Thursday, April 20, 2017

Week 29 (From the Book): After the Initial Inspiration, To Get to Work

PEREK SHIRAH: The beast of burden is saying, "When you eat the fruit of your labors, happy are you and good is your lot." (Psalms 128:2)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Eliezer [the son of] Chisma would say: the laws of kinin (bird offerings) and the laws of menstrual periods---these, these are the meat of Halachah (Torah law). The calculations of solar seasons and gematria are the condiments of wisdom.

SEFIRAH COMBINATION: Chesed shebeHod (kindness within the context of glory and gratefulness)

As we enter the twenty-ninth week, the week of Passover, in Perek Shirah, the large impure (non-kosher) domestic animal sings that those that eat from the work of their own hands are praiseworthy and are blessed with good. (Psalm 128:2) This animal has been translated by Rabbi Slifkin simply as the “beast of burden.”[1] On Passover, we feel the influx of Hashem’s blessings and redemption. At the same time, from the second day of Passover onwards, the Jewish people begin counting the omer and begin working towards self-improvement. Thus, by the time Shavuot arrives, we will have merited to receive the Torah, at least in part through the work of our own hands.

This week’s animal appears to be a reference to Yishmael and his descendants. This son of Abraham was known for his great capacity for praying and for trusting in G-d’s blessings and salvation.[2] In fact, Yishmael did receive great blessings, although part of the blessings showed that there were aspects of his lifestyle that still needed to be improved. The angel tells Hagar, Yishmael’s mother, that "his hand would be on everyone.”[3] Later in life, Yishmael repents, returns to G-d, and has a good relationship with Isaac.[4] In messianic times, Isaac and Yishmael will coexist in peace.

Our sages interpret the verse of the beast of burden to be a dual blessing, “praiseworthy” – in this world, and “good for you” - in the world to come. There is a custom in Chassidic circles, instituted by the Ba’al Shem Tov, to make a meal on the eighth day of Passover called Moshiach Seudah, in honor of Mashiach and the world to come.

The number twenty-nine is connected to the cycle of the moon (29.5 days to be exact), on which the Jewish month is based. Muslims, who consider themselves descendants of Yishmael, follow a purely lunar calendar. Twenty-nine is also the number of days in a woman’s menstrual cycle. (See Pirkei Avot below)

The lesson in Pirkei Avot for this week is found in the teaching of Rabbi Elazar the son of Chismah. He explains that the laws relating to bird sacrifices and menstrual cycles are essential, while astronomy and numerological calculations (gematria) are the spice of wisdom. (III:18) On Passover, we do not eat chametz, leavened bread. Spiritually, this represents the notion that on Passover we set aside everything that makes us feel “inflated” and takes away from our essence, our core identity as reflected in our relationship with G-d and with each other.    

Furthermore, on Passover, G-d connects to us on a deeply personal level, primarily as our Redeemer, instead of as the Creator of the Universe. (See Appendix I) This appears to be taught in this week’s Pirkei Avot: G-d does not want us to lose ourselves in grandiose and esoteric topics, such as astronomy and gematria. He would rather see us involved also in the details of properly serving Him in how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis.

The two sets of laws mentioned in Pirkei Avot are particularly important to daily conduct. They are fundamental to the relationship between G-d and the Jewish People, and between husband and wife (which is also a metaphor for our relationship with G-d, as expressed in Solomon’s Song of Songs). Bird sacrifices are related to our ability to come closer to G-d.  The word for sacrifice in Hebrew is korban, from the word karov, which means close (nowadays, because we cannot bring sacrifices, prayer and study serve as substitutes). Similarly, the laws related to the female menstrual cycle are essential in order to make wives permissible to their husbands.[5]

This week, the combination of sefirot results in chesed shebehod. This week, we work on ourselves in order to properly receive and appreciate G-d’s blessings that we receive during Passover. (This week would also represent the “eighth week” of Shavuot and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of Netzach. This is appropriate, as Pessach is the festival of redemption)

We learn from the beast of burden that in our path towards righteousness, Hashem helps us and journeys with us along the way. Nevertheless, we should not want or expect our spiritual development to be "spoon-fed." Even if ultimately everything comes from G-d, we must work hard to achieve spiritual elevation ourselves.






[1] Slifkin, p. 11
[2] Genesis 21:10, 48:22, Targum
[3] Ibid.
[4] Genesis 25:9, Rashi
[5] The Torah sets forth laws regarding times during a woman’s menses in which husband and wife do not touch, and instead interact primarily on a spiritual plane. These essential laws help preserve a higher level intimacy and attraction, since the physical side of the relationship is renewed each month.
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