theme: “When one is on a path studying Torah, if one interrupts his study and exclaims: ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field,’ it is considered by Scripture as if he were endangering his life. (III:7) Rabbi Yaakov’s words parallel the song of the fly. We must maintain our focus on what is truly important and everlasting, and continue in our main path, which is to advance in our study and transmission of Torah knowledge. The study of the eternal words of the Creator should not be interrupted in order to enjoy fleeting occurrences or even to exalt His own Creation.[2]
During this week, we complete the third cycle of seven weeks, and the sefirah combination results in Malchut shebeTiferet: kingship within beauty. Malchut is a female sefirah. The truest and everlasting feminine beauty is inner beauty, as the verse in Psalms states, "Kol Kvudah Bat Melech Pnimah, all the glory [and beauty] of the princess is within.” Similarly, one of the last verses of Eshet Chayil sung before Kiddush on Shabbat night, "charm is deceitful and beauty is vanity; a woman that is G-d-fearing, she is the one to be praised." These verses are also one of the last verses in Solomon’s Book of Proverbs. King Solomon, who also wrote Ecclesiastes, knew very well which things were of permanent value, and which were simply “vanity of vanities.”
Similarly, we can learn from the fly the invaluable lesson that while most things are temporary, Hashem and His Torah are eternal and permanent. Therefore, we should also try to strengthen even more our connection with G-d, speaking directly to Him – there is no need of intermediaries. Healing always comes through Him, and only the ways of the Torah can bring true peace and satisfaction.

[1] Brachot 10b
[2] The Maggid of Mezritch explains that this teaching is referring to someone who stops learning in order to reflect on how much he has learned. (Marcus, p. 91) The 22nd of Shevat  is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, known for cutting through people’s “flowery” egocentric behavior and focusing completely on the truth.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Judge Not

Judge Not
If I pass
On this
If I choose
Just to
Stay in
My place
If I sing
To the
Few and
The tender
Believe me,
It won't
All go
To waste.
And if you
Don't, it's
With me.

Monday, January 25, 2016

                              Vigesima Semana: Celebrando Tu B'Shvat 
                                    Firmeza, Equilibrio e Generosidade

            Nesta semana celebramos Tu B’Shvat, Ano Novo das Arvores.

           A aranha é o vigésimo animal do Perek Shirá que brada ao Povo de Israel para que O louve com o clangor de címbalos; louve-O com altissonantes trombetas (Salmo 150:5).

Para o Rei David, a quem o Perek Shirá é atribuído, a aranha tem um significado muito especial. O Midrash ensina que David se perguntou porque D’us fez a aranha. O motivo foi compreendido muito depois, quando fugindo do Rei Saul, entrou numa caverna. Nesse momento, milagrosamente, uma aranha teceu uma teia na entrada. Quando os homens de Saul passaram e viram aquela teia, concluiram que ninguém poderia ter entrado na caverna recentemente. Então partiram, sem se preocupar em vistoriar a caverna. A teia de aranha não só salvou a vida do Rei David, mas também o fez entender que tudo que D’us faz tem um propósito glorioso. Talvez tenha sido por isso que o Rei David destinou o verso da aranha no Perek Shirá para a semana de Tu B'Shvat, ponto alto da celebração da natureza no judaísmo. O versículo da aranha vem do Salmo 150 - o último do Livro dos Salmos -, que serve como ápice do louvor à D’us.

A teia é um exemplo de equilíbrio como a árvore. Os dois são testemunhos da grandeza de D’us e complexidade de Sua criação. Certas árvores e a teia de aranha são delicadas mas aguentam ventos fortes! Uma das razões para isso é que tanto a árvore como a teia de aranha absorvem o impacto do vento com equilíbrio e flexibilidade, sem se quebrar ou cair.

O Pirkê Avot desta semana está no ensinamento do Rabi Elazar de Bartota que disse: dá a Ele do que é Seu, pois tu e tudo que é teu é d’Ele; assim disse David: tudo nos vem de Ti, e da Tua mão damos para Ti (Cap. III: 7, I Livro de Crônicas 29:14). Nesta semana de Tu B’Shvat lembramos dos frutos do dízimo. Através da natureza, D’us nos presenteia com frutos. Assim, nada mais natural que, em retorno, ofertemos uma parte desses frutos de volta a Ele.

