Monday, January 19, 2015

Week 18 (From the Book): To Live in Harmony with Nature in a Manner that is Above Nature

PEREK SHIRAH: The grasshopper is saying, "I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where shall my help come from?" (Psalms 121:1)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Nechunia the son of Hakanah would say: One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah is saddled with the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares.

SEFIROT: Netzach shebeTiferet (victory and endurance within the context of beauty and balance)

In the eighteenth week, of Rosh Chodesh Shevat, it is the turn of the grasshopper to call out to G-d, stating: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence will my help come?(Psalm 121:1) The song of the grasshopper is one of prayer and faith.

The song of the grasshopper, the eighteenth animal, is so closely tied to the song of the eighth animal, the swift. The swift’s song is the verse that immediately follows the grasshopper’s. It answers the grasshopper’s question, singing: “My help comes from the Lord, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” (Psalm 121:2) As mentioned above, the number eight is connected to that which is extraordinary, beyond nature.
The grasshopper’s song seems to always fall in the weeks in which we read the weekly Torah portions of Vaera or Bo. These portions depict the plagues (including that of locusts) inflicted on the Egyptians, perhaps the ultimate example of help coming directly from G-d, in a manner that is completely beyond nature.
The month of Shevat is marked by Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, which occurs on the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat. There is a debate in the Mishnah as to whether the New Year of the Trees should be celebrated on Rosh Chodesh Shevat or on the fifteenth, as is the custom.

The month of Shevat is deeply tied to the concept of faith. We celebrate the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees while still in the midst of winter.

Shevat represents the tribe of Asher, and is related to ta'anug, “pleasure” or “delight.” According to the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the word asher also means delight, from the word ashruni.[1] Furthermore, Asher receives a blessing from his father Jacob that he will “bring delicacies to the king.” On Tu B’Shvat, we drink wine and eat many different kinds of fruit, all of which is very much tied to the above concepts. However, this month is not only tied to physical delights, but to spiritual and intellectual delights as well. Shevat, and particularly Rosh Chodesh, is also deeply connected to the Oral Torah. It was on this day that Moses began reviewing the teachings he had taught to the Jewish people during their forty years in the desert. This review is what comprises the entire Book of Deuteronomy. So connected is Shevat to the Oral Torah, that the Chidushei HaRim states that all insights one has in developing novel Torah ideas come to a person during the month of Shevat.[2]

The transmission and development of the Oral Torah requires a fundamental character trait: humility. Without humility, one cannot teach in a pure and objective way exactly that which he or she learned from the previous generation. Humility is the hallmark characteristic of Moses, the humblest of men, and the first to transmit the Oral Torah, which he received directly from G-d.

Perhaps this emphasis on humility is the reason why in Perek Shirah, the insects, the humblest of animals, are the ones to sing during each of the four weeks of Shevat. As King David, another great example of humility and an important link in the chain of the Oral Tradition, once said, "Ani Tola'at Velo Ish," "I am a worm and not a man."[3]

It is well known that the number eighteen represents life, which in Hebrew is chai. For this reason, it is customary among Jews to make donations in multiples of chai. Rosh Chodesh Shvat and Tu B’Shvat are, in a way, much more than simply a celebration of trees, but a celebration of life in general, and not just human life. 

The chai of something is not only associated with its life, but also with its essence. The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe were both born on Chai Elul, literally known as the life as well as the essence of Elul. The date that marks the death of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is the eighteenth of the month, chai of Tishrei. Interestingly, the festival of Lag Ba’Omer is also on the eighteenth, chai of Iyar. Eighteen is also the number of blessings in the Shmoneh Esreh, which is also known as the Amidah, or simply as Tefilah, prayer, because it represents the essence of prayer.

Prayer is also related to the realization that the life of a Jew is anything but natural. Our life, sustenance, and salvation come from G-d, Who is beyond this world, as expressed in the songs of the grasshopper and the swift.

The Pirkei Avot for this week it taught by Rabbi Nechunia son of Hakanah: "whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke government and the yoke of worldly obligations are withdrawn from him; but whoever casts off the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly obligations are imposed on him.” (III: 5) On Rosh Chodesh Shevat, Rabbi Nechunia is advising us to take upon ourselves the study and devotion to the Torah, the Tree of Life, Etz Chayim, which is above the world. If we do not, we subject ourselves to the world’s obligations. By depicting the Torah as a yoke, Rabbi Nechunia also appears to be making reference to the humility and self-sacrifice necessary for acquiring it. Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk teaches that although we know many examples of sages and Torah scholars that had worldly obligations and were even professionals, they did not feel that such obligations were a yoke or source of concern.[4]

This week, the combination of the sefirot is netzach shebetiferet: victory and persistence within beauty and balance. A tree represents a balance between roots, trunks, branches and leaves – it is only by having such a balance that the tree survives. Without roots, or with too many branches, a tree cannot stand. Without enough branches and leaves, trees cannot create enough energy to fully grow. In Shevat, still in the midst of winter, the tree has to persist and struggle in order to survive. (A similar equilibrium is required when balancing the yoke of Torah with the yoke of government and worldly obligations – the balance is required is often different for each individual person, as well as during different periods in their lives.

