Friday, September 30, 2016

I Am Not

I Am Not
In idols
Of humans.
I'm Jewish
After all.

I wish I
Didn't need
Labels: white
Versus black
Man, woman
Short and tall.

I hope one
Day to care
Just for You
Who is Big
And not me
Who am small.

To break through
And connect
And just do
My best not
To need so
Many walls.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Week 1 (From the Book): To Raise our Heads, Choose a Master, and Recognize G-d’s Oneness

Week 1: To Raise our Heads, Choose a Master, and Recognize G-d’s Oneness

Each week will begin by quoting the week’s animal in Perek Shirah, rabbi in Pirkei Avot, and sefirah combination. The program begins on the week of Rosh Hashanah, coinciding with all or part of selichot, the days of repentance leading up to the holiday. The exact day of the week in which counting starts is the same as the day the Counting of the Omer starts, the second day of the Passover holiday.

The rooster is saying, "When the Holy One, blessed be He, comes to the righteous in the Garden of Eden, all the trees in the Garden of  Eden scatter their spices, and they rejoice and praise, and then He, too, is aroused and praises." (Zohar, Vayakhel 195b)
In its first call it says, "Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in! Who is this King of glory? G-d strong and mighty, G-d mighty in battle!" (Psalms 24:7-8)
In its second call it says, "Lift up your heads, O gates! Lift them up, O everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in! Who is this King of glory? G-d of hosts, He is the King of glory, Selah!" (Psalms 24:9-10)
In its third call it says, "Stand, O righteous ones, and busy yourselves with Torah, so that your reward will be double in the World-to-Come."
In its fourth call it says, "I have hoped for Your salvation, O G-d." (Genesis 49:18)
In its fifth call, it is saying, "How long will you sleep, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?" (Proverbs 6:9)
In its sixth call, it is saying, "Do not love sleep, lest you come to poverty; open your eyes and you shall be satisfied with bread." (Proverbs 20:13)
In its seventh call, it is saying: "It is time to act for G-d; for they have made void Your Torah." (Psalms 119:126)

Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.
They [the Men of the Great Assembly] would always say these three things: Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.
Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness.
Antignos of Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.
Yossi the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah, and Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem, received the tradition from them. Yossi the son of Yoezer of Tzreidah would say: Let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words.
Yossi the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be members of your household. And do not engage in excessive conversation with a woman. This is said even regarding one's own wife--how much more so regarding the wife of another. Hence, the sages said: One who excessively converses with a woman causes evil to himself, neglects the study of Torah, and, in the end, inherits purgatory.
Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every man to the side of merit.
Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not abandon belief in retribution.
Judah the son of Tabbai and Shimon the son of Shotach received from them. Judah the son of Tabbai would say: When sitting in judgment, do not act as a counselor-at-law. When the litigants stand before you, consider them both guilty; and when they leave your courtroom, having accepted the judgment, regard them as equally righteous.
Shimon the son of Shotach would say: Increasingly cross-examine the witnesses. Be careful with your words, lest they learn from them how to lie.
Shmaayah and Avtalyon received from them. Shmaayah would say: Love work, loath mastery over others, and avoid intimacy with the government.
Avtalyon would say: Scholars, be careful with your words. For you may be exiled to a place inhabited by evil elements [who will distort your words to suit their negative purposes]. The disciples who come after you will then drink of these evil waters and be destroyed, and the Name of Heaven will be desecrated.
Hillel and Shammai received from them. Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aaron--a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah.
He would also say: One who advances his name, destroys his name. One who does not increase, diminishes. One who does not learn is deserving of death. And one who make personal use of the crown of Torah shall perish.
He would also say: If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?
Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.
Rabban Gamliel would say: Make for yourself a master; stay away from doubt; and do not accustom yourself to tithe by estimation.
Chesed shebeChesed (kindness within the context of kindness)

The month of Tishrei is represented by the tribe of Ephraim, and is almost entirely devoted to spiritual pursuits. It is replete with Jewish holidays, full of joy from beginning to end. Ephraim, the son of Joseph, studied Torah under his grandfather Jacob and led a life that was almost completely devoted to spiritual concerns.

The first week of the Jewish calendar is the week of Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “the head of the year.” The first animal in Perek Shirah is the rooster, who awakens us by singing an introductory verse followed by seven songs, one for each day of the week. Similarly, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish people experience a spiritual awakening through the blowing of the shofar. Each of the songs of the rooster parallel the meaning behind the shofar blows that take place on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is blown 100 times, and the rooster’s verses contain 100 words.

