Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Week 15 (Book 3): Peleg and Evil Speech

SONG OF THE SEA: People heard, they trembled; a shudder seized the inhabitants of Philistia.
HAFTORAH: Then the people of the Lord went down to the cities. Praise! Praise! Deborah.
TALMUD SOTAH: Daf 15 - The Metzorah
JOURNEYS IN THE DESERT: They journeyed from Hazeroth and camped in Rithmah.

On Week 15 is the fast of the 10th of Teveth, which marks the day in which the Babylonian Empire laid siege to Jerusalem, which was eventually destroyed. The verses of the Song of the Sea speak of how the people heard and trembled, and how the Phlistine inhabitants were seized by a shudder. Many years later, it would be the Jewish people that would tremble and shudder with the coming of the Babylonians and the siege they placed on Jerusalem. In the future, the 10thof Teveth day will be a day of celebration.

 The Haftorah’s verses describe how the people of G-d descended to the cities. The Hebrew word for cities used here is Shearim, which also means gates. On the 10th of Teveth, Nebuchadnezar and his people, who the prophets exclaim were sent by G-d, descended upon the city of Jerusalem and surrounded its gates.

Rashi explains that the reason the song states, “Praise, Praise Devorah!” is because the spirit of G-d had left her, because she had praised herself. This is connected to the idea that the First Temple was destroyed (and the spirit of G-d left it) because the people did not make the blessing over Torah study. First and foremost, we must realize that all Torah knowledge and all prophecy comes directly from G-d, and that there is no room to praise oneself.

Daf Tes Vav (Folio 15) of Sotah is continues the explanation of what the Sotahoffering entailed. The entire Daf consists primarily of contrasting the offering of the Sotah with that of the Metzorah, one who had contacted a spiritual skin disease resembling leprosy or psoriasis. The Talmud also notes that the purification of the Metzorah is more severe than that of the Sotah. The Metzorah’s sin is related to Lashon Harah, evil speech/slander, which, as mentioned last week, is equivalent to all three major sins in the Torah (idolatry, adultery, and murder), another reason given for why the First Temple was destroyed. The Metzorah himself must be exiled from the camp, and can only return once purified of his condition. His exile is similar to the exile endured by the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple.

The Torah explains that Peleg was so named because it was in his days that the Tower of Bavel was made and the world’s population was split and spread into different lands. This “exile” is parallel to that of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple. The division also appears parallel to the Metzorah above, who was punished with exile because he had himself caused divisiveness among others with his evil speech.

The Babylonians made a point of exiling most of the Jewish people from the land and bringing a different people to dwell in parts of the Land of Israel. The split between the Jewish community in Israel and that of the Babylonian diaspora was one that remained in place for centuries.

 In the fifteenth week, the Jews journey from Hazeroth and camped in Rithmah. Rithmah, which is also known as Kadesh Barnea, was the place of another major sin of Lashon Harah, when the spies, not learning the lesson from Miriam, slandered the Land of Israel. Their actions, and the acceptance of their words by the Jewish people, led to Tisha B’Av, the date of the destruction of both the First and Second Temple. Rashi states:

Rithmah: Heb. רִתְמָה, so named because of the slander of the spies, for it says,“What can He give you, and what can He add to you, you deceitful tongue? Sharpened arrows of a mighty man, with coals of brooms רְתָמִים” (Ps. 120:3-4). - [Mid. Aggadah]

The slander against the Land was ultimately a slander against G-d. The people did not have faith that G-d could conquer the Land for them. The personal journey is to internalize the concept of avoiding bad speech and rebellion against our leaders, and focus on the concept of not speaking Lashon Harah against G-d and the Land of Israel. The Talmud teaches that whoever does not show gratitude towards his fellow human being will end up not showing gratitude to Hashem Himself.

Week 15 (Book 2): The Prophet Iddo and the Importance of Scripture

HA'AZINU: And Jeshurun became fat and rebelled; you grew fat, thick and rotund; [Israel] forsook the G-d Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation. (Deuteronomy 32:15)

POSITIVE INTERPRETATION OF THE ABOVE VERSE: And Jeshurun became full of oil and kicked [away the enemy]; you grew full of oil, thick and rotund [in holiness]; [Israel] spread out [the knowledge of] the G-d Who made them, and made song with the lyre regarding the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation.

HAFTORAH: And He sent out arrows and He scattered them, lightning and He discomfited them. (II Samuel 22:15)




The fifteenth week of the year includes the Fast of the Tenth of Teveth. The verse in Haazinu refers to the Jews’ rebellion against G-d after so much that He had done for them. During the time of the tragedies related to the 10th of Teveth, the Jewish people “grew fat,” forsaking G-d and not properly valuing the Torah.

