Saturday, September 17, 2016

Week 50 (From the Book): To Know That There Are No Limits to Our Growth and Closeness to G-d

The ant is saying, "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider her ways and be wise." (Proverbs 6:6)

Elisha the son of Avuyah would say: One who learns Torah in his childhood, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on fresh paper. One who learns Torah in his old age, what is this comparable to? To ink inscribed on erased paper.

Chochmah (wisdom)

Weeks 50 to 52 represent the holiday of Shavuot, in which we are given an even higher level of the intellectual sefirot than the level originally given to us on Passover. These three weeks are also connected with the “Passover” weeks of the coming year, representing the intellectual sefirot granted prior to the Counting of the Omer. The intellectual sefirot are chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and da'at/keter (knowledge/crown). This first week is connected to the sefirah of chochmah.

On week fifty, which contains the Chassidic holiday of Chai Elul, in Perek Shirah it is the ant’s turn to sing. It tells those that are lazy to study its ways and gain wisdom. (Proverbs 6:6) Chai Elul is the birthday of the Ba’al Shem Tov as well as that of the Alter Rebbe. The Ba'al Shem Tov was the founder of the Chassidic movement, and the one who revealed deep secrets of the Torah that enabled every Jew to serve Hashem on a higher level. The Alter Rebbe, who considered himself the spiritual grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, was the founder of Chabad Chassidism. The name Chabad is an acronym for the three intellectual sefirot, chochmah, binah and da'at, often translated as wisdom, understanding, and knowledge. The main goal of Chabad Chassidism is to bring light and Chassidic warmth to the intellect, the coldest part of the human being. As mentioned in week twelve, Chassidism lights a certain fire inside the person, a kind of wake up call for us to serve Hashem more appropriately and be more diligent, like the ant.[1]

The number fifty represents the festival of Shavuot as well as the Jubilee year. Fifty, like the number eight, symbolizes something extraordinary, beyond nature and beyond human comprehension. The ant is an example of an animal that does not appear to conform to logical parameters. Its force appears to be above comprehension, since it is able to carry loads that are dozens of times its own weight. The ant sings of how we can acquire wisdom, chochmah, by following its own example and behavior. To the extent that we are connected to Hashem, we are also capable of doing things that at first glance appear to be impossible, because G-d’s power is completely beyond nature. When we connect to the immense teshuvah that results from the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe, as well as the many great miracles that took place during their lives, the power and energy we receive on Chai Elul itself is also something that exceeds our comprehension.

In Pirkei Avot, Elisha the son of Avuyah states that those who learn Torah when young are compared to ink written on new paper, while those that learn it in their old age resemble ink written on paper that has been erased. (IV: 20) This first interaction with the Torah, both by a child and by an older person is linked to sefirah of chochmah. Chochmah represents the first contact with the wisdom, that feeling we have when an idea first lights up in our minds.

The Talmud refers to Elisha the son of Avuyah as Acher, "The Other," because he was excommunicated by the rabbis of the time. His actions and behavior were incredibly disrespectful and evil in G-d’s eyes, to the point that a heavenly voice declared that everyone should do teshuvah, except for Elisha the son of Avuyah.[2] It is not mere coincidence that Acher falls exactly in the week of Chai Elul. The Chassidic way is always to try to find the good side of people and situations, and to bring closer even those furthest away and help them do teshuvah. This was previously explained in week 12 as well, the week of the 19th of Kislev, the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism, in which the raven sings. The Rebbe of Lubavitch, based on an interpretation of the Arizal, explains that G-d would have accepted even Acher’s repentance.[3]

Furthermore, the teaching of Elisha the son of Avuyah, which appears to be negative, can also be taken in an extremely positive way. The word used for old, zaken, also means wise, and stands for “zeh shekanah chochmah,” one who has acquired wisdom.[4] The word used for erased machuk, is spelled the same as mechok, which means from a chok, a law of the Torah that is beyond human comprehension. With these two concepts in mind, the second part of the teaching of Elisha the son of Avuyah can be understood in the following sense: a sage who studies the Torah resembles the ink written on paper absorbed as a law that is beyond human comprehension. A true sage accepts all of the Torah, even the parts that are more comprehensible to the human mind, as if it were all a chok, something beyond understanding. This in fact was exactly the initial mistake that Acher made that led him astray. He was somewhat arrogant and thought that he could understand everything with his intellect. When faced with a particular situation that went beyond his logical grasp, he became a heretic. The Ba’al Shem Tov always extolled the beauty of the faith of simple Jews who lacked great understanding. These Jews accepted the Torah as if it were all a chok.