The first week also contains the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, which are called selichot. On these days, like the rooster, we arise early in the morning in order to ask forgiveness for our sins and begin the year with a clean slate.The rooster, the majestic animal that heads the list of animals in Perek Shirah, represents the concept of G-d's kingship. It is exactly on Rosh Hashanah that the Jewish people acknowledge G-d as King.

The number one represents G-d’s unity as the Master and Creator of the universe. This is the fundamental belief of the Jewish faith.

In Pirkei Avot, the first set of sayings found in Chapter I repeat the idea of receiving guidance from a single teacher/spiritual guide (rav). In order to grow as a person, it is important to have a life coach; someone that knows us well and can therefore guide, answer questions, and be objective about what aspects of our life need improvement.

These verses of Pirkei Avot include an introduction followed by seven pairs of rabbis, which is parallel to the introduction followed by the seven songs of the rooster. Upon careful review, one will find that each of these lessons is intimately connected to Rosh Hashanah, in which we acquire G-d as our ultimate Master.

The first week is associated with the sefirah combination of chesed shebechesed. Chesed means loving kindness, and on Rosh Hashanah we feel that G-d pours his kindness upon His children.[1] The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that the blowing of the shofar is like the cry of a prince who spent years away from home and forgot his mother tongue. Seeing his father, the King, from a distance, the son screams to Him in order to be recognized.

It was exactly on Rosh Hashanah that G-d showed enormous kindness to Sarah, the first of the four matriarchs of the Jewish people. During this festival, Sarah, an elderly woman who had been unable to become pregnant her entire life, received the news that she would give birth to a son, Isaac. It was also on Rosh Hashanah that Chanah was told of the extraordinary news that she would give birth to a son, the prophet Samuel. Chanah was also barren and advanced in years. It is worth noting that the rooster is mentioned in our prayer book as an animal that recognizes the kindness of its Creator. Every day, in our morning prayers, we thank G-d for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night.

We can also learn a very important lesson in self-improvement from the rooster. It tells us to stop sleeping, to get up, and to move forward. Getting out of bed is an important first step in fighting sadness. The act of arising in the morning is a daily miracle, as well as an essential action in facing the joys and the challenges of every new day. By tapping into the song of the rooster and the call of the shofar, our physical and spiritual alarm clocks, we acknowledge G-d’s oneness, and take an important first step towards a harmonious, spiritually aware, and productive new year.

[1] It is worth noting that Rosh Hashanah is also known as “Yom HaDin,” the “Day of Judgment,” which is more associated with gevurah than with chesed. That is because Rosh Hashanah is associated with the judgment of our actions during the previous year (See Week 52), although it is also the day in which all the blessings of the coming year are determined. Perhaps that is another reason why Rosh Hashanah is called “kesseh,” the hidden holiday, for G-d’s tremendous chesed on this day is somewhat hidden. 

Additional Half Set : the Vowels and the Grass (Zadok, the Kohen Gadol)

