Sunday, July 31, 2016

Week 43 (From the Book): To Pursue the Enemy and to Pursue Peace

The cat is saying, "If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars, from there I shall bring you down, says G-d." (Obadiah 1:4) (…) And when the cat catches [the mouse], the cat says, “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them, and I did not return until they were destroyed. (Psalms 18:38) 

Rabbi Yehudah [Bar Ilai] would say: Be careful with your studies, for an error of learning is tantamount to a willful transgression.

Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yochai] would say: There are three crowns--the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty--but the crown of good name surmounts them all.

Chesed shebeMalchut (kindness within the context of kingship)

Week forty-three is the week of Rosh Chodesh Av, when in Perek Shirah it is the turn of the cat to praise Hashem. At first, the cat sings that although the enemy may rise as high as the eagle and make its nest among the stars, G-d will bring it down. (Obadiah 1:4) After catching the mouse, the cat declares that it pursued its enemies and seized them, and did not return until they were destroyed. (Psalm 18:38) During this week we begin counting the Nine Days leading up to Tisha b’Av, a period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple that is even more intense (and requires greater hardships) than the rest of the Three Weeks.

The cat is like a miniature lion. On this month, we all have the potential to be like lions. Mashiach will be born in the month of Av, and will reign on earth like a lion. Rosh Chodesh Av is the yahrzeit of Aaron, one of the few yahrzeit dates mentioned explicitly in the Torah. Aaron was known for his incessant pursuit of peace.

The month of Av corresponds to the zodiac sign of Leo. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, quoted in Week 38, shows the clear relationship of the month of Av with the lion. This month is represented by the tribe of Shimon, who was known for its attribute of severe judgment. This month is also related to the tikkun, repair, of the sense of hearing. The name Shimon comes from the Hebrew word Shmiah, hearing, and this month is also connected to the tikkun of the sin that took place when the Children of Israel listened to the report of the spies.

It was in Av that the spies returned from the Land of Israel and described it to the people. Instead of focusing on Kalev and Joshua’s positive account, the people focused on the negative account of the other ten spies and wept bitterly. Our sages teach us that because the Jewish People cried for no reason, Hashem would now give them a reason to cry for generations to come. The night the Jewish people cried was Tisha B’Av, the day in which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.[1]

The relationship between the cat and the mouse in Perek Shirah can be interpreted (at least) in two different ways. First, throughout history, the Jews played the role of the mouse, serving as prey for our enemies inside the nations in which we were exiled. For approximately the past two thousand years, we have been in the exile of Esau/Edom (Rome). However, in messianic times, these roles will be reversed. We will be the ones to pursue our enemies, specifically, the nation of Amalek, a descendant of Esau, who represents the height of immorality and G-dlessness.

The song of the cat comes from the prophet Obadiah, a convert from the nation of Edom, and whose entire prophecy is directed against it. Edom represents Rome and its descendants, and it was Rome which caused the destruction of the Second Temple. The prophet predicts that one day Edom will be punished for its actions.

The number forty-three is formed by the Hebrew letters gimmel and mem. These letters appear to reference the war of Gog uMagog, the two root letters of these words. According to Jewish tradition, Gog uMagog will be the final war before the coming of Mashiach. This war is believed to involve the descendants of Esau and Yishmael.

Mem and gimmel also form the Hebrew word gam, which means “also.” This word appears prominently in the Psalm most connected to Aaron, whose yahrzeit is this week: “Hineh Mah Tov uMah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad... “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers also to dwell together!  / As the good oil on the head runs down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron...”[2] Rav Ovadia Yosef asks why the word gam (also) is included in this verse, as it seems to be completely superfluous. He explains that when brothers sit together usually family problems come to the surface. Nevertheless, this also is for the good; we should also sit together despite such problems, and do our best to solve them.

There is also a similar connection here with the song of the cat, Aaron’s yahrzeit, and the tikkun of the month of Av. Like the cat, Aaron also pursued enemies, but only did so in order to achieve peace between them and to bring them closer to the Torah. As Hillel states in Pirkei Avot, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.” This is how we transform the negative forces of this month into positive ones. As previously mentioned, the Temple was destroyed due to Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, and will be rebuilt through Ahavat Chinam, baseless love.