The verse in Haazinu can also take a more positive meaning. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for fat, shemen, used twice in this verse, is the same word in Hebrew for oil. Oil, of course, is related to the Chanukah miracle. The lights of Chanukah include Rosh Chodesh Teveth, and in this way shine through the entire month. This verse can therefore understood in a more positive light as, “Yeshurun became full of the miraculous oil from Chanukah.” Every year on Chanukah there is a mitzvah to publicize the miracles that took place during this time. Perhaps this is how the second part of this verse should be understood: “[Israel] spread out the word of the G-d Who made them.”  

This week’s Haftarah verse appears to be more in line with this more positive interpretation. The Haftarah contains the theme of spreading/scattering, as well as of light.

The quality for this week is scripture. As mentioned previously, the reason for the destruction of First Temple was related to not saying the blessing over the study of Torah, and not valuing sufficiently the holiness of scripture.

This week’s prophet, Iddo, is also connected to the written Torah.  The only reference to Iddo in Tanach is that he wrote down the events of Rehoboam as well as the genealogy of the kings of Israel, along with Shemaiah the Prophet. Iddo took the importance of scripture and of written records very seriously.

Iddo’s actions also appear related to a violation of the word of Hashem, such as occurred on the 10th of Teveth. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 89b) teaches us that Iddo is the prophet that violated his own word and was therefore mauled by a lion. How parallel this is to the 10th of Teveth, when the Jewish people failed to heed to the words of the prophets and scripture.

The levitical city for this week is Gibbethon. This city is also connected to tragedy. The Talmud states that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that died were “from Gibbethon to Antipatris.” Similar to the message of the month of Teveth (and the Tribe of Dan), from an additional five students, Rabbi Akiva was able to rebuild everything. 

Week 15 (From the Book): Giving Proper Value to Torah and to the Presence of the Shechinah

PEREK SHIRAH: The wild goose flying in the wilderness, when it sees Israel busy with Torah, is saying, "A voice cries out: Prepare in the wilderness the way for G-d, make straight in the desert a path for our G-d" (Isaiah 40:3). And upon finding its food in the wilderness, it says: "Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings; Blessed is the man who trusts in G-d, and G-d shall be his assurance." (Jeremiah 17: 5, 7)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Chanina son of Tradyon would say: Two who sit and no words of Torah pass between them, this is a session of scorners, as is stated, "And in a session of scorners he did not sit" (Psalms 1:1). But two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated, "Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard; and it was inscribed before Him in a book of remembrance for those who fear G-d and give thought to His name" (Malachi 3:16). From this, I know only concerning two individuals; how do I know that even a single individual who sits and occupies himself with the Torah, G-d designates reward for him? From the verse, "He sits alone in meditative stillness; indeed, he receives [reward] for it" (Lamentations 3:28).

SEFIRAH COMBINATION: Chesed shebeTiferet (kindness within the context of beauty and balance)

In the fifteenth week, the wild goose sings two songs: When it sees Israel occupied with the study of Torah, it calls for us to prepare a way for the Lord, to make a straight path for our G-d. Then, after finding food, is blesses the Lord, and curses those that place their trust in man. (Isaiah 40:3; Jeremiah 17:5-7) This week marks the fast of the Tenth of Teveth, when Jerusalem was besieged at the time of the First Temple. It was the first step towards its destruction and the exile of the Shechinah. The 10th of Teveth is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Nathan of Breslov, the main disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Few Jews survived the destruction of the First Temple. Even so, they multiplied and returned to being a numerous people, just like the Tribe of Dan, the symbol of the month of Teveth. Similarly, when Rabbi Nathan took the reins of the Breslov movement, it was still very small, and he had to face incredible obstacles and adversities. Nonetheless, not only did the movement survive, but it grew exponentially, and today Rebbe Nachman’s fire is more alive than ever.

The Midrash states that Jerusalem was besieged and the First Temple later destroyed because the Jewish people did not “recite the blessing over Torah study.” In other words, this tragedy took place due to the lack of spiritual importance given to the Torah and other holy texts at that time. There is a strong connection here with Didan Netzach, the day of the “victory of the books.”

Through the words of the wild goose, we mourn the destruction of the First Temple, when the Jewish people not only was not properly occupied with the study of Torah, but also put inappropriate trust in their alliance with the Kingdom of Egypt at the time. The prophets warned against trusting in Egypt. In a prophecy made on the twelfth of Teveth, still prior to the siege, the prophet Ezekiel calls Egypt a “reed-like support for the House of Israel – whenever they held you in their hand you would snap, piercing their every shoulder…”[1]  When Egypt fell to the Babylonians, the Kingdom of Israel soon followed.