The 24th of Elul, begins an additional set, containing 12 days, which parallels the Hebrew vowels, as well as "the Grasses" in Perek Shirah. These twelve days include the first days of creation, as well as those of Rosh Hashanah of the coming year, up to the 6th day of Tishrei.
As previously explained, the Grasses were not an original part of Perek Shirah. They were added by Rabbi Yaakov Emden. The verse was "found in an incorrect location" in some versions of Perek Shirah, and therefore transferred to an appropriate location the end of the Chapter 3, based on Talmud in Chullin 60a. (Slifkin, p. 199)
Similarly, it would not appear necessary to discuss the Hebrew vowels. Nevertheless, the twelve vowels bring the total count of the calendar to 364 days, which equals 52 weeks, the number of weeks in a solar year. There are 52 animals in Chapters 4 - 6 of Perek Shirah, one for each week of the year. (See Book I of the Kabbalah of Time)
The Hebrew vowels parallel the Kabbalistic sefirot. They give additional sound to the letters, allowing for a much greater diversity of sounds and words.
Similarly, the song of the Grasses is about diversity: The Grasses are saying, "May the glory of G-d endure forever; may G-d rejoice in His works." (Slifkin, p. 198)
As mentioned previously, this verse is derived from a passage in the Tractate of Chullin (60a). This passage is closely linked with Creation, which took place during these days:
"May the glory of G-d endure forever; may G-d rejoice in His works," - this verse was uttered by the angel of the world. At the time when the Holy One said "according to its kind" to the trees, the grasses reasoned a fortiori: "If the Holy One wants intermingling, then why did He say 'according to its kind' for the trees? And furthermore, if with trees, which do not usually grow intermingled, the Holy One said, 'according to its kind,' then how much more so does this apply to us!" Immediately each emerged according to its kind. The angel of the world opened with, "May the glory of G-d endure forever; may G-d rejoice in His works."
The song is sung at the time of creation, sung by the "angel of the world" itself. The song is about G-d's glory, His Kavod. Pirkei Avot concludes by stating that the entire world was created solely for His glory:
Everything that G-d created in His world, He did not create but for His glory. As is stated (Isaiah 43:7): "All that is called by My name and for My glory, I created it, formed it, also I made it." And it says (Exodus 15:1): "G-d shall reign forever and ever." (Chapter 6:11)
After mentioning the 24 families of Kohanim that composed the year-round shifts, this count also would appear to be complete. Yet it is worth also adding the name of the person at the head of every shift: Zadok the Kohen Gadol.
In this world, Hashem’s glory is expressed perhaps most clearly in the Kohen Gadol himself:
The [Kohen Gadol’s] garments were to be “for honor and glory” (Shemot 28:2). The Kohen Gadol wearing these garments would be a symbol to the people of the glory of God. Wearing these, he would command the people’s respect, a respect for the office, and a respect for Temple, and a respect for God.[1]
Hashem’s glory was particularly revealed through truly righteous Kohanim Gedolim, as was Zadok, who served in the times of King David. The name Zadok, from the word Tzedek (justice) also reflects God's perfect justice and (hopefully) our being judged as Tzadikim (righteous) and inscribed in the Book of Life.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Week 51 (From the Book): To Understand That We Are All One Soul

The weasel is saying, "Let every soul praise G-d, Halleluyah!" (Psalms 150:6)

Rabbi Yossi the son of Yehudah of Kfar HaBavli would say: One who learns Torah from youngsters, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks [unfermented] wine from the press. One who learns Torah from the old, whom is he comparable to? To one who eats ripened grapes and drinks aged wine.

Said Rabbi Meir: Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains. There are new vessels that are filled with old wine, and old vessels that do not even contain new wine.

Binah (understanding)

In the fifty-first week, still in the month of Elul, it is the weasel (Chuldah) who proclaims that all live beings should praise the Lord, Haleluyah! (Psalm 150:6). This is a reference to the power of repentance in the month of Elul and also to the messianic age when all beings, even the lowest, will openly praise Hashem. Week 51 also includes the 25th of Elul, the day in which the world was created (on Rosh Hashanah, man was created, See Week 52), and is therefore connected with the concept that all living things should praise G-d, the Creator and Master of the Universe.

Chuldah is also the name of one of the seven prophetesses mentioned in the Tanach. She was the last to prophesy before the beginning of the Babylonian exile. Her words related to the fall of the Davidic dynasty in the kingdom Judah. The dynasty was extremely corrupt, and the prophecy of Chuldah is very powerful and incriminating.

The weasel represents corruption and decay, both in nature and in civilization. Chuldah comes from the word Chaled, which means decadent. Interestingly, the Talmud states that the weasel is the only land animal that has no correspondent in the sea.[1] In the first time that the world became corrupt, G-d brought upon the Flood. The weasel, who cannot live in water and does not have any sea animal that corresponds to it, reminds us of this unfortunate time in the history of humanity and the world as a whole.

The weasel beautifully describes the redemption from this decaying state, as well as how to achieve it. Whereas before, due to its decadence, the whole world was destroyed as a single entity, the weasel urges us all to praise G-d together as a single entity. In the song of the weasel, the word used for living being is neshamah, which literally means breath, as well as soul. In this verse, the word is used in the singular, even though it is referring to all beings. The explanation for this is that the weasel understands that we are all ultimately a single soul, a part of G-d.

As mentioned above, neshamah also means breath. Breath itself represents life, as well as the most basic connection we have with Hashem. Through our breath we are connected to Hashem and the world constantly, in a way that is beyond our comprehension. In Elul, we recognize this constant connection with G-d. As also mentioned previously, we know that in Elul, "the King is in the field," ready to hear our requests. Elul is also a good time to go to the field or any other secluded place to breathe, meditate, and talk to Hashem.