This week in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilai warns us to be cautious in our study because an inadvertent error (due to insufficient study) is considered a voluntary transgression. It is well known that the cause of the destruction of the First Temple was due to the lack of importance given to Torah study.
Moreover, Rabbi Yehudah is a perfect example of the possibility of peace between Jacob and Esau, the Jewish people and the Romans. Once Rabbi Yehudah encountered a Roman stranger, who had just experienced a shipwreck and was its only survivor. Despite not knowing who this stranger was, Rabbi Yehudah immediately gave the man of his own clothes. It was later discovered that this man was a powerful Roman legislator, and that due to Rabbi Yehudah’s kindness he annulled all the harsh decrees that were about to be imposed on the Jewish people at that time.[3]

This week also includes an additional statement by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who teaches that there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of the kingship, but that the crown of a good name surpasses them all. (IV: 13) The crowns mentioned by Rabbi Shimon are also all closely related to the major figures of this week and this month: Aharon HaKohen (priesthood) and Mashiach (kingship), as well Rabbi Shimon himself (Torah).

It is fascinating that additional words of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai are included along with Rabbi Yehudah’s statements. Unlike Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon initially did not get along well with the Romans. When Rabbi Yehudah once praised the Romans for building bridges, etc., Rabbi Shimon stated that he should not praise the Romans, because all that they do is for their own benefit. When the Roman emperor heard of this, Rabbi Yehudah was honored with a high position, while Rabbi Shimon was forced to flee and famously spent the next 12 years inside a cave with his son, Rabbi Elazar.

There is a tradition that Rabbi Shimon is a descendant of the Tribe of Shimon, the tribe of this month.[4] Rabbi Shimon’s own life reflects a transition and tikkun of Shimon’s strict justice. While in the cave, along with his son, he was concerned with pure spirituality. After leaving the cave, he could not understand how people were spending so much time with material concerns, to the extent that everything that he and his son saw would be consumed by fire. He was therefore sent back to the cave, and stayed there for another year. When he came out of the cave the second time, he understood the value of being involved with the material world, which is related to his problems with the Roman way of doing things. 

Rabbi Shimon’s sayings in Pirkei Avot also appear to reflect this transition. Rabbi Shimon’s previous sayings strictly focused on the importance of Torah over material things, while these additional sayings include the importance of other qualities other than Torah. It is quite appropriate that his sayings here are juxtaposed with Rabbi Yehuda’s.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s additional words also seem to be literally complementing his saying in Week 16. There he mentions “three,” but does not specify to what exactly three is referring. It is assumed that it means "three people." This time, he states, “there are three crowns.” (It is interesting that both his sayings start with the word shloshah, three, and that the number he is most associated with is thirty-three, as Lag Ba’Omer is the 33rd day of the omer). This could also be read as "the three [mentioned previously] are the crowns (shloshah, ketarim hem). His previous saying can then be understood as follows: if a person has all three crowns “on his table,” meaning he has the qualities of Torah, priesthood, and kingship, such a person should be praised by others and seen as a true example of a “Torah lifestyle” (i.e. given the crown of a “Good Name”).

There is a well known story in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai gave an interpretation of “Hineh Mah Tov uMah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad...” and ended a drought. Again, Rashbi now understood the need for material concerns as well.

When each rabbi of Pirkei Avot represents a day of the omer count, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's words span approximately the entire month of Iyar, the month of Rabbi Shimon's yahrzeit (as well as Rabbi Yehudah's).  His first saying falls on 16th day of the omer, the 1st of Iyar, and his additional words are on the 43rd day of the omer, 28th of Iyar, Yom Yerushalayim. In terms of weeks, they span from the week after the Tenth of Teveth, to the week before Tisha B’Av.

This week, the combination of sefirot results in chesed shebemalchut, kindness within the context of kingship. Like Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilai, we strive to do good deeds that have a direct impact on this material world. (This week would also represent the “eighth week,” the “Shavuot” and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of Yesod)

Similarly, the lesson we can draw from the cat is that just as it chases after the mouse, we should be like Aaron and "pursue" those around us in a positive and friendly manner, to bring them closer to the path of unity, love, peace, and truth, all of which are quintessential “Torah values.”




[1] Talmud, Ta'anit 29a
[2] Psalm 133
[3] Marcus, p. 138
[4] Ryzman
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