We learn from the song of the grasshopper that help will always come from G-d, as long as we are willing to lift our eyes above our limited perspective, and look up, to the mountains. The Midrash teaches us that the mountains are also a reference to our patriarchs, and that it is largely in merit of their deeds that G-d saves us. It is important to try to perceive more than just our current situation. Let us focus instead on the whole of our existence: who we are and where we came from: our parents.





[1] Likutei Diburim, Vol. III, p.137
[2] Ryzman, p. 89
[3] Psalms 22:7; In Chapter 12 of Tzava'at Harivash, the Ba’al Shem Tov further expands on this point:

Do not think that by worshipping with deveikut you are greater than another. You are like any other creature, created for the sake of His worship, blessed be He. G-d gave a mind to the other just as He gave a mind to you.

What makes you superior to a worm? The worm serves the Creator with all its mind and strength! Man, too, is a worm and maggot, as it is written “I am a worm and no man.” (Psalms 22:7) If G-d had not given you intelligence you would not be able to worship Him but like a worm. Thus you are no better than a worm, and certainly [no better] than [other] people.

Bear in mind that you, the worm and all other small creatures are considered as equals in the world. For all were created and have but the ability given to them by the blessed Creator.

Always keep this matter in mind.
[4] Marcus, p. 87

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sixth Set of 22 Days: Kaf & Lamed, Day and Night

 
11
6th Cycle
Caf
Day
14. The king of Hormah, one;
Eliashib
Proverbs, Chapter 11
Psalm 112
6. In the morning, it blossoms and passes away; in the evening, it is cut off and withers.
1:35 AM
Three weeks from Mid-Tevet to Yud Shvat
12
 
Lamed
Night
the king of 'Arad, one;
Gamul
Proverbs, Chapter 12
Psalm 119
ו. בַּבֹּקֶר יָצִיץ וְחָלָף לָעֶרֶב יְמוֹלֵל וְיָבֵשׁ:
1:47 AM
 
 
Thursday, the 19th of Teveth began the sixth set of 22 days of the Jewish calendar, which parallels the letters Kaf and Lamed, as well as the Day and the Night in Perek Shirah. This 22-day period begins in Teveth and runs through almost half of Shevat.

Kaf is connected to the Hebrew word Keter, crown, which in Kabbalah is connected to those aspects of the soul that are above intellect: Emunah (faith), Ta'anug (pleasure), and Ratzon (desire). Kaf also means the palm of the hand, or a spoon, both of which are slightly bent in order to serve as a receptacle, a kli (which is also with the letter Kaf).

Lamed is the root of the words Lilmod (to study) and Lelamed (to teach). The Lamed is particularly connected with the Oral Torah, the part of the Torah which was never intended to be written down, but instead was transmitted orally from teacher to student.

In Kabbalah, the Day is connected to intellect, while the night represents that which is above intellect, particularly Emunah, faith. These concepts can be found in the verses each of the two sing in Perek Shirah:

The Day is saying: "Day to day utters speech, and night to night relates knowledge." (Psalms 19:3)
The Night is saying: "To speak of His kindness in the morning, and of His faithfulness by nights." (Psalm 92:3)

The Hebrew word for knowledge is Da'at, which in Kabbalah is interchangeable with Keter. Faithfulness above, in Hebrew, is Emunah.

Teveth is a time of the year where the nights are particularly long and cold, yet around this time is also when the nights slowly start getting shorter again, and the days start getting longer. Our sages tell us that long nights were given in order to study Torah. Traditionally, the Oral Torah is what is studied by night, while the Written Torah is studied only during the day.

Shevat is particularly connected to all of the above. As explained in Book 1, Shevat is connected to the Tribe of Asher, which stands for Ta'anug (pleasure). Shevat is also very much connected to Emunah, given that we celebrate the New Year of the Trees, Tu B'Shvat, in the middle of the winter. Finally, Shevat is connected to the Oral Torah. Moshe began teaching the Oral Torah to the Jewish People during this month, and the Chidushei HaRim teaches that all insights in the Oral Torah for the entire come to a person during the month of Shevat.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Week 17 (From the Book): To Pay Attention to G-d’s Guidance and to Trust in Our Redemption

PEREK SHIRAH: The bee-eater[1]is saying,"I will whistle to them and gather them, for I have redeemed them, and they shall increase as they have before increased." (Zechariah 10:8)
 
PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina'i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life.
 
