Sunday, October 8, 2017

Week 4 (From the Book): To Take Responsibility for All, Yet Protecting Oneself from Bad Influences

The Eagle[1] is saying, "And You, G-d, Lord of Hosts, Lord of Israel, awake to punish all the nations; do not be gracious to any wicked traitors, sela!" (Psalms 59:6)

Rabbi [Yehudah HaNassi] would say: Which is the right path for man to choose for himself? Whatever is harmonious for the one who does it, and harmonious for mankind. 

Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.
Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above from you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.

Netzach shebeChesed (victory and endurance within the context of kindness)

On the fourth week of the year, which encompasses the end of Sukkot (including Hoshanah Rabbah), as well as Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the eagle sings. During this week, as soon as each community completes the annual reading of the entire Torah, we immediately start our studies anew, just like the eagle renews its feathers from year to year.[2] It is also worth noting that during these days, both for hoshanot and hakafot, we spend a large portion of our service circling the bimah,[3] just like the eagle.

Rebbe Nachman’s yahrzeit, the 18th of Tishrei, often falls on this week of the year, the week of Simchat Torah. Two of Rebbe Nachman’s main teachings are relate to the concept of always being happy and of always starting anew.[4] That is exactly what Simchat Torah is all about.  As Rebbe Nachman said himself, his “main day” is Rosh Hashanah, and as further explained below, Simchat Torah is the culmination of the judgment that took place from Rosh Hashanah to Hoshanah Rabbah.

The eagle is the greatest of birds, flying higher than the rest. It therefore has an extremely broad and potent view and perspective on all Creation. Unlike other birds, which carry their young between their talons, the eagle carries them on their wings because no other animal can reach that high. So is our relationship with God: "You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I took them on eagles' wings and brought them to Me."[5]

The eagle requests that G-d remember the nations (Psalms 59:6). The word “remember” can have both a positive (remember for good) as well as a negative connotation (remember in order to punish). The continuation of the eagle’s song appears to be more connected to the latter, as it states, “do not be gracious to any wicked traitors, selah.” Throughout Sukkot, the Jewish people have been bringing sacrifices on behalf of all nations. However, on Shemini Atzeret, we stop bringing sacrifices for others, and place them aside for the time being, so that the Jewish people can be alone with G-d.

The number four represents stability and strength more than the number three, just as a table with four legs is firmer than a tripod. The number four also refers to the matriarchs of the Jewish People: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The Torah itself is quite explicit about how the matriarchs were more firm than the patriarchs when it came to protecting their family and their lineage from bad influences and from veering off to wrong paths. Sarah made sure that Yishmael was sent away in order not to be a bad influence for Isaac. When Abraham became apprehensive about this, G-d told him to listen to Sarah. Similarly, Rivkah made sure that Jacob would receive the proper blessings from Isaac, instead of Esau. She also insisted that Jacob not intermarry with the local tribes.

The stability of the number four is reflected in various aspects of the world itself. There are four basic elements in the world: fire, water, air, and earth. There are also four spiritual worlds, or dimensions, mentioned in the Kabbalah: Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, and Assiyah. There are also four rivers that flow from the Garden of Eden, and four levels of Torah knowledge, also known as Pardes. Pardes literally means “orchard,” and stands for: Peshat (simple/meaning), Remez (implied/hinted), Derush (interpreted), and Sod (secret). All of the above concepts are deeply related.
In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi discusses how to stay on the right path, and be laudable in their own eyes and in the eyes of his fellow man. The word used by Rabbi Yehudah to describe this state of equilibrium is tiferet, the sefirah connected to Sukkot.

As part of his teaching, he states that different mitzvot should not be compared. Some think that dancing with the Torah on the day of Simchat Torah is somehow less important than the prayers recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or even that this mitzvah is somehow smaller compared with the daily study of the Torah. In fact, in the eyes of G-d, dancing with the Torah is very important.

Continuing the transition from Week Three to Week Four, Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi tells us to reflect upon three things, which are actually four: "(1) Know what is above you: (2) an Eye that sees, (3) an Ear that hears, and (4) all your deeds are recorded in a Book." This lesson describes the four Jewish holidays of the first four weeks: On Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge that G-d is above us (the Hebrew word is lada'at, “to know,” and Rosh Hashanah is connected with da'at, as explained in Week 52); on Yom Kippur, G-d sees our teshuvah (our repentance), as stated in the Haftorah of Jonah read on Yom Kippur;[6] the festival of Sukkot is connected to the ear; and Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah all reflect the idea that our actions are written in a book, the Book of Life, because it is precisely on Hoshanah Rabbah that the judgment is concluded.

On this week, the sefirah combination is netzach shebechesed. In it, we complete the reading of the entire Torah, which ends with Vezot haBrachah, when Moses blesses each one of the twelve tribes of Israel. As explained in the beginning of the book, Moses is associated with the sefirah of netzach. Netzach means victory and endurance, which we feel as we reach the completion of the Torah’s reading. Moses’ blessings are linked to chesed.

As mentioned above, the number four, associated with netzach, is connected to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. As a leader, Moses displays maternal characteristics, drawing a striking parallel with our matriarchs. In a particularly difficult time of his journey, Moses desperately please with G-d: "Was it I who gave birth to this entire people, that You ask me to carry them in my bosom as one who carries a nursing [baby], to the land You promised their ancestors?"[7]

It is also worth noting that the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, whose known for the phrase, that “from Moshe to Moshe there was no one like Moshe,” was known as the “Great Eagle.” Rebbe Nachman also always said about himself that his sefirah was netzach. Rebbe Nachman also stated, “I have been victorious (nitzachti) and I will be victorious (v’anatzeach); I have finished and I will finish.”

The lesson of self-improvement that can be derived from the song of the eagle is that we should show care and concern for all others, not just ourselves. In fact, caring about others besides oneself is a great way to fight sadness. The eagle shows concern for the community and for all nations, not just for itself.



[1] Rabbi Slifkin translates Nesher as vulture. Other translations have it as an eagle.
[2] Psalm 103:5; Rashi
[3] The bimah is the platform in the middle of the synagogue, which parallels the altar (mizbeach) in the Temple.
[4] Rebbe Nachman stated, “Mitzvah Gedolah Lihyot B’Simchah Tamid! (It is a great mitzvah to be happy always!)" (Likutei Moharan II, 24). He also would say, “Start serving God as if you had never started in your whole life. This is one of the most basic principles of serving God. We must literally begin all over again every day.” (Likutei Moharan I, 261).
[5] Exodus 19:4
[6] The Book of Jonah states, "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." (3:10, emphasis added)
[7] Numbers 11:12
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