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Monday, January 23, 2017

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
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