Thursday, February 16, 2017

Week 21 (From the Book): To Keep Things in Perspective

The fly, when Israel is not busying itself with Torah, is saying: "The voice said, 'Call out'. And he said, 'What shall I call out? All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field.' ‘…The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord shall endure forever.’" "I will create a new expression of the lips: Peace, peace for him who is far off and for him who is near, says G-d, and I will heal him." (Isaiah 40:6,8; 57:19)

Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, "How beautiful is this tree!", "How beautiful is this ploughed field!"---the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.

Malchut shebeTiferet (kingship within the context of beauty and balance)

On the twenty-first week, coming to the end of the month of Shvat, in Perek Shirah the fly calls out to the Jewish people when they are not engaging in the study of Torah. The song of the fly appears to be a kind of dialogue. One voice exclaims, "Call out!" and then a second voice responds, "What shall I say? All life is like the grass and the flower of the field… the grass withers and the flower fades... but the word of the Lord our G-d shall stand forever. The Creator of speech of the lips is saying, Peace, peace to the distant and to the near, says the Lord, and I shall heal." (Isaiah 40:6-8 and 57:19). This week marks the yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe’s wife, on the 22nd of Shevat.

Soon after Tu B'Shvat, when we emphasize the importance of trees and nature, the fly comes to remind us that nature and life itself, although beautiful, pleasurable, and meaningful, are ultimately fleeting. Even though they are a reflection of the Creator, but it is ultimately only the Creator Himself, and those indelibly attached to Him, that are eternal. Interestingly, flies do not disturb the tzadikim. Perhaps this explains why we only know the song that the fly sings when the Jews are not studying Torah. When we are truly engaged in the study of Torah, we are all tzadikim. Flies do not approach us, and therefore we cannot know what they are singing.

The fly reminds us of one of the most beautiful and happy stories of our people linked to a woman: the story of Ishah Shunamit, the Shunammite woman. This woman performed the great mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, hospitality, based on a tradition inherited from our father Abraham. She prepared a special room for the prophet Elisha to always be able to stay with her and her husband. The Talmud and the Zohar explain that she understood the greatness of the prophet Elisha, because she never saw a fly land on his table.[1] This story is about the sanctification of pleasure – Elisha’s table was like the Temple’s altar, where there were never any flies, despite the constant meat and blood.

Even though she was childless, the Ishah Shunamit was always very satisfied with what she had. When asked by the prophet if she needed anything, she replied by stating, "I dwell within my people." Her behavior towards Elisha the prophet, the disciple of Elijah, is one of the prime biblical examples of humility, modesty, kindness and hospitality.

These characteristics also find expression in the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. The Rebbetzin also had no children of her own, yet considered all her "people," the Chassidim, to be her children. She was the Rebbe’s best friend and most devout partner throughout his life. The Rebbetzin was also known for her great kindness, hospitality, and modesty, which she learned from the home of her father, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. (See Week 19)

The number twenty-one is the sum of the first three letters of Hashem’s name. Interestingly, 21 is also the square root of 441, the gematria (numeric value) of the Hebrew word Emet, truth, which, as explained in Week 4, is G-d’s “seal.” This continues building on the above themes of maintaining the proper focus on Hashem and his eternal truth. 

The lesson in Pirkei Avot for the week after Tu B'Shvat, taught by Rabbi Yaakov, continues on this same theme: “When one is on a path studying Torah, if one interrupts his study and exclaims: ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field,’ it is considered by Scripture as if he were endangering his life. (III:7) Rabbi Yaakov’s words parallel the song of the fly. We must maintain our focus on what is truly important and everlasting, and continue in our main path, which is to advance in our study and transmission of Torah knowledge. The study of the eternal words of the Creator should not be interrupted in order to enjoy fleeting occurrences or even to exalt His own Creation.[2]

During this week, we complete the third cycle of seven weeks, and the sefirah combination results in Malchut shebeTiferet: kingship within beauty. Malchut is a female sefirah. The truest and everlasting feminine beauty is inner beauty, as the verse in Psalms states, "Kol Kvudah Bat Melech Pnimah, all the glory [and beauty] of the princess is within.” Similarly, one of the last verses of Eshet Chayil sung before Kiddush on Shabbat night, "charm is deceitful and beauty is vanity; a woman that is G-d-fearing, she is the one to be praised." These verses are also one of the last verses in Solomon’s Book of Proverbs. King Solomon, who also wrote Ecclesiastes, knew very well which things were of permanent value, and which were simply “vanity of vanities.”

Similarly, we can learn from the fly the invaluable lesson that while most things are temporary, Hashem and His Torah are eternal and permanent. Therefore, we should also try to strengthen even more our connection with G-d, speaking directly to Him – there is no need of intermediaries. Healing always comes through Him, and only the ways of the Torah can bring true peace and satisfaction.




[1] Brachot 10b
[2] The Maggid of Mezritch explains that this teaching is referring to someone who stops learning in order to reflect on how much he has learned. (Marcus, p. 91) The 22nd of Shevat  is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, known for cutting through people’s “flowery” egocentric behavior and focusing completely on the truth.
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