Wednesday, February 1, 2017
Week 19 (From the Book): To Feel that G-d is Close Even When He Seems Far Away
In the nineteenth week, when we celebrate the Chassidic holiday of Yud Shevat, in Perek Shirah, the locust blesses and praises G-d, recognizing His wonders as well as His true and loyal advice given from afar. (Isaiah 25:1) Yud Shevat is the yahrzeit of the Sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, and also the date in which his successor, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, became rebbe exactly one year later.
As explained above, Shevat represents the transmission and the development of the Oral Torah. The first to pass on this tradition was Moses, who transmitted it to Joshua. Yud Shevat represents the transition, as well as the transmission of the Torah of Chassidut from the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to the Seventh.
This week, which immediately precedes Tu B'Shvat, the song of the locust includes the words etzot as well as emunah. Etza means "advice," but etz means tree. Emunah means faith. As already explained, the month of Shevat is related both to trees and to faith. In the middle of winter, the Jewish people celebrate Tu B’Shvat, trusting that the trees, which are now cold and leafless, will soon be able to blossom and yield fruit.
Interestingly, the song of the locust includes several different terms used in order to make reference to G-d:
The first name used, Hashem, is the name of G-d that represents how He is above nature and time. It is connected to Rachamim, mercy.
Elohai (my Elohim), refers to G-d as He is expressed in nature. This name is connected to gevurah, strength or discipline.
Atah, you, is a way of calling out to G-d that shows closeness. In addition, Atah refers to G-d’s essence as manifested even higher and far above any given name.
The song of the locust, and Shevat as a whole, represents this duality of connecting to G-d in a way that is above nature yet still within it. Furthermore, the song of the locust reflects the feeling we have in Shevat of feeling distant from G-d, while still close to Him at the same time. Faith itself is a concept closely linked to this duality. Sometimes we might feel very far from G-d, but we need to understand that in actuality He is always very close.
Rav Moshe Wolfsohn explains the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the Akeidah, along the same lines, based on the Zohar. Ness means a test, but also to raise. Rav Wolfsohn teaches that the main test of the Akeidah, the tenth and final test, was not the willing to sacrifice his son (think about his first test, throwing himself into a furnace before G-d had even revealed Himself to him), but the fact that Hashem seemed to be so far away, as the verse states, “Vaya’ar Et HaMakom Merachok,” Abraham “saw the place [he was to sacrifice his son] from a distance.” Hamakom, which is usually translated as“the place,” is also one of Hashem’s names.
After years of closeness, Hashem stripped Abraham of all his levels of greatness, and Abraham now needed to serve G-d like the simplest of Jews, with simple emunah, like the Jews of our generation, of Ikvessa d’Meshicha, the times of the “heels of Mashiach.” Abraham succeeded in this test and was rewarded, “Ekev Asher Shamatah beKoli,” because you hearkened to My voice. Ekev, however, also means heel. The words can therefore mean that Abraham was rewarded because he made himself like an ekev, a heel. Abraham’s test is the test of emunah for our generation, Maaseh Avot Siman Labanim. Interestingly, the Perek Shirah verse for this week ends with the words, “Merachok Emunah Amen.” (one of the verse’s first words is Aromimchah, which means, “I will raise You,” like the word Ness) Rav Wolfsohn concludes stating that our generation, in which we do not have with us tzadikim for whom miracles were a regular occurrence, has a particularly difficult test in emunah. Certainly, Yud Shevat, which marks the passing of the Previous Rebbe, was an example of such a test.
The connection of the song of the locust to Yud Shevat is also very strong. Bati LeGani, the last ma'amar (Chassidic discourse) of the Previous Rebbe, as well as the first ma'amarof his successor, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. For over forty years, the Rebbe delved deeper and deeper into the teachings of this ma'amar, and its contents are still studied every year on this date by Chabad chassidim. The discourse is about how at first in the beginning of creation, the Shechinah resided and was revealed in the world, but then became distanced and hidden due to certain sins, beginning with the eating of the Tree of Knowledge by Adam and Eve. However, through the righteous acts of certain tzadikim, the Shechinah gradually returned to its closeness to us, culminating with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The discourse then draws a parallel to the final redemption.
The number nineteen is also related to the idea of increments: the prayer of Shmoneh Esrehwas increased from 18 to 19, and represents a ladder to G-d, just as the ladder in Jacob's dream. In that dream, the angels ascended and descended a ladder. With every blessing of the Shmoneh Esreh, we ascend this ladder, getting closer and closer to G-d.
Nineteen also equals the gematria of Eve (Chavah); some Biblical commentaries state that Eve, who was created after Adam, is a loftier version of him. It is well known that women generally have stronger and purer faith than men. It was in the merit of the Jewish women that we were redeemed from Egypt, and it will be in the merit of the Jewish women that we will be redeemed from this last exile through Mashiach.
The teaching of Pirkei Avot for this week is that of Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania. He asserts that ten men gathered and involved in the study of Torah have the Shechinah with them, as it is said, "G-d resides in the assembly of G-d "(Psalm 82:1). The same is true with five: "He established His band on earth" (Amos 9:6). The same happens with three, as we read: "G-d renders judgment in the midst of the tribunal." The same happens with two: "Then the G-d-fearing conversed with another, and G-d listened and heard." (Malachi 3:16) And finally, G-d is present even if there is only one: "In every place where I have My name mentioned, I will come to you and bless you" (Exodus 20:24; Pirkei Avot III:6).
Just as with the song of the locust, Rabbi Chalafta teaches about the different levels of G-d’s closeness and revelation. Rabbi Chalafta also teaches about the greatness of the Torah and of its ability to bring down G-d’s presence into the material world. The Rebbe specifically comments about how the actions of the ten men show different levels of G-d’s Presence. First the men are gathered – that’s one level; then they become involved – that’s a second level; then they become specifically involved in the study of Torah, that’s a third level and an even higher revelation of the Shechinah.
The combination of sefirot for this week is Hod shebeTiferet: grateful service within beauty and balance. During the month of Shevat, as we celebrate trees and nature as a whole, we have the ability to behold the wonderful and beautiful works of G-d, and to be uplifted and dazzled by it.
A similar lesson can be taken from the words of the locust: with the right amount of gratitude, appreciation, and humility, it becomes much easier to have faith and hope in our Creator. After all, are we not here witnessing His works at every moment? Conversely, we must try to fully internalize the truth that He too, is with us at every moment, even when He may seem to be very distant. In fact, those “distant” and difficult moments are when He is with us the most. In order to feel Him around us and within us, all we need to do is let Him in. As a child, the Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, "Where is G-d?" The expected answer was for a child to say what is normally taught in school, "everywhere." Instead, the Kotsker responded: "G-d is wherever you let Him in."
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