SEFIROT: Tiferet shebeTiferet (beauty and balance within the context of beauty and balance)
 
In the seventeenth week, still in the month of Teveth, in Perek Shirah, the bee-eater sings that, “I will whistle [as a Shepherd to his flock] to gather them, because I have redeemed them, and they shall increase as they increased [in the past]. (Zechariah 10:8) The song of the bee-eater has a clear connection with the tribe of Dan, as it explicitly speaks of the power to be fruitful and multiply.
 
This week also marks the yahrzeit of the Alter Rebbe, on the 24th day of Teveth. The Alter Rebbe passed away due in great part to the struggles he faced when running away from Napoleon, during the war between Russia and France. The Alter Rebbe supported Russia’s efforts in the war, for fear that Napoleon’s egalitarian principles would cause assimilation. The Alter Rebbe felt that such spiritual persecution (similar to the threat of the Greeks in the times of Chanukah) was more dangerous than the physical oppression of the Russian government.
 
During the flight from Napoleon, the Alter Rebbe sat in a carriage that was third in line, and his grandson, Rabbi Nachum, would sit in the first carriage. Whenever they would approach a crossroads, the Alter Rebbe would be asked which road to take. In one of the crossroads, Rabbi Nachum mistook the Alter Rebbe’s directions. Much later, when they realized the mistake, “[T]he Alter Rebbe sighed deeply and said: ‘How good is it when a grandson follows in the path of his grandfather – and the opposite is true when a grandfather has to follow the path in which his grandson leads him.’ … The mistake at the crossroads caused all kinds of troublesome detours, and soon after Alter Rebbe passed away in Piena.”[2]
 
The whistle mentioned in the Song of the bee-eater is a metaphor for the various methods that G-d uses guide us and to help a lost Jew return to Him. As further explained in Week 26, and as is well known from Psalm 23, G-d is our Shepherd and we are His flock. Furthermore, the Zohar teaches that Moses was called Rayah Mehemnah, a faithful shepherd (also a shepherd of faith), and that the leader of every generation is like the Moses of that generation, as was the Alter Rebbe. It is important that we follow their advice in order not to lose our way in the darkness of exile, as unfortunately occurred in the above story.
 
It is well known that seventeen is the gematria of tov, which means “good.” Yet, it also connected to exile and to the sad events of the seventeenth of Tammuz, which led to the destruction of the Temple. The Alter Rebbe’s premature and apparently preventable passing presents us with same dilemma. How could G-d have permitted such an occurrence? In fact, the Talmud makes an explicit connection between these two kinds of events, stating that the passing of tzadikim is likened to the burning of the Temple.[3]
 
The Lubavitcher Rebbe specifically addresses this apparent contradiction, both regarding exile as well as regarding the premature passing of a tzadik, in this case, his own father:
 
This is a descent for the purpose of ascent. Indeed, the ascent to be achieved through the Messianic redemption will be great enough to make the time we spend in exile worthwhile.
 
There is no other means for us to reach this high rung. Were we able to make this ascent without going through the pains of exile, G-d surely would not have exposed us to them.
 
The above concept also helps clarify a difficult problem in regard to the death of Tzadikim. (…) The passing of the Tzadik allows us to reach a high level that could not be approached through any other means. Therefore, this ascent compensates for the tremendous loss caused by death.
 
If the above is true regarding the passing of any Tzadik, it surely applies regarding the passing of a Tzadik who sacrificed his life for the entire people. Indeed, his self-sacrifice caused him to die before his time. Surely, the only reason for such a passing is the ascent achieved through it.
 
Seventeen is in fact associated with good, although the full extent of that good is hidden for now. Nowadays, seventeen might be associated primarily with the tragedy of destruction and exile, but in the future, when we fully return to Hashem, He will gather us and redeem us through Mashiach, and we will then understand that everything that happened was genuinely good all along. (Seventeen is also the gematriaof cheit, which means sin, which is the only thing that is truly preventing us from entering the messianic era – as we say in our prayers, “mipnei chateinu galinu m’artzeinu” – because of our sins we have been exile from our land. Therefore, if we truly repent from our sins, we will be immediately redeemed.[4]
 
The Pirkei Avot of this week can be found in the words of Rabbi Chaninah son of Chachina’i, who states: "Whoever stays up at night or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, forfeits his life.” (III: 4) Rabbi Chaninah is referring to the night of exile. In exile, we cannot be isolated and concerned only with vain works in our hearts. We have to be assembled and attentive to the whistle of G-d, and occupy ourselves with the study of Torah, so that we do not lose our way and endanger our lives. This lesson is reminiscent of the story of the passing of the Alter Rebbe. There is also a strong connection between this teaching and the month of Teveth, given that it was negligence regarding proper Torah study that caused the destruction of the Temple.
 