In this week, the lesson from Pirkei Avot comes from Rabbi Yossi the son of Yehudah of Kfar HaBavli, who teaches that to learn Torah from the young is like eating unripe grapes and drinking [unfermented] wine out of the press, but to learn from older masters is like eating ripe grapes and drinking old wine. Rabbi Meir adds to this statement, saying that one should not just look at the vessel, but what is inside. There are new containers full of old wine and old vessels that do not even contain new wine. (IV: 20) Rabbi Yossi compares the Torah to wine, which affects us in ways that are beyond our intellect. Also, with age, a person acquires knowledge and experiences that go beyond his or her previous intellectual capacity.

The wine comparison made by Rabbi Yossi is also related to the sefirah of binah, the second intellectual sefirah. After the "light bulb moment" at the time an idea is conceived, that idea then needs to be developed and properly understood intellectually, just like the fermentation of wine. Rabbi Yossi teaches us that it is not ideal to learn from those who have not had time to properly process their Torah ideas, even though Rabbi Meir explains that this is not necessarily related to the teacher’s physical age.

As in the previous week, here too there is a way to understand Rabbi Yossi’s lesson in a purely positive way. The word for young, ketanim, literally means small, but can also be understood as humble, such as in the Shmuel HaKatan (the Small), who teaches the Pirkei Avot lesson for week forty-nine. The Hebrew word used for grapes, anavim, is phonetically practically the same as the word humble in Hebrew, anav. The Hebrew word used for unripe is kehot, which is also the name of Moses and Aaron’s grandfather, Kehot. Finally, the term used for "out of the winepress” is migitoh, which, with a bit of poetic license, can be read as a m’yegiatoh, which means “from one’s own efforts.” Wine is a metaphor of the most mysterious secrets of the Torah. A humble person teaches these secrets in a way in which the student deduces the most hidden secrets of the Torah through his own efforts. This is much more valuable than simply receiving all of one’s knowledge "on a silver platter."

One could then read the above verse as follows: “One who learns Torah from humble ones is like studying under Kehot, i.e., Moses and Aaron, and learning the deep secrets of the Torah through one’s own efforts. This is closely connected to Elul and Rosh Hashanah, when we humbly strive to correct our behavior and connect with G-d.
As mentioned above, this week is connected to Shavuot and to the sefirah of binah. A "gift" of self-improvement we receive from the weasel is that any person, no matter their level, can connect directly to Hashem in a simple and natural way, without the need for intermediaries, just like the very act of breathing. We must also remember to realize that we are all one.

[1] Bechorot 8A

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

Monday, September 12, 2016

Week 49 (From the Book): To Bring More Light in Order to Extinguish Darkness Altogether

The snail is saying, "Like the snail that melts away, a stillborn of a mole that does not see the sun." (Psalms 58:9)
Shmuel the Small would say: "When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; when he stumbles, let your heart not be gladdened. Lest G-d see, and it will displeasing in His eyes, and He will turn His wrath from him [to you]" (Proverbs 24:17-18).
Malchut shebeMalchut (kingship within the context of kingship)
In week forty-nine, as we approach the middle of the month of Elul, the snail in Perek Shirah declares that the enemies of Hashem will melt and will be like a stillborn that does not see the sun. (Psalm 58:9) The snail seems to be in a position that is even worse than that of the snake and the scorpion; it is literally fading and melting away. This verse is also deeply connected to the month of Elul when through our teshuvah we melt away our inner feelings of darkness and sadness and connect directly to G-d’s light.
The song of the snail comes from a Psalm in which King David refers to the ability to reduce the evil inclination to nothing, as he himself was able to accomplish. This statement is very appropriate for this week, given that it is on day forty-nine (or week 49 in this case) that we complete the Counting of the Omer. With the end of week forty-nine, we conclude the work of self-improvement of the emotional sefirot for this year. After climbing step by step, week after week, we hopefully significantly diminished the evil inclination within us.
As noted above, the number forty-nine represents the number of days of the omercount, as well as the number of years until the Jubilee. Forty-nine is the culmination of the entire omer count, and represents completion, seven times seven.
The lesson from Pirkei Avot for this week is in the words of Shmuel HaKatan (“the Small”), who teaches us not to rejoice when our enemy falls, lest G-d dislike it, and turn away His wrath from him (onto us). (Chapter IV: 19; Proverbs 24:17-18) The teaching of Shmuel is connected to how we ought to behave in the face of the fall of our greatest enemy - our evil inclination. Shmuel HaKatan, was so named because of his great humility. We must seek always to be humble, especially in these days of Elul.
And completing the cycle, this week the sefirot combination results in malchut shebemalchut, which represents completely majestic behavior still connected to this material world. Malchut is also called the “poor” sefirah, in that it has nothing of its own – it simply reflects the emanations of the other sefirot. In that sense, it is very humble, like Shmuel HaKatan.
The lesson for self-improvement derived from the snail is that we must bring the light of the Torah to all those who are currently in spiritual darkness.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Sixteenth Set of 22 Days: Tzadik Sofit, Other Sheaves and Vegetables of the Field (the Priestly Family of Immer)

