Sunday, August 30, 2015

Week 50 (From the Book): To Know That There Are No Limits to Our Growth and Closeness to G-d

The ant is saying, "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise." (Proverbs 6:6)

Elisha the son of Avuyah would say: One who learns Torah in his childhood, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah in his old age, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper.

Chochmah (wisdom)

Weeks 50 to 52 represent the holiday of Shavuot, in which we are given an even higher level of the intellectual sefirot than the level originally given to us on Passover. These three weeks are also connected with the “Passover” weeks of the coming year, representing the intellectual sefirot granted prior to the Counting of the Omer. The intellectual sefirot are chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and da'at/keter (knowledge/crown). This first week is connected to the sefirah of chochmah.

On week fifty, which contains the Chassidic holiday of Chai Elul, in Perek Shirah it is the ant’s turn to sing. It tells those that are lazy to study its ways and gain wisdom. (Proverbs 6:6) Chai Elul is the birthday of the Ba’al Shem Tov as well as that of the Alter Rebbe. The Ba'al Shem Tov was the founder of the Chassidic movement, and the one who revealed deep secrets of the Torah that enabled every Jew to serve Hashem on a higher level. The Alter Rebbe, who considered himself the spiritual grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, was the founder of Chabad Chassidism. The name Chabad is an acronym for the three intellectual sefirot, chochmah, binah and da'at, often translated as wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. The main goal of Chabad Chassidism is to bring light and Chassidic warmth to the intellect, the coldest part of the human being. As mentioned in week twelve, Chassidism lights a certain fire inside the person, a kind of wake up call for us to serve Hashem more appropriately and be more diligent, like the ant.[1]

The number fifty represents the festival of Shavuot as well as the Jubilee year. Fifty, like the number eight, symbolizes something extraordinary, beyond nature and beyond human comprehension. The ant is an example of an animal that does not appear to conform to logical parameters. Its force appears to be above comprehension, since it is able to carry loads that are dozens of times its own weight. The ant sings of how we can acquire wisdom, chochmah, by following its own example and behavior. To the extent that we are connected to Hashem, we are also capable of doing things that at first glance appear to be impossible, because G-d’s power is completely beyond nature. When we connect to the immense teshuvah that results from the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, as well as the many great miracles that took place during their lives, the power and energy we receive on Chai Elul itself is also something that exceeds our comprehension.

In Pirkei Avot, Elisha the son of Avuyah states that those who learn Torah when young are compared to ink written on new paper, while those that learn it in their old age resemble ink written on paper that has been erased. (IV: 20) This first interaction with the Torah, both by a child and by an older person is linked to sefirah of chochmah. Chochmah represents the first contact with the wisdom, that feeling we have when an idea first lights up in our minds.

The Talmud refers to Elisha the son of Avuyah as Acher, "The Other," because he was excommunicated by the rabbis of the time. His actions and behavior were incredibly disrespectful and evil in G-d’s eyes, to the point that a heavenly voice declared that everyone should do teshuvah, except for Elisha the son of Avuyah.[2] It is not mere coincidence that Acher falls exactly in the week of Chai Elul. The Chassidic way is always to try to find the good side of people and situations, and to bring closer even those furthest away and help them do teshuvah. This was previously explained in week 12 as well, the week of the 19th of Kislev, the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism, in which the raven sings. The Rebbe of Lubavitch, based on an interpretation of the Arizal, explains that G-d would have accepted even Acher’s repentance.[3]

Furthermore, the teaching of Elisha the son of Avuyah, which appears to be negative, can also be taken in an extremely positive way. The word used for old, zaken, also means wise, and stands for “zeh shekanah chochmah,” one who has acquired wisdom.[4] The word used for erased machuk, is spelled the same as mechok, which means from a chok, a law of the Torah that is beyond human comprehension. With these two concepts in mind, the second part of the teaching of Elisha the son of Avuyah can be understood in the following sense: a sage who studies the Torah resembles the ink written on paper absorbed as a law that is beyond human comprehension. A true sage accepts all of the Torah, even the parts that are more comprehensible to the human mind, as if it were all a chok, something beyond understanding. This in fact was exactly the initial mistake that Acher made that led him astray. He was somewhat arrogant and thought that he could understand everything with his intellect. When faced with a particular situation that went beyond his logical grasp, he became a heretic. The Ba’al Shem Tov always extolled the beauty of the faith of simple Jews who lacked great understanding. These Jews accepted the Torah as if it were all a chok.