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains the words of Rabbi Chaninah in a completely different light. He explains that travelling alone is in fact a reference to someone who forges his own path in prayer and meditation (hitbodedut) and that the Hebrew word for idleness, batalah, is in fact a reference to bitul, nullification of the self. “Forfeits his life” in Hebrew is mitchayev et nafshoh, which Rebbe Nachman interprets as makes his soul worthy that the whole world be obligated (chayav) to exist. This is the condition of the tzadikof the generation, as was the Alter Rebbe.
 
The combination of the sefirot of the seventeenth week results in tiferet shebetiferet. To survive these cold days and long nights, we have to temper the darkness of exile with the light and inspiration of Chanukah, as well as the Alter Rebbe’s yahrzeit, connecting ourselves with the beauty and balance of the Torah. We must also trust in G-d’s infinite mercy - mercy in Hebrew, Rachamim is another meaning for tiferet– knowing that He will soon bring us out of this exile. The root of the bee-eater’s name in Hebrew, Rachamah, is Rachamim.
 
Similarly, the lesson in self-improvement we can derive from the words of the bee-eater is to hold strong to the conviction that G-d is always with us, guiding us through adversity, and that He will ultimately raise us up. We must not only believe that His call will come, but must also be attentive to it, so that when it does come we do not miss it.
 
 




[1] The Bee-Eater is a type of bird.
[2] Likutei Diburim, Volume I, Chapter 2a, Section 5, pages 34-35
[3] Rosh Hashana 18b
[4] From the Rebbe’s Sichot.
 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Allah huAkhbar

G-d is Great
He is All and
More
 
People peep
Like mice at bar
Holes
 
And make Him
 
small.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Week 16 (from the Book): To Use Adversity as a Way to Grow, Relying on G-d for Support

PEREK SHIRAH: The ducks are saying: "Trust in G-d forever and ever, for G-d, the Eternal, is the strength of worlds." (Isaiah 26:4)
 
PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yochai] would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten of idolatrous sacrifices; as is stated, "Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent" (Isaiah 28:8). But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d's table, as is stated, "And he said to me: This is the table that is before G-d." (Ezekiel 41:22)
 
SEFIROT: Gevurah shebeTiferet (discipline and judgment within the context of beauty and balance)
 
We now come to the sixteenth week, when the ducks proclaim their everlasting trust in G-d, the Eternal Rock (Isaiah 26:4). The song can also be understood as praise, that G-d is the strength of all worlds. During this week of the month of Teveth, we remain connected with the strength of the tribe of Dan, and to its ability to multiply. The Talmud states that Teveth is the coldest month of the year, “when the body takes pleasure in the body.”[1]
 
It is no coincidence that Perek Shirah mentions the ducks in the plural. Ducks multiply quickly and have large families; they travel in groups and rely on each other for survival during migration from the cold. After the destruction of the First Temple, the number of Jewish survivors was very small. According to the Book of Jeremiah, 4,600 people were exiled to Babylon in total. [2] And yet, in a relatively short period of time, the Jewish community in Babylon thrived, becoming numerous, influential, and wealthy.
 
The song of the ducks also appears to be a reference to G-d’s strength as well as to the fact that He grants us the ability to procreate. The name Tzur is a reference to G-d’s strength, but can also be translated as Creator or Craftsman. The word Yotzer, which as the same root as Tzur is used in Tanach specifically as a reference to G-d, who “fashioned you from the womb.”[3]
 
The song also contains a mixture of both masculine and feminine names of G-d. It contains the name formed by the letters yud and heh, which is feminine, and Tzur, which is masculine. In between, the name Hashem is used, which contains both masculine and feminine aspects.
 
Similarly, while last week’s number fifteen contained two letters of Hashem’s name, yudand heh, and was feminine, the number sixteen also contains two letters of Hashem’s name, yud and vav, but is masculine in nature. The yud in Hashem’s name represents the sefirah of chochmah (also known as the “father”) while the vav in His name represents the six masculine emotional sefirot from chesed to yesod (known as Ze'er Anpin). These concepts are in line with this week’s theme of procreation, as well as contrasting     G-d’s masculine and feminine qualities.
 
The number sixteen also contains aspects of strength and support evoked in the song of the ducks. Sixteen is four times four. Just as the number four represents stability, as explained above in the fourth week, so too does the number sixteen express an even higher dimension of such stability.
 