The number fifteen contains the first two letters of Hashem’s name, yud and heh. These two letters also form another name for G-d, Yah. This is a feminine name and a reference to the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. The moon, which represents the feminine sefirah of malchut, is always full on the fifteenth of the Jewish month.

The Talmud states that in the Temple, there were fifteen steps from the Israelite men’s courtyard to the women’s courtyard, corresponding to the fifteen Songs of Ascents (Shir haMaalot) found in King David’s Psalms.[2] The Talmud further explains that it was through the power of composing these fifteen songs that King David saved the entire world from being engulfed by the waters running under the Temple Mount. Here again we see a reference to the Temple and to the power of the written Torah.
In the Pirkei Avot lesson for this week, Rabbi Chaninah ben Teradion teaches: "If two [people] are sitting together and do not exchange words of Torah, this is a company of scorners... However, if two sit together and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests between them.” (III:2) Rabbi Chaninah further explains that even when a person sits alone and is occupied with the Torah, G-d provides him with a reward. The connection with the above concepts is quite clear.
During this week, the sefirot combination results in chesed shebetiferet. When the siege of Jerusalem began, the situation was not yet so precarious. There was still a chance for the people to repent and avoid the tragedy altogether. This can be regarded as kindness within mercy (rachamim), which is another meaning for the term tiferet. (This week would also represent the “eighth week,” of Shavuot and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of Gevurah)
Regarding self-improvement, we learn that even the wild goose understands the great importance of Torah study, and that its survival and sustenance depends solely on G-d, not on human beings. If we do our part, surely G-d will do His.

[1] Ezekiel 29:6-7
[2] Talmud, Sukkah 51a

Monday, December 18, 2017

Week 14 (from the Book): To Believe in Our Own Strength, which Comes from G-d

The domestic goose is saying, "Give thanks to G-d and call upon His name, make His works known amongst the peoples, sing to Him, make music to Him, speak of all His wonders!" (Psalms 105: 1-2)

Rabbi Chanina, deputy high priest would say: Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.

Malchut shebeGevurah (kingship within the context of discipline and judgment)

In the fourteenth week, it is the turn of the domestic goose to sing: "Praise and proclaim the Name of G-d, disseminate His deeds among all nations, sing songs and hymns, narrate all His wonders" (Psalm 105:1-2). In addition toChanukah, this week also marks Rosh Chodesh Teveth.

Teveth is considered a difficult month, as it includes the fast of the 10th of Teveth, when Jerusalem was besieged. Teveth is represented by the tribe of Dan, which is characterized by strength and the ability to be fruitful and multiply. Dan himself had only one child, and was perceived as being at risk of extinction. However, Dan quickly became one of the largest tribes.[1]Samson was from the tribe of Dan, and he also is associated with the physical strength and the power of procreation.[2]

This week also marks the Chassidic holiday of Didan Netzach, "Victory is Ours," on the 5th of Teveth, also known as “the day of victory of the books.” On Didan Netzach, the Lubavitcher Rebbe won a great victory, maintaining the sanctity of the sacred books of the Lubavitch library. He earned the recognition of a non-Jewish secular court, which openly acknowledged the special relationship between a Rebbe and his Chassidim. As will be explained in more detail next week, the month of Teveth is very connected to the importance of valuing our sacred writings. Didan Netzach is also closely linked with the physical and spiritual victory of the Maccabees.

The song of the domestic goose is related to the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah, pirsumei nissa, mentioned last week. On Chanukah, we sing to Him, praise Him, and thank Him, through various songs.

Fourteen is comprised of the letters yud and dalet, which spells yad, meaning hand or arm. In the widely accepted version of the Order of the Passover Seder, attributed to Rashi or one of the Tosafot, fourteen steps are listed. That is because in the Torah it is written that G-d brought His people out of Egypt with a yad chazakah, a strong arm.[3]Fourteen is therefore associated with strength and firmness, as well as redemption. Such redemptive qualities are felt on Chanukah.

The teaching of Pirkei Avot for this week can be found in the words of Rabbi Chaninah, Deputy Kohen Gadol (High Priest): "Pray for the welfare of the government, because if it were not for fear of it, men would swallow each other alive." (III:2) Rabbi Chaninah is also speaking metaphorically, that without outside intervention, the strong exploit the weak both physically and economically.[4]
It is amazing that the Pirkei Avot teaching of the deputy kohen gadol falls exactly during the week of Chanukah, when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from Greek dominance and exploitation, due to the heroic acts of a group of kohanim. During these days, we thank G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak,” as can be found in the additions made to the daily prayer (the Amidah) inserted during Chanukah.