Moreover, the Alter Rebbe teaches that the word chok is also connected to the word chakuk, meaning carved or etched. When a person begins to study Torah, he or she connects to the Torah, but both the person and the Torah are still separate entities, such as the ink and the paper. However, once a human being matures and studies like a sage, the person and the Torah become a single entity - the Torah is carved in the heart of the person, and there is no way to erase it any longer. This concept can also be found in the Talmud, in the tractate of Shvuot, which states that when a person begins to study the Torah it is called the Torah of Hashem. After studying, that Torah is now called Toratoh (his Torah), since the Torah is now an intrinsic part of that person.

Acher’s lesson is also connected to the ant. As much as the ant has the wonderful qualities noted above, it is also capable of having a not very positive characteristic: feelings of arrogance and superiority. We see that in its own song, it calls others lazy while praising its own qualities. In many ways, arrogance is even considered worse than sin. About someone arrogant, G-d says that "He and I cannot live together." This is something very serious, and something Chassidism also came to fix. There is a well known saying by one of the most extraordinary of all Chabad chassidim, Reb Hillel Paritcher. He said that before he became a chassid, he considered himself a tzadik. However, once he began to study the Tanya (the main writing of the Alter Rebbe), he thought to himself: " Halevai [I hope I can become] a beinoni (an intermediate Jew)!" The Alter Rebbe himself emphasized the importance of humility in a ma'amar (Chassidic discourse) he recited soon after his release from prison on the 19th of Kislev. In this ma’amar, entitled Katonti (I became small), the Alter Rebbe explains that we must realize that any accomplishment we achieve is due to the grace shown to us by G-d. Acknowledging this Divine assistance should make us even more grateful, small, and humble. Every time we get closer to G-d we must feel even smaller in relation to Him. This correct response to blessings we receive is exemplified by Jacob after he fled from Laban.

At the end of the first chapter of the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains that impurity, kelipah, is linked to the four natural elements: fire, water, air and earth. The Alter Rebbe explains that fire is connected to anger and arrogance (the ant). Water represents the desire for physical pleasure (the snake). Air is connected to indifference and sarcasm (the scorpion). Earth represents sadness and laziness (the snail). During the first four weeks connected to the month of Elul, we do teshuvah for our sins related to each one of these elements and animals.[5]

In the Talmudic tractate of Chullin, Rabbi Akiva states the following:

How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! Thou hast creatures that live in the sea and Thou hast creatures that live upon the dry land; if those of the sea were to come up upon the dry land they would straightway die, and if those of the dry land were to go down into the sea they would straightway die. Thou hast creatures that live in fire and Thou hast creatures that live in the air; if those of the fire were to come up into the air they would straightway die, and if those of the air were to go down into the fire they would straightway die. How manifold are Thy works, O Lord![6]

Rabbi Akiva’s statement is connected to the four natural elements mentioned above. In fact, he seems to be teaching how to deal with these different types of kelipah: take them out of their natural habitat.
As mentioned above, this week is connected to Shavuot and to the sefirah of chochmah. This week would also represent the “eighth week,” of Shavuot and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of malchut.

The great "gift" of self-improvement that we can receive from the ant is that there are no limits to our closeness to Hashem, and that like the ant we can serve as an example for people who wish to attain higher levels in their Judaism.

[1] Hayom Yom, 17th of Av, p. 79a
[2] Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah 77B
[3] Marcus, p. 151
[4] Talmud, Kedushin 32b
[5] See also the writings regarding the month of Elul of Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulay, the Chidah.
[6] Chullin 127A

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Week 49 (From the Book): To Bring More Light in Order to Extinguish Darkness Altogether