The teaching of Pirkei Avot for this week is found in the lesson of Rabbi Shimon (Bar Yochai): "Three [people] who ate at the same table and did not speak words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten of sacrifices to the lifeless [idols] ... But three [people] who ate at the same table and spoke words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of G-d." (III: 3)
 
Rabbi Shimon speaks of the importance of using words of the Torah, so that we are always connected to Hashem. This teaching of Pirkei Avot is connected to the month of Teveth because, as explained earlier, the disregard for the spiritual importance of Torah study was the cause of the destruction of the First Temple. Rabbi Shimon was the greatest expert of the hidden secrets of the Torah. He understood perfectly how by refraining from words of Torah, one can negatively affect the world.
 
Furthermore, by teaching us about the importance of infusing our meals with words of Torah, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is teaching us how to serve Hashem with our bodies. That is the deeper meaning behind the above Talmudic statement that in this month, “the body takes pleasure in the body.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that by serving Hashem with our bodies, not just with our minds and souls, we bring forth an even deeper impact, affecting Hashem’s “body,” His very essence.[4] In this way, we fulfill G-d’s ultimate desire, which is to build a dwelling place for Him in this lowly realm. If we follow Rabbi Shimon’s advice, our eating a simple meal, becomes as if we were eating from the “table of G-d,” in the Temple. The same can be said for marital relations. It can be the most holy of activities, or the most profane, it all depends on the circumstances and the intentions of the couple.
 
This week, the combination of the sefirot results in gevurah shebetiferet. We recover from the pain of the destruction of the Temple and use our strength and discipline to connect to the balanced and spiritual beauty of the Torah.
 
A lesson in self-improvement that we can learn from the ducks’ words is that we must have total confidence in G-d, relying on Him always, just as we would rely on a strong and stable rock for support.
 



[1] Talmud, Megillah 13a
[2] Chapter 52:28-30
[3] Isaiah 44:2
[4] “Love in the Ice Age,” based on the talks of the Rebbe, ShabatVayeishev 5735 and Shabat Vayigash5750, available at: https://meaningfullife.com/torah/parsha/bereishit/vayigash/Love_in_the_Ice_Age.php
 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Shechem in the Parasha, the Torah Portion of Vayechi

This week's Torah portion describes Jacob's time in Egypt, particularly the blessings he gave to Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, as well as those given to each of his twelve sons before Jacob's passing.

Jacob gives Joseph a double inheritance, making each of his sons, Ephraim and Menashe, one of the twelve tribes to inherit the Land of Israel. Interestingly, Jacob's statement giving Joseph the birthright has also been interpreted as Jacob giving Joseph the city of Shechem, where Joseph is ultimately buried:

22. And I have given you one portion [Shechem Achad] over your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow."

RASHI:
And I have given you: Since you are taking the trouble to occupy yourself with my burial, I have given you an inheritance where you will be buried. And which is this? This is Shechem, as it is said:“And Joseph’s bones, which the children of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried in Shechem” (Josh. 24:32).
 
one portion over your brothers: Heb. אַחַד עַל אַחֶי‏ שְׁכֶם, the actual [city of] Shechem, which will be for you one share over your brothers. [Accordingly, we render: Shechem, [which is] one [share] over your brothers.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 97:6] Another explanation:“One portion” refers to the birthright, and indicates that his (Joseph’s) sons should take two shares. שְׁכֶם is a word meaning “a portion,” as the Targum renders. There are many similar instances in Scripture:“For You shall place them as a portion (שְׁכֶם)” (Ps. 21:13), You shall place my enemies before me as portions;“I will divide a portion (שְׁכֶם)” (ibid. 60:8);“…murder on the way, שֶׁכְמָה ” (Hos. 6:9), [meaning:] each one his share;“to worship Him of one accord אֶחָד) (שְׁכֶם” (Zeph. 3:9), [meaning: in one group].

which I took from the hand of the Amorite: From the hand of Esau, who behaved like an Amorite (Gen. Rabbah 97:6). Another explanation [of why Esau is called אמֹרִי]: who deceived his father with the sayings (אִמְרֵי) of his mouth.
 
with my sword and with my bow: When Simeon and Levi slew the men of Shechem, all those [nations] around them (Jacob’s sons) assembled to attack them, and Jacob girded weapons of war against them. — [from Gen. Rabbah 97:6, Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel]

with my sword and with my bow: I.e., his cleverness and his prayer.