Monday, the 2nd of Elul, began the sixteenth set of 22 days of the Jewish calendar. It is the last 22-day cycle of the year, which parallels the end-letter Tzadik (Tzadik Sofit), as well as the "Other Sheaves" and the Vegetables of the Field in Perek Shirah. It runs through the 23rd of Elul.

As mentioned previously, "Tzadik" means "righteous." The shape of the normal Tzadik is bent, while that of the end-letter Tzadik is straight and goes further down the page than the regular resting place of other letters. Elul is the month of Teshuvah, and the Tzadik Sofit represents the Ba'al Teshuvah.  It represents someone who went far below in order to then climb back up. Moshe, "bent" in humility, is the quintessential Tzadik. The Tzadik Sofit, the "end Tzadik," is a reference to Mashiach. Mashiach will elevate even the lowest of realms. When Mashiach comes, even Tzadikim will do Teshuvah.

Rabbi Munk explains the significance of the fact that the Tzadi Sofit is also found in the word for land, Eretz, which our sages teach is a reference to the World to Come, Olam HaBah.

"Kol yisrael yesh lahem chelek b'olam haba, sh'nemar, "v'amech kulam tzadikim, l'olam yirshu ha'aretz; netzer matai, ma'aseh yadai l'hitpaer." (transl: "Every member of Israel has a portion in the world-to-come, as it states (in Isaiah 60:21), "Your people are all righteous, they shall inherit the land forever; they are the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, so that I may be glorified.").

Any Jew - even one whose sins have caused him to forfeit his share in the World to Come - can regain his loss if he repents. Through repentance, any Jew can attain the rank of Tzadik and be worthy of a share in Eretz, the World to Come (Rambam, Hil. Teshuvah 3:14). (Rabbi Munk, p. 193)

The Tzadik's connection to land goes further. Land is constant, humble, ready to receive rain. The same is true for the righteous, as well as for all of us who engage in Teshuvah during the month of Elul.  

A similar theme can be found regarding the elements in Perek Shirah:

The Other Sheaves are saying, "The meadows are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with grain; they shout for joy, they also sing" (Psalms 65:14)

The Vegetables of the Field are saying, "You water its furrows abundantly; You settle its ridges; you make it soft with showers; You bless its growth" (Psalms 65:11)

Both songs are from the same Psalm. Their central theme is visualizing ourselves in the way we are meant to be: Tzadikim, like a land clothed with flock and grain,  singing and shouting with joy. It also about making ourselves ready to receive water (a reference to Torah), making furrows and ridges, making ourselves soft with rain, and growing.

 The Temple guard for these 22 days is connected to the priestly family of Immer. This name is connected to the verb Le'emor, "to speak." As opposed to Lehagid and Ledaber, Le'emor implies a softer kind of speech. (See also

Continuing the theme of the previous 22 days, this is month in which we go out to the field to speak to Hashem in personal prayer. It is also a month in which "the King is in the field," and is available to speak with us in a softer manner than on Rosh Hashanah (the Day of Judgement) through Yom Kippur, known as the "Yamim Nora'im," the Days of Awe.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Week 48 (From the Book): To Fight Coldness with Warmth

The scorpion is saying, "G-d is good to all, and His mercy is upon all of His handiwork." (Psalms 145:9)

Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar would say: Do not appease your friend at the height of his anger; do not comfort him while his dead still lies before him; do not ask him about his vow the moment he makes it; and do not endeavor to see him at the time of his degradation.

Yesod shebeMalchut (foundation and firmness within the context of kingship)

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.