The snail is saying, "Like the snail that melts away, a stillborn of a mole that does not see the sun." (Psalms 58:9)
Shmuel the Small would say: "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; when he stumbles, let your heart not be gladdened. Lest G-d see, and it will displeasing in His eyes, and He will turn His wrath from him [to you]" (Proverbs 24:17-18).
Malchut shebeMalchut (kingship within the context of kingship)
In week forty-nine, as we approach the middle of the month of Elul, the snail in Perek Shirah declares that the enemies of Hashem will melt and will be like a stillborn that does not see the sun. (Psalm 58:9) The snail seems to be in a position that is even worse than that of the snake and the scorpion; it is literally fading and melting away. This verse is also deeply connected to the month of Elul when through our teshuvah we melt away our inner feelings of darkness and sadness and connect directly to G-d’s light.
The song of the snail comes from a Psalm in which King David refers to the ability to reduce the evil inclination to nothing, as he himself was able to accomplish. This statement is very appropriate for this week, given that it is on day forty-nine (or week 49 in this case) that we complete the Counting of the Omer. With the end of week forty-nine, we conclude the work of self-improvement of the emotional sefirot for this year. After climbing step by step, week after week, we hopefully significantly diminished the evil inclination within us.
As noted above, the number forty-nine represents the number of days of the omercount, as well as the number of years until the Jubilee. Forty-nine is the culmination of the entire omer count, and represents completion, seven times seven.
The lesson from Pirkei Avot for this week is in the words of Shmuel HaKatan (“the Small”), who teaches us not to rejoice when our enemy falls, lest G-d dislike it, and turn away His wrath from him (onto us). (Chapter IV: 19; Proverbs 24:17-18) The teaching of Shmuel is connected to how we ought to behave in the face of the fall of our greatest enemy - our evil inclination. Shmuel HaKatan, was so named because of his great humility. We must seek always to be humble, especially in these days of Elul.
And completing the cycle, this week the sefirot combination results in malchut shebemalchut, which represents completely majestic behavior still connected to this material world. Malchut is also called the “poor” sefirah, in that it has nothing of its own – it simply reflects the emanations of the other sefirot. In that sense, it is very humble, like Shmuel HaKatan.
The lesson for self-improvement derived from the snail is that we must bring the light of the Torah to all those who are currently in spiritual darkness.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

I am the Place

In memory of Neely Snyder and in honor of her heroic husband, Joshua.

I am the Place

In which you sit
Life, vest,
Oxygen, mask.

I am the belt
Holding you tight
Buckling and

I am the seat
That makes you float
If you hug me
Against your chest.

I am the One
Who comforts you,
Pilot now signaling
It is safe to stand.

Note: "The Place" (HaMakom) is one of G-d's names, used primarily in the words of consolation used in addressing those in mourning, ("sitting Shivah"). 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sixteenth Set of 22 Days: Tzadik Sofit, Other Sheaves and Vegetables of the Field (the Priestly Family of Immer)

Monday (starting tonight), the 2nd of Elul, began the sixteenth set of 22 days of the Jewish calendar. It is the last 22-day cycle of the year, which parallels the end-letter Tzadik (Tzadik Sofit), as well as the "Other Sheaves" and the Vegetables of the Field in Perek Shirah. It runs through the 23rd of Elul.

As mentioned previously, "Tzadik" means "righteous." The shape of the normal Tzadik is bent, while that of the end-letter Tzadik is straight and goes further down the page than the regular resting place of other letters. Elul is the month of Teshuvah, and the Tzadik Sofit represents the Ba'al Teshuvah.  It represents someone who went far below in order to then climb back up. Moshe, "bent" in humility, is the quintessential Tzadik. The Tzadik Sofit, the "end Tzadik," is a reference to Mashiach. Mashiach will elevate even the lowest of realms. When Mashiach comes, even Tzadikim will do Teshuvah.

Rabbi Munk explains the significance of the fact that the Tzadi Sofit is also found in the word for land, Eretz, which our sages teach is a reference to the World to Come, Olam HaBah.

"Kol yisrael yesh lahem chelek b'olam haba, sh'nemar, "v'amech kulam tzadikim, l'olam yirshu ha'aretz; netzer matai, ma'aseh yadai l'hitpaer." (transl: "Every member of Israel has a portion in the world-to-come, as it states (in Isaiah 60:21), "Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, so that I may be glorified.").