Rashi's comments point to the many distinct facets of the city Shechem, and the rich meaning of the place. First, Rashi mentions Shechem's role as a place of burial, given as a reward for performing this great mitzvah. Joseph performing this mitzvah leads to an incredible "chain of mitzvahs," performed by ever higher entities. The mitzvah of burying Jacob is charged to Joseph, whose burial is charged to Moses, whose burial, in turn, is performed by Hashem himself. (See Talmud Sotah) After Moshe passes, it is Joshua, a descendant of Joseph from the Tribe of Ephraim, who is charged with actually burying Joseph inside the Land of Israel. Interestingly, the passage quoted by Rashi is actually juxtaposed with Joshua's own passing. Even more fascinating is the fact that both Joshua and Joseph were 111 years old when they died. One could speculate about whether Joshua and Joseph were not in fact one and the same.

Rashi then explains how Shechem is associated with the extra portion of the firstborn. Shechem has many other associations with being the "first:" Shechem is the first place visited by Abraham, Jacob, as well as Joshua when entering the Land of Israel. Even in modern times, the first settlement established in Judea and Samaria after the Six Day War was Elon Moreh, which is another biblical name for the city Shechem. Shechem is the gateway to the Land of Israel.

Related to the above, Rashi then notes that Shechem was taken from Eisav, who behaved like an Amorite and lied to his father. Jacob is characterized by the fact that all of his children remained true to their Judaism and Jewish identity (Mitatoh Shleimah - "his bed was complete"). Furthermore, Jacob is associated, first and foremost, with the truth ("Titen Emeth L'Yaakov," "Give truth to Jacob"). The Torah also states that Shechem was acquired monetarily by Jacob (similar to how Jacob acquired the birthright), and that it is one of the places that Gentiles are unable to even claim that they were stolen by the Jews. (Genesis 33:18-19; Midrash Rabbah)

That said, Rashi mentions the radical actions of Shimon and Levi. It was also in Shechem that Joseph's brothers, led by the zealotry of Shimon and Levi, attacked Joseph and sold him as a slave. After Reuven's sin, Shimon and Levi were both in line to be the leaders of the rest of the tribes. However, their zealous violence prevented them from playing this role.

Finally, Rashi interprets the words used to describe weapons ("bow" and "sword") as a reference to cleverness (wisdom) as well as prayer. Often, much more can be accomplished through these two more peaceful means than through violence. The power of Jacob is his Torah and his prayer - "Koloh Kol Yaakov," "the voice is the voice of Jacob, while force is primarily the weapon of Eisav - "Yadoh Yad Eisav," "the hand is the hand of Eisav."

Shechem is Jacob's inheritance to Joseph. It is more than just a place. It is a way of being. It stands for all that was mentioned above and more: keeping the mitzvot, leadership, identity and continuity, truth, passionate moderation, Torah, wisdom, and prayer. Shechem in Hebrew, literally means "shoulders." It is as if Jacob is now passing the torch to Joseph, who is now literally "shouldering" the responsibility for keeping these values intact.

We see a hidden reference to the values of Shechem much later in history, with the appointment of Saul as King of Israel (I Samuel, Chapter 9):

1. Now there was a man of Benjamin, and his name was Kish, the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah, the son of a Benjamite man, a mighty man of power. 2. And he had a son whose name was Saul. He was young and handsome, there being no one of the children of Israel handsomer than he; from his shoulders (Shichmoh) and upwards he was taller (Gavoah) than any of the people.

Just like Joseph received a Shechem (portion; shoulder) over his brethren, so too was Shaul taller than all his brethren, from his shoulders upwards. He was also young and handsome like Joseph.

Shaul also had another similarity to Joseph. Just as Joseph had experienced all his brothers attack and nearly kill him, so too had Shaul seen all the other tribes nearly extinguish his tribe, the Tribe of Benjamin, in a bloody civil war that followed the events of Pilegesh b'Givah, the concubine of Givah.

As recounted extensively in the end of the Book of Judges, men of Givah had raped and brutally murdered a concubine woman. The Tanach's account directly parallels the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are even opinions that these men of Givah were a reincarnation of those of these two infamous places. All the Tribes of Israel demand that the Tribe of Benjamin hand over the men that performed this outrageous act to be killed, but Benjamin refuses. This leads to civil war.

Herein lies also a parallel with Shechem. The man called Shechem (presumably for whom the city is named after) raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. Because the men of Shechem refused to bring the rapist to justice, Shimon and Levi decimated the entire city. Maimonides writes that the acts of Shimon and Levi were in fact justified under Jewish law.

Joseph is given Shechem. Shaul, who had the potential for becoming Mashiach Ben Yoseph, is from Givah. In fact, he even rules all of Israel for a short period from Givah itself. (I must admit that I am not 100% certain that Givah refers to the same city as the concubine of Givah, but I have no reason to believe otherwise). Both Shechem and Givah are places that suffered tremendous atrocities in response to lack of justice, and both become associated with the respective leaders of the generation.

