Thursday, October 6, 2016

Week 2 (From the Book): To Relate Well to Others and to Our Own Body

The hen is saying, "He gives bread to all flesh, for His kindness endures forever." (Psalms 136:25)
[Rabban Gamliel’s] son, Shimon, would say: All my life I have been raised among the wise, and I have found nothing better for the body than silence. The essential thing is not study, but deed. And one who speaks excessively brings on sin.
Gevurah shebeChesed (discipline and judgment within the context of kindness)
In the second week of the Jewish year, the week of Yom Kippur[1](the “Day of Atonement”), it is the turn of the hen in Perek Shirah to sing of G-d’s eternal kindness, for providing food for every living being. It is during this time of the year that G-d determines specifically how much sustenance each being will receive, but also who will live and who will not. Many people may not know this, but eating well on the eve of Yom Kippur is considered to be as meritorious as the fast itself.
There is also an important parallel here: It is exactly in this second week, on the eve of Yom Kippur, when we are busy asking each other for forgiveness, that the Jewish people make Kapparot, an ancient custom where each individual symbolically atones for one’s sins before G-d through the means of a hen! After the ritual is performed, each chicken is slaughtered and given to families in need. Nowadays, many have the custom to use charity money in order to fulfill this ritual. Before Yom Kippur, we also have the custom to ask each other for forgiveness.
The number one is somewhat lonely, but once another one is added they make a pair, just like the rooster and the hen. The number two also represents the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments (Luchot HaBrit). While one tablet contains laws regarding our relationship with G-d, the other tablet contains laws regarding relationships between human beings. It was precisely on Yom Kippur that the tablets were given for the second time for the Jewish People. The number two represents the concept of relationship, as well as the idea of giving and receiving.
The Pirkei Avot of this week contains the recommendation of Shimon ben Rabban Gamliel: "All my life I grew up among the Sages, and found nothing better for the person [literally, the body] than silence; it is not to study, but rather action which is of the essence… one who talks too much brings forth sin" (I:17). In order to properly receive and absorb the words of others, one must first be silent.
Furthermore, the "silencing" of the body, appears to be a clear reference to the fasting that takes place on Yom Kippur, as well as other actions such as not wearing leather shoes, anointing ourselves (using perfumes or lotions), having sexual relations – preventing all these things on Yom Kippur is a way to distance ourselves from physicality and be very close to G-d, like angels, even if only for a single day. Yom Kippur is also a day of reflection and introspection, for which silence is an important virtue.
We saw that the Pirkei Avot of week number one focuses on acquiring a single main teacher. In this week, we speak about learning from“sages,” in the plural. While the number one relates to unity, two represents the concept of multiplicity.
These two concepts are not contradictory – they complement each other. One can still have a single main teacher, while still learning from every person. In fact, as we will see in week 30 of Pirkei Avot, that Ben Zoma states that to do so is a sign of true wisdom.[2]
On Yom Kippur, we also focus on fact that the main thing that G-d values is our actions. One of the high points of this holy day is the reading of the Book of Jonah, which in turn has as its climax the following verse: "And G-d saw their actions ... and G-d reconsidered the evil which He had spoken to perform against them, and He did not perform it." [3]
In the second week, the sefirah combination is gevurah shebechesed, discipline and judgment within the context of kindness. During the fast of Yom Kippur, the Jewish people act with discipline, willpower, and self-control. We do so while begging our Creator for mercy and protection, knowing that G-d is just and kind.
This week, a lesson in self-improvement we draw from Perek Shirah is that even the hen recognizes that God nourishes all living beings. After getting out of bed, as we learned from the rooster, the next step in combating sadness is to take proper care of ourselves, eating properly and exercising.


[1] Erev Yom Kippur always falls on the second week of the year, but in certain years, the day of Yom Kippur itself falls on the first day of Week Three. This is the only exception for all dates described in this book.
[2] Chapter IV:1
[3] Chapter 3:10. Jonah in Hebrew means “dove,” the animal in Perek Shirah for Week Three.
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