Any Jew - even one whose sins have caused him to forfeit his share in the World to Come - can regain his loss if he repents. Through repentance, any Jew can attain the rank of Tzadik and be worthy of a share in Eretz, the World to Come (Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 3:14). (Rabbi Munk, p. 193)

The Tzadik's connection to land goes further. Land is constant, humble, ready to receive rain. The same is true for the righteous, as well as for all of us who engage in Teshuvah during the month of Elul.  

A similar theme can be found regarding the elements in Perek Shirah:
The Other Sheaves are saying, "The meadows are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with grain; they shout for joy, they also sing" (Psalms 65:14)

The Vegetables of the Field are saying, "You water its furrows abundantly; You settle its ridges; you make it soft with showers; You bless its growth" (Psalms 65:11)
Both songs are from the same Psalm. Their central theme is visualizing ourselves in the way we are meant to be: Tzadikim, like a land clothed with flock and grain,  singing and shouting with joy. It also about making ourselves ready to receive water (a reference to Torah), making furrows and ridges, making ourselves soft with rain, and growing.

 The Temple guard for these 22 days is connected to the priestly family of Immer. This name is connected to the verb Le'emor, "to speak." As opposed to Lehagid and Ledaber, Le'emor implies a softer kind of speech. (See also

Continuing the theme of the previous 22 days, this is month in which we go out to the field to speak to Hashem in personal prayer. It is also a month in which "the King is in the field," and is available to speak with us in a softer manner than on Rosh Hashanah (the Day of Judgement) through Yom Kippur, known as the "Yamim Nora'im," the Days of Awe.

Week 48 (From the Book): To Fight Coldness with Warmth

The scorpion is saying, "G-d is good to all, and His mercy is upon all of His handiwork." (Psalms 145:9)

Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar would say: Do not appease your friend at the height of his anger; do not comfort him while his dead still lies before him; do not ask him about his vow the moment he makes it; and do not endeavor to see him at the time of his degradation.

Yesod shebeMalchut (foundation and firmness within the context of kingship)

In week forty-eight, which includes the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the scorpion in Perek Shirah sings of how G-d is good to all and is merciful to all His creations. (Psalm 145:9) The scorpion carries a heavy load of transgression and sin, and therefore thanks G-d for His mercy towards it.

Spiritually speaking, the scorpion’s venom is worse than that of the snake. The snake's venom is hot, representing passion and desire for forbidden things; however, the scorpion’s venom is cold, symbolizing indifference. It is much easier to redirect passion for what is forbidden towards something positive than it is to attempt to "redirect" indifference.

Nevertheless, it is possible to “treat” indifference as well, through the study of Torah. We see this in the purification process of the metzorah, someone who had been inflicted with a form of spiritual “leprosy/psoriasis” due to slander or other related sins and/or problematic social behaviors. The Torah concludes this section by stating, “zot Torat hametzorah,” “this is the Torah of the metzorah.  The Alter Rebbe asks why verse uses the word “Torah,” when instead is should have simply stated “this is the purification of the metzorah.” The answer is that the Torah is the metzorah’s purification.

The number forty-eight is the number of qualities listed in Pirkei Avot necessary in order to acquire the Torah. It is also the number of male prophets and the number Levitical cities explicitly mentioned in the Torah. All of these three categories have at least one thing in common: they each represent the Torah itself.

The Hebrew letters for the number forty-eight is mem and chet, which spell the word mo’ach, brain. The intellect is the main conduit to receiving and internalizing the Torah, but it is also usually associated with coolness. However, by inverting these two letters, one spells the word cham, which means hot. Perhaps this is another hint as to how to combat coldness and indifference. At times one might need to let go of one’s intellect, even if only temporarily, in order to divert feelings of indifference and convert them into a heated desire for Torah and mitzvot. 

The Pirkei Avot lesson this week is contained in the teachings of Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar. He advises us not to appease our neighbor at the time of his anger, not to console a mourner while his dead lies before him, not to ask about the details of a vow at the time it is made, and not to seek someone at the time of his degradation. (IV: 18) Rabbi Shimon’s words are the inverse of the scorpion’s song, as it describes situations in which a person is affected and overly "heated" by their emotions. At such times, any attempt to interfere, even for the sake of helping out that person, would most likely prove to be counterproductive. In the situations described by Rabbi Shimon, it is better to coldly use our intellect and to distance ourselves from the situation for now. In this sense, the cold qualities of the scorpion can be used for the good.