Furthermore, the reason why Shaul does not become Mashiach Ben Yoseph is because of his failure to decimate Amalek, when explicitly told by the prophet Samuel to do so. Shaul has all the values and characteristics that Jacob passes Joseph, connected to Shechem, including passionate moderation, wisdom and prayer. He was also the first, the first King of Israel. However, he appears to be deficient in the most important of all values, the very first one listed by Rashi: the accurate performance of a mitzvah. That is Samuel's ultimate rebuke to Shaul after the debacle of not utterly destroying Agag and Amalek: "And Samuel said, "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams…" (Samuel I, Chapter 5:22)

Mordechai and his generation, in their fight against Haman the Agagite, somewhat rectify Shaul's mistake by showing ultimate self-sacrifice in order to fulfill God's commandments. The introduction of Mordechai, the last of the male prophets, in the Megillah (Esther, 2), very much parallels the introduction of Shaul in the Book of Samuel:

5. There was a Judean man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite, 6. who had been exiled from Jerusalem with the exile that was exiled with Jeconiah, king of Judah, which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled.

However, there is one radical difference between Mordechai and Shaul. Even though both are from Benjamin, while Shaul is primarily associated with Joseph and Givah/Shechem, Mordechai is explicitly connected to Judah (particularly the King of Judah) and Jerusalem, which both represent total nullification and self-sacrifice.

Benjamin is a combination of Judah and Joseph. He represents the sefirah combination of Yesod shebeMalchut. As previously explained, Joseph represents Yesod and David, Malchut. Even geographically, the land of Benjamin connects the land of Judah and of Joseph. (See "Jerusalem in the Parasha," here) Benjamin connects these two facets of the Jewish people and of Jewish History.

Although Elijah (who, although from Benjamin, is clearly associated with the Tribe of Joseph, and Elijah even states explicitly that he is descended from Rachel) and Mashiach Ben Yoseph will pave the way of the redemption, ultimately, it all must be connected to Judah, to Mashiach Ben David. As we read in last week's Haftorah (Ezekiel 37):

19. Say to them, So says the Lord God: Behold I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim and the tribes of Israel his companions, and I will place them with him with the stick of Judah, and I will make them into one stick, and they shall become one in My hand.  

20. And the sticks upon which you shall write shall be in your hand before their eyes. 

21. And say to them, So says the Lord God: Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side, and I will bring them to their land. 

22. And I will make them into one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be to them all as a king; and they shall no longer be two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms anymore. 
 
23. And they shall no longer defile themselves with their idols, with their detestable things, or with all their transgressions, and I will save them from all their habitations in which they have sinned, and I will purify them, and they shall be to Me as a people, and I will be to them as a God.

24. And My servant David shall be king over them, and one shepherd shall be for them all, and they shall walk in My ordinances and observe My statutes and perform them.  

25. And they shall dwell on the land that I have given to My servant, to Jacob, wherein your forefathers lived; and they shall dwell upon it, they and their children and their children's children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever.  

26. And I will form a covenant of peace for them, an everlasting covenant shall be with them; and I will establish them and I will multiply them, and I will place My Sanctuary in their midst forever.
 
27. And My dwelling place shall be over them, and I will be to them for a God, and they shall be to Me as a people. 

28. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, Who sanctifies Israel, when My Sanctuary is in their midst forever.

May it be soon, may it be today, may it be now.




 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Week 15 (From the Book): Giving Proper Value to Torah and to the Presence of the Shechinah

PEREK SHIRAH: The wild goose flying in the wilderness, when it sees Israel busy with Torah, is saying, "A voice cries out: Prepare in the wilderness the way for G-d, make straight in the desert a path for our G-d" (Isaiah 40:3). And upon finding its food in the wilderness, it says: "Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings; Blessed is the man who trusts in G-d, and G-d shall be his assurance." (Jeremiah 17: 5, 7)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Chanina son of Tradyon would say: Two who sit and no words of Torah pass between them, this is a session of scorners, as is stated, "And in a session of scorners he did not sit" (Psalms 1:1). But two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated, "Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard; and it was inscribed before Him in a book of remembrance for those who fear G-d and give thought to His name" (Malachi 3:16). From this, I know only concerning two individuals; how do I know that even a single individual who sits and occupies himself with the Torah, G-d designates reward for him? From the verse, "He sits alone in meditative stillness; indeed, he receives [reward] for it" (Lamentations 3:28).