Moreover, the Alter Rebbe teaches that the word chok is also connected to the word chakuk, meaning carved or etched. When a person begins to study Torah, he or she connects to the Torah, but both the person and the Torah are still separate entities, such as the ink and the paper. However, once a human being matures and studies like a sage, the person and the Torah become a single entity - the Torah is carved in the heart of the person, and there is no way to erase it any longer. This concept can also be found in the Talmud, in the tractate of Shvuot, which states that when a person begins to study the Torah it is called the Torah of Hashem. After studying, that Torah is now called Toratoh (his Torah), since the Torah is now an intrinsic part of that person.

Acher’s lesson is also connected to the ant. As much as the ant has the wonderful qualities noted above, it is also capable of having a not very positive characteristic: feelings of arrogance and superiority. We see that in its own song, it calls others lazy while praising its own qualities. In many ways, arrogance is even considered worse than sin. About someone arrogant, G-d says that "He and I cannot live together." This is something very serious, and something Chassidism also came to fix. There is a well known saying by one of the most extraordinary of all Chabad chassidim, Reb Hillel Paritcher. He said that before he became a chassid, he considered himself a tzadik. However, once he began to study the Tanya (the main writing of the Alter Rebbe), he thought to himself: " Halevai [I hope I can become] a beinoni (an intermediate Jew)!" The Alter Rebbe himself emphasized the importance of humility in a ma'amar (Chassidic discourse) he recited soon after his release from prison on the 19th of Kislev. In this ma’amar, entitled Katonti (I became small), the Alter Rebbe explains that we must realize that any accomplishment we achieve is due to the grace shown to us by G-d. Acknowledging this Divine assistance should make us even more grateful, small, and humble. Every time we get closer to G-d we must feel even smaller in relation to Him. This correct response to blessings we receive is exemplified by Jacob after he fled from Laban.

At the end of the first chapter of the Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains that impurity, kelipah, is linked to the four natural elements: fire, water, air and earth. The Alter Rebbe explains that fire is connected to anger and arrogance (the ant). Water represents the desire for physical pleasure (the snake). Air is connected to indifference and sarcasm (the scorpion). Earth represents sadness and laziness (the snail). During the first four weeks connected to the month of Elul, we do teshuvah for our sins related to each one of these elements and animals.[5]

In the Talmudic tractate of Chullin, Rabbi Akiva states the following:

How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! Thou hast creatures that live in the sea and Thou hast creatures that live upon the dry land; if those of the sea were to come up upon the dry land they would straightway die, and if those of the dry land were to go down into the sea they would straightway die. Thou hast creatures that live in fire and Thou hast creatures that live in the air; if those of the fire were to come up into the air they would straightway die, and if those of the air were to go down into the fire they would straightway die. How manifold are Thy works, O Lord![6]

Rabbi Akiva’s statement is connected to the four natural elements mentioned above. In fact, he seems to be teaching how to deal with these different types of kelipah: take them out of their natural habitat.
As mentioned above, this week is connected to Shavuot and to the sefirah of chochmah. This week would also represent the “eighth week,” of Shavuot and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of malchut.

The great "gift" of self-improvement that we can receive from the ant is that there are no limits to our closeness to Hashem, and that like the ant we can serve as an example for people who wish to attain higher levels in their Judaism.

[1] Hayom Yom, 17th of Av, p. 79a
[2] Talmud Yerushalmi, Chagigah 77B
[3] Marcus, p. 151
[4] Talmud, Kedushin 32b
[5] See also the writings regarding the month of Elul of Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulay, the Chidah.
[6] Chullin 127A