Nesta semana o produto final entre as sefirot resulta em yesod shebetiferet. Tu B’Shvat e as árvores representam os conceitos desta combinação: fundação, beleza e equilíbrio. Portanto, uma lição que se depreende da aranha é a de que, com confiança total, voz alta e firme (como o tilintar dos címbalos), podemos servir de exemplo, ajudar e influenciar outros a acreditar que tudo tem uma razão de ser.

Tu B'Shvat

Tu B'Shvat

The best is when
You start from scratch
All that could fail
Indeed fell flat.

And now, the Skies
Open to your plea
Give you a chance
To breathe and see.

To create anew
Just like He did
Something from none

And that small seed
Blown in the wind
Will find new lands
New shades, new kin.

And water, too.
And yes, some sun,
Who would have thought
It'd be so fun.

Life is so good 
When you are there
Not to decide
All that is fair.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Week 20 (From the Book): To Be Solid and Giving in Our Relationships

The spider is saying, "Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!" (Psalms 150:5)

Rabbi Elazar of Bartota would say: Give Him what is His, for you, and whatever is yours, are His. As David says: "For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand we give to You" (I Chronicles 29:14).

Yesod shebeTiferet (foundation and firmness within the context of beauty and balance)

The spider is the twentieth animal in Perek Shirah. It cries out to the Jewish people to praise G-d with clanging cymbals and sounding trumpets (Psalm 150:5). This is the week of Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees.

For King David, to whom Perek Shirah is attributed, the spider had a very special significance. A Midrash teaches that once King David pondered on the purpose of why G-d had created the spider – he could not find a purpose for it. Later, when King David was fleeing from Saul, he entered a cave. A spider then spun an entire web at its entrance. When Saul’s men saw the spider’s web they figured no one could have been inside the cave for long, so they went away, not bothering to check the cave. The spider’s web not only saved his life, but also made him realize that everything that G-d creates has a glorious purpose. That is perhaps why King David reserved the spider for Tu B’Shvat itself, the New Year of the Trees, and the high point of Judaism’s celebration of nature, and why the verse of the spider comes from the very last Psalm, which also serves as a culmination of G-d’s praise.

There is also a remarkable parallel between spider webs and trees. A tree takes a long time to grow, but eventually it bears fruit. Similarly, the spider takes a long time to make its web, and its "fruits" are the insects caught in it. The spider web is an example of balance and resistance, just like a tree. Both the tree and the spider web are somewhat delicate, yet can withstand very strong winds, due to their ability absorb impact flexibility, without breaking or falling. Both are testimonies to G-d’s greatness and to the complexity of His creation.

The number twenty represents two complete units. It represents an intensification of the concepts of duality and relationship represented by the number two. In addition, twenty is the age of full maturity, when a man may be enlisted for war, and is expected to fully provide for his own sustenance. Beginning at the age of twenty, we are held accountable for our actions in the Heavenly court.

The Pirkei Avot teaching of this week comes from Rabbi Elazar of Bartota, who states: give to Him what is His, for you and all that is yours is His, as said King David: everything comes from You, and from Your hand we give to You (Pirkei Avot 3:7, Chronicles I 29:14). It is very appropriate that King David be quoted since the Perek Shirah section of this week is so intrinsically related to him.

Tzedakah, in a general sense, is the commandment to give charity, and comes from the word justice. The Tanya explains that is arguably the highest of all mitzvoth because when we give tzedakah, a part of our livelihood and sustenance, it is as if we are giving away part of our very lives. We usually have to fight very hard to obtain this money, and to give it away is the ultimate realization that everything we have is really a gift from Hashem. Even after Hashem gives, it still remains His, because ultimately He is the Supreme Owner and Ruler over everything.