SEFIRAH COMBINATION: Chesed shebeTiferet (kindness within the context of beauty and balance)

In the fifteenth week, the wild goose sings two songs: When it sees Israel occupied with the study of Torah, it calls for us to prepare a way for the Lord, to make a straight path for our G-d. Then, after finding food, is blesses the Lord, and curses those that place their trust in man. (Isaiah 40:3; Jeremiah 17:5-7) This week marks the fast of the Tenth of Teveth, when Jerusalem was besieged at the time of the First Temple. It was the first step towards its destruction and the exile of the Shechinah. The 10th of Teveth is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Nathan of Breslov, the main disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Few Jews survived the destruction of the First Temple. Even so, they multiplied and returned to being a numerous people, just like the Tribe of Dan, the symbol of the month of Teveth. Similarly, when Rabbi Nathan took the reins of the Breslov movement, it was still very small, and he had to face incredible obstacles and adversities. Nonetheless, not only did the movement survive, but it grew exponentially, and today Rebbe Nachman’s fire is more alive than ever.

The Midrash states that Jerusalem was besieged and the First Temple later destroyed because the Jewish people did not “recite the blessing over Torah study.” In other words, this tragedy took place due to the lack of spiritual importance given to the Torah and other holy texts at that time. There is a strong connection here with Didan Netzach, the day of the “victory of the books.”

Through the words of the wild goose, we mourn the destruction of the First Temple, when the Jewish people not only was not properly occupied with the study of Torah, but also put inappropriate trust in their alliance with the Kingdom of Egypt at the time. The prophets warned against trusting in Egypt. In a prophecy made on the twelfth of Teveth, still prior to the siege, the prophet Ezekiel calls Egypt a “reed-like support for the House of Israel – whenever they held you in their hand you would snap, piercing their every shoulder…”[1]  When Egypt fell to the Babylonians, the Kingdom of Israel soon followed.

The number fifteen contains the first two letters of Hashem’s name, yud and heh. These two letters also form another name for G-d, Yah. This is a feminine name and a reference to the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. The moon, which represents the feminine sefirah of malchut, is always full on the fifteenth of the Jewish month.

The Talmud states that in the Temple, there were fifteen steps from the Israelite men’s courtyard to the women’s courtyard, corresponding to the fifteen Songs of Ascents (Shir haMaalot) found in King David’s Psalms.[2] The Talmud further explains that it was through the power of composing these fifteen songs that King David saved the entire world from being engulfed by the waters running under the Temple Mount. Here again we see a reference to the Temple and to the power of the written Torah.
 
In the Pirkei Avot lesson for this week, Rabbi Chaninah ben Teradion teaches: "If two [people] are sitting together and do not exchange words of Torah, this is a company of scorners... However, if two sit together and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests between them.” (III:2) Rabbi Chaninah further explains that even when a person sits alone and is occupied with the Torah, G-d provides him with a reward. The connection with the above concepts is quite clear.
 
During this week, the sefirot combination results in chesed shebetiferet. When the siege of Jerusalem began, the situation was not yet so precarious. There was still a chance for the people to repent and avoid the tragedy altogether. This can be regarded as kindness within mercy (rachamim), which is another meaning for the term tiferet. (This week would also represent the “eighth week,” of Shavuot and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of Gevurah)
 
Regarding self-improvement, we learn that even the wild goose understands the great importance of Torah study, and that its survival and sustenance depends solely on G-d, not on human beings. If we do our part, surely G-d will do His.





[1] Ezekiel 29:6-7
[2] Talmud, Sukkah 51a
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Rabbi Daniel Kahane and Ann Helen Wainer have recently launched a new book, which promises to change the way scholars and laymen understand the Jewish calendar as well as the structure of central Jewish texts. 

The book shows how the 52-day period spanning from Passover to Shavuot (Pentecost) is in fact a microcosm of the 52 weeks of the year. Additionally, it demonstrates how 52 rabbis and 52 animals listed in the sacred works Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”) and Perek Shirah (“Chapter of Song”) parallel the year’s weeks as well. Finally, the book explores the kabbalistic meaning behind the numbers and divine attributes (sefirot) related to each day from Passover to Shavuot known as the Counting of the Omer.

The Counting of the Omer has always been one of the key tools used by the Jewish People as a basis for spiritual development. The book expands its use to the entire year and shows amazing and eerie connections between how the weeks of the year and the days of the Omer parallel each other. “The basis for the entire book is one simple idea,” Rabbi Kahane says, “Just as the culmination of the Counting of the OmerLag Ba’Omer, falls on the 33rd day of the Omer, so too the week of Lag Ba’Omer falls on the 33rd week of the year. 

“The book’s use as a weapon against sadness should also not be underestimated,” exclaims Ann Helen Wainer, “its uplifting ideas and its connectedness to the song and harmony of nature, as well as the wisdom and foresight of our ancestors, is a true gift.”
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