Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Week 32 (From the Book): To Recognize Deep in Our Heart How Small We Are, How Great G-d Is

The mule is saying, "All the kings of earth shall acknowledge You, G-d, for they have heard the sayings of Your mouth." (Psalms 138:4)

Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh would say: Be very, very humble, for the hope of mortal man is worms.

Netzach shebeHod (victory and endurance within the context of glory and gratefulness)

In week thirty-two, the second week of the month of Iyar, in Perek Shirah, the mule declares that all the kings of the earth will acknowledge the words of Hashem. (Psalm 138:4) This week is still connected to the miracles of Israel’s independence. (See Appendix 2) It was during this time that the right of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel was clearly recognized by the leaders of the world and the United Nations. A verse of the Psalms states, "Do not be like the horse or like the mule, without understanding."[1] It took the nations of the world a long time to understand the right of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, but at least during this brief moment in history, the world recognized this right.

There is an interesting contrast between this week’s animal, the mule, closely related to the gentile prophet Bilaam (whose mule spoke to him), and the animal of the following week, the donkey, which is connected to Abraham, as well as to Moshe and Mashiach. There is a very strong parallel between some of the main events in Abraham’s life and those in the life of Bilaam. Pirkei Avot teaches that Abraham and Bilaam are polar opposites. While Abraham was humble and the greatest source of blessing, Bilaam was arrogant and the greatest source of curse. Rashi also makes a comparison between when Abraham gets up early in the morning to saddle his donkey, in order to perform the sacrifice of Isaac, and later, when Bilaam gets up early in the morning to saddle his mule, in order to meet Balak, perform sacrifices, and attempt to curse the Jewish people. Abraham and his descendants were promised the Land of Israel, while Balak and Bilaam did everything in their power to take away the Land from the Jewish people. In the end, Bilaam was forced not only to recognize the glory of Israel, but to praise it and bless it tremendously. Both Bilaam and Balak were later defeated by the conquering Israelites.

As explained earlier, the month of Iyar is connected to the tribe of Issachar, who in the Torah is called a “strong-boned donkey.” The mule is the product of the breeding a donkey with a horse. The mule also represents an aspect of physical deficiency and the need for healing connected to this month: the mule is physically incapable of procreating.

The number thirty-two is a reference to the thirty-two paths of wisdom (chochmah) mentioned in Kabbalah. There are three opinions regarding Bilaam’s connection to Laban. Bilaam was either Laban himself, Laban’s son, or his grandson. Laban’s name, Lamed Beit Nun, represents the 32 paths of wisdom (lamed beit) and the fifty gates of understanding (nun). (See Week 23) Had Laban nullified himself before Yaakov, the tzadik of the generation, the evil in him would have been nullified, and all these levels would be revealed in him.[2]

Thirty-two is formed by the letters lamed and beit, which together form the word lev, which means heart. Sometimes we can understand something with our intellect, but it is still hard to make our heart also understand. Despite the stubbornness of our heart, ultimately we will all fully acknowledge Hashem, as the song of the mule so clearly states. Perhaps a way to speed this process along is to focus on the famous expression of our sages in the Talmud, which was often quoted by the Lubavitcher Rebbe: “Words that come from the heart [certainly] enter the heart.”

The word lev does not only describe the physical heart, but is also used metaphorically. When we use the expression "heart of something," we are referring to the essence of it. The Torah, which is the essence of Hashem, ends with the letter lamed and begins with the letter beit, forming the word lev. Similarly, the Land of Israel is the heart of our people, and Jerusalem is “the heart of our heart.”[3]

In the episode of the spies, the only one other than Joshua that strongly stood for our ability to conquer the Land of Israel was called Kalev. The very name of Kalev shows his strong connection to our heart, the Land of Israel.

In the Pirkei Avot for this week, Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh appears to focus on the potentially negative part of our hearts, the yetzer harah. He teaches us to be extremely humble in spirit, for man’s hope is [to be fed to the] worms. (IV: 4) Rabbi Levitas reminds us that if we focus on our physical side (the word he uses for man is enosh, the lowest of all names for a human being), our only hope is to be food for worms. However, if instead we focus on our soul, the divine aspects within us, then we will know how to better to use our hearts, and will be able to truly love our neighbor as ourselves. This is also the lesson found in Chapter 32, the lev (heart) of the Tanya. (See also next week)

Rabbi Levitas’ words closely resemble the phrase for which perhaps Abraham is most famous: "I am like dust and ashes." Dust, because man comes from dust and returns to it; and ashes because Abraham and Sarah were sterile and could not have children, just like the mule. However, G-d is capable of anything ... giving children to Abraham and Sarah, making a mule speak, making the kings of the nations recognize his words, and even making Bilaam bless Israel!

This week’s sefirah combination results in netzach shebehod. It takes great persistence to get through to our hearts and achieve higher levels in the service of Hashem. The mule itself exemplifies this aspect of persistence and stubbornness. This week is also the yahrzeit of Eli the High Priest (10th of Iyar). Besides being the Kohen Gadol, he was also leader of the generation. He therefore perfectly represented the combination of these two sefirot, netzach and hod (interestingly, Samuel the Prophet, Eli’s disciple, also represents both netzach and hod, as the Book of Psalms equates him to both Moses and Aaron). Eli’s death, in which he fell backwards and broke his neck after hearing about the fate of the Mishkan, has a close association with the donkey, next week’s animal. The Torah commands that if an owner does not intend to redeem a firstborn donkey with a sacrifice, he must break the donkey’s neck. In Kabbalah, the neck is the part of the body most associated with the Holy Temple and the Mishkan. Another animal that has a commandment related to the breaking of a neck is a female calf. This is in the case of an unexplained murder. The mule is closely associated with donkey and is female like the calf.

A lesson to be drawn from the song of the mule is that even kings, those that are rich and powerful, have to understand that they are ultimately completely subjugated to Hashem. Hashem controls everything and everyone, without distinction. If anything, a king’s behavior is even more subjugated than others, as is stated in Proverbs: “A king's heart is like rivulets of water in the Lord's hand; wherever He wishes, He turns it.”[4] 









[1] Psalm 32:9
[3] Elie Wiesel, open letter to the President. Available at: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/137057
[4] Ch. 21:1
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