Rabbi Elazar’s statement is also related to Tu B'Shvat, because the first fruits one would reap would be brought as an offering to the Temple, and all fruits require ma'aser (tithing). In fact, on Tu B’Shvat is when one would first be obligated to bring the tithe of the fruits, and that is why it is called the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees. Hashem is the One who grants us various kinds of fruits and produce. It is therefore appropriate that we give (at least) ten percent of these to Him in return, just as we are supposed to set aside at least ten percent of our income towards tzedakah.

A similar principal holds true when it comes to transmitting the Oral Torah. One has to be extremely conscious that one is transmitting that which comes from and belongs to G-d, the Ultimate Teacher. Both regarding what one receives directly from a teacher as well as new Torah insights that appear to have been independently conceived, everything comes from G-d. He grants us knowledge for safekeeping, and for us to put to the best use possible. There is also a concept of “tithing” one’s time to teach Torah.
In this week, the resulting sefirah combination is yesod shebetiferet. On Tu B'Shvat, we see that a tree represents this very concept: a foundation that has both beauty and balance.

We learn from the spider that with total confidence, and with a loud and firm voice (like the smashing of cymbals), we can be good examples and good influences on others. We can help others understand that we are never alone – we all have the inner strength that comes from having G-d always on our side.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Seventh Set of 22 Days: Mem & Nun, Sun and Moon

Tonight, the 12th of Shevat, begins the seventh set of 22 days of the Jewish calendar, which parallels the letters Mem and Nun, as well as the Sun and the Moon in Perek Shirah. This 22-day period begins in Shevat and runs through the beginning of Adar. Because this year is a Jewish leap year, it will span the entire month of Adar I and run for a full 49-day cycle.

Mem is middle letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It's central role is also reflected in Hebrew words for many of the fundamental parts of nature, such as Mother (Em), Water (Mayim), Shamayim (Sky), and Shemesh (Sun). Mem, along with Alef and Shin, is also known as one of the "mother-letters" in Kabbalah

Nun stands for the Divine attribute (sefirah) of Malchut, Kingship, and is related to one of the names for Mashiach: Yinon. (Likutei Moharan) Nun also means "fish" in Aramaic, and is associated closely with Moshe Rabbeinu. Joshua is called Yehoshua Bin Nun, the son of Nun, because a teacher (in this case, Moshe) is like a parent.

In Kabbalah, the sun is connected to Chochmah, wisdom. The moon is Malchut, as it reflects the light of the sun, in a way that can be absorbed by the naked eye. This phenomenon also very much represents the idea of the Oral Torah. Talmud teaches that Moshe was like the sun, while his disciple, Joshua, was like the moon. (Bava Batra, 75a) 

The Sun is saying: "The sun [when covered by] the moon, stood in its abode; they speed at the light of Your arrows, and at the shining of your glittering spear." (Habakuk 3:11)

The Moon is saying: "He made the moon for the festivals; the sun knows the time of its coming." (Psalm 104:19)

It is fascinating how the song of the sun refers to the moon, while the song of the moon refers to the sun. The sun and the moon represent the ultimately duality, often found in many aspects of nature.

Shevat is very much a celebration of nature. On Tu B'Shvat, we celebrate the New Year of the Trees. As explained previously, Shevat is also very much associated with the Oral Torah.

In the calendar, the sun determines the days, weeks, and seasons, while the moon determines the months. It is around this time of year that the cycles of the sun and the moon have to completely align. That is why often, 7 times every 19 years, the Jewish calendar contains not one, but two months of Adar.

Adar is also very much about duality, particularly the holiday of Purim, which contain so many pairs, sometimes complementary and sometimes antithetical: Mordechai and Esther, Haman and Achashverosh, Mordechai and Haman... Purim, and the mitzvot associated with the day, are also very much tied to the letter Mem: Mishloach Manot, Matanot L'Evionim, Mikrah Megillah, etc. Finally, Adar and Purim in particular is associated with the Sha'ar HaNun, the 50th gate. 

Adar is the month of Pisces (fish, Nun). The 7th of Adar is also the date of the birth, as well of the passing, of Moshe Rabbeinu.