This week, we complete another cycle of seven weeks, and the sefirot combination is malchut shebegevurah. The Maccabbees were tough and disciplined (gevurah) and after their victory even started a dynasty of kings (malchut). Like the Maccabees, we must take action within this physical and material world, with discipline and strength, which is also an attribute of the entire month of Teveth.

We learn from the domestic goose about the importance of acknowledging the miracles that occur all around us on a daily basis, and of publicizing these miracles as well. To recall and publicize miracles that occur throughout life is a great way to be more grateful in our day-to-day. In fact, it is a great source of blessing and happiness.

[1] Ryzman, p. 77.
[2] Talmud, Sotah 10a.
[3] Ki Yishalcha Bincha, Rabbi Bogomilsky, p. 56.
[4] Marcus, p. 82, citing Bartenura’s commentary on the Talmud, Avodah Zarah 4a.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Fifth Set of 22 Days: Tet & Yud, the Rivers & the Wellsprings

The 26th of Kislev begins the fifth set of 22 days of the Jewish calendar, which parallel the letters Tet and Yud, as well as the Rivers and the Wellsprings in Perek Shirah.

Just as we saw with the previous pairs, Tet and Yud are also complementary. Tet is connected to the Hebrew word Tov, good, which in turn is generally connected to the Torah and to light. Tet also means snake in Aramaic, which represents desire, as well as physicality in general. Connecting the two concepts, Tet is connected to the hidden good, as our sages comment that the Torah refers to the good inclination as good, and the evil inclination as "very good." (Rabbi Raskin, "Letters of Light: Tet"

Yud represents spirituality. It is simply a dot on the page. The Heavens are said to have been created with the letter Yud. The Yud also generally represents wisdom. It is also connected to the pintele yid, the spiritual essence of every Jew, which if one digs deep enough one will certainly find.

The Rivers and the Wellsprings have a similar relationship. As explained previously, water in general is a symbol of Torah. The Rivers also represent the revealed physical life - rivers are usually full of fish, as well as other fauna and flora that are a great source of sustenance for those near it.

Wellsprings represent Torah as well; Torah that comes from deep within, and comes out through much digging (like the wells of Isaac). The Baal Shem Tov had a vision in which he encountered Mashiach and asked him he would come. The answer: "When the your wellsprings have spread outwards."

The 22 days of this cycle all fall within Chanukah as well as the beginning of Teveth, including the fast of the Tenth of Teveth. Chanukah is about the victory of Torah and light over Greek wisdom and darkness. Teveth, the coldest month of the year, is known as the time when "the body benefits from the body." This is connected to physical desire and the snake, as mentioned above. The month of Teveth is represented by the tribe of Dan, which has the snake as its symbol.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the concept of "the body benefits from the body," has also a very spiritual dimension. It is about how the essence of the Jewish people connects to the essence of G-d. This is connected to the idea of digging and finding the spiritual within the mundane and the spread outward of the wellsprings of the Ba'al Shem Tov.

The tenth of Teveth has the potential for being an incredibly happy and spiritual day. This potential is connected to another fast which is also on the tenth of the month, Yom Kippur, and will be fulfilled with the coming of Mashiach.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Week 13 (from the Book): To Publicize Miracles with Pride and Humility

The starling is saying, "Their seed shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed that G-d has blessed." (Isaiah 61:9)

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. From where you came--from a putrid drop; where you are going--to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting--before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Yesod shebeGevurah (foundation and firmness within the context of discipline and judgment)

We now come to the thirteenth week, which includes the beginning of Chanukah, when in Perek Shirah the starling declares that "Their seeds will be known among the nations and their offspring among the people: all who see them will recognize that they are the seed that Hashem blessed" (Isaiah 61:9). During this week, it is actually a mitzvah to publicize the miracles of Chanukah to the rest of the world, so that all may recognize the blessings bestowed on the Jewish people during the times of the Greeks. This mitzvah in Hebrew is called pirsumei nissa, to publicize the miracle.

The starling’s song’s focus on the seed of the Jewish people appears to be an important reference to the kohanim, the priestly class, whose lineage, unlike most of Judaism, is actually determined by the physical male seed. There are even DNA tests available to check for a “kohen gene,” to know with almost complete certainty if someone is or is not a direct descendant of Aaron, the first kohen. The Maccabees were kohanim, and their miraculous actions during the days of Chanukah made the seed of Aaron known among the nations. They ensured that Aaron’s offspring would be recognized as the seed Hashem blessed.

Chanukah also comes from the word chinuch, which means education. The starling also teaches us that just as each of us is a “seed,” planted, nurtured and blessed by our parents, teachers, and most importantly, by G-d, so too must we ensure that the same or better is done for our children and students. It is ultimately through education that we will defeat the forces of darkness and assimilation.

The number thirteen represents the thirteen attributes of G-d’s