The words of Rabbi Shimon also describe part of the process teshuvah during Elul. At first, in the heat of Rosh Chodesh Elul, we might think that we can repent from all sins and transform ourselves in a single moment. While this certainly is possible, usually the most effective teshuvah is the one that is experienced over a longer period of time. That is why we gradually perform teshuvah over the course of the entire month of Elul, in order to remain firm in our resolve all the way to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This sefirot combination for this week results in yesod shebemalchut. During this week, we intensify our Jewish foundation to do teshuvah, thereby further establishing G-d’s kingship in this world.

Finally, the lesson in self-improvement we learn from the scorpion is that we have the ability and the responsibility to help those individuals who are distanced from the Torah and to show them the warmth and the beauty of Judaism.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Pi and the Kabbalah of Time


In this blog, we've been presenting two patterns found in the calendar: cycles of weeks (based on the Counting of the Omer) and cycles of 22 days (based on the Three Weeks of Mourning).

It was recently brought to my attention that the number Pi, so essential to mathematics, is approximately 22/7. And so it is with the calendar. For every Pi (3.14...) weeks of the calendar we complete, we fulfill one cycle of 22 days. Pretty amazing...

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Week 47 (From the Book): Time for Teshuvah (Return to G-d)!

The snake is saying, "G-d supports all the fallen, and straightens all the bent." (Psalms 145:14)
Rabbi Yaakov would say:This world is comparable to the antechamber before the World to Come. Prepare yourself in the antechamber, so that you may enter the banquet hall.
He would also say: A single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come. And a single moment of bliss in the World to Come is greater than all of the present world.
Hod shebeMalchut (glory and gratefulness within the context of kingship)

This week marks Rosh Chodesh Elul. Elul’s main characteristic is teshuvah, repentance. The Alter Rebbe explains that the King (G-d) spends most of the year inside his palace, where it is more difficult to reach him. During the month of Elul, the King goes out to the field to speak to His people and to listen to their pleas. During this time, He greets everyone with a smiling countenance. In Elul, we can have greater direct contact with G-d by increasing our Torah studies, prayer and repentance, as well as good deeds.

During this month, we have the opportunity to be extremely close to G-d. Through teshuvah and asking for forgiveness, we can properly prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah. Elul is represented by the tribe of Gad. Gad was a very powerful and courageous tribe. Its name literally means "luck," and indicates that the Jewish people are completely above luck and chance – everything depends on our teshuvah.[1]

How appropriate then it is that the animal to sing this week in Perek Shirahis the snake, who declares that G-d supports all the fallen, and straightens all bent. (Psalm 145:14) The snake, from the story of Creation and beyond, has always been associated with sin and the evil inclination. Its verse perfectly embodies the spirit of teshuvah with which we begin the month of Elul.

The number forty-seven is the gematria of the name Yoel (Joel).[2] The Book of Joel contains many parallels to the month of Elul. Like several other books of the prophets, the book speaks profoundly about the need for repentance. Joel specifically refers to the need for teshuvah before the “great day”of judgment. The book also describes the Jewish people’s closeness to G-d, and makes many mentions to the sound of the shofar. During almost the entire month of Elul, we blow the shofar every day after prayer as a preparation for the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah.

In Pirkei Avot this week, Rabbi Yaakov states that this world is like an antechamber for the World to Come; one must prepare oneself in the antechamber in order to enter the banquet hall. He also states that one moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the entire life of the world to come. Similarly, a single moment of pleasure in the World to Come is better than all the life of this world. (IV: 16-17) This teaching is perfectly suitable for Rosh Chodesh Elul, when the Jewish people begin the process of teshuvah. Similarly, just as the purpose of this world is only to serve as an ante-room for the World to Come, the month of Elul also serves as a preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

This week, the combination of sefirot results in hod shebemalchut, glory and gratefulness within the context of kingship. It is time to bring our service of Hashem to fruition in a tangible and real way.

A lesson in self-improvement that we extract from the snake is that even if we fall to the lowest possible levels, we can still repent and be forgiven and uplifted by G-d.

[1]Ryzman, p. 195
[2]This week also marks the yahrzeit of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, on the 26th of Av.

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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 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.”