Saturday, September 3, 2016
Week 48 (From the Book): To Fight Coldness with Warmth
In week forty-eight, which includes the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul, the scorpion in Perek Shirah sings of how G-d is good to all and is merciful to all His creations. (Psalm 145:9) The scorpion carries a heavy load of transgression and sin, and therefore thanks G-d for His mercy towards it.
Spiritually speaking, the scorpion’s venom is worse than that of the snake. The snake's venom is hot, representing passion and desire for forbidden things; however, the scorpion’s venom is cold, symbolizing indifference. It is much easier to redirect passion for what is forbidden towards something positive than it is to attempt to "redirect" indifference.
Nevertheless, it is possible to “treat” indifference as well, through the study of Torah. We see this in the purification process of the metzorah, someone who had been inflicted with a form of spiritual “leprosy/psoriasis” due to slander or other related sins and/or problematic social behaviors. The Torah concludes this section by stating, “zot Torat hametzorah,” “this is the Torah of the metzorah.” The Alter Rebbe asks why verse uses the word “Torah,” when instead is should have simply stated “this is the purification of the metzorah.” The answer is that the Torah is the metzorah’s purification.
The number forty-eight is the number of qualities listed in Pirkei Avot necessary in order to acquire the Torah. It is also the number of male prophets and the number Levitical cities explicitly mentioned in the Torah. All of these three categories have at least one thing in common: they each represent the Torah itself.
The Hebrew letters for the number forty-eight is mem and chet, which spell the word mo’ach, brain. The intellect is the main conduit to receiving and internalizing the Torah, but it is also usually associated with coolness. However, by inverting these two letters, one spells the word cham, which means hot. Perhaps this is another hint as to how to combat coldness and indifference. At times one might need to let go of one’s intellect, even if only temporarily, in order to divert feelings of indifference and convert them into a heated desire for Torah and mitzvot.
The Pirkei Avot lesson this week is contained in the teachings of Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar. He advises us not to appease our neighbor at the time of his anger, not to console a mourner while his dead lies before him, not to ask about the details of a vow at the time it is made, and not to seek someone at the time of his degradation. (IV: 18) Rabbi Shimon’s words are the inverse of the scorpion’s song, as it describes situations in which a person is affected and overly "heated" by their emotions. At such times, any attempt to interfere, even for the sake of helping out that person, would most likely prove to be counterproductive. In the situations described by Rabbi Shimon, it is better to coldly use our intellect and to distance ourselves from the situation for now. In this sense, the cold qualities of the scorpion can be used for the good.
The words of Rabbi Shimon also describe part of the process teshuvah during Elul. At first, in the heat of Rosh Chodesh Elul, we might think that we can repent from all sins and transform ourselves in a single moment. While this certainly is possible, usually the most effective teshuvah is the one that is experienced over a longer period of time. That is why we gradually perform teshuvah over the course of the entire month of Elul, in order to remain firm in our resolve all the way to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
This sefirot combination for this week results in yesod shebemalchut. During this week, we intensify our Jewish foundation to do teshuvah, thereby further establishing G-d’s kingship in this world.
Finally, the lesson in self-improvement we learn from the scorpion is that we have the ability and the responsibility to help those individuals who are distanced from the Torah and to show them the warmth and the beauty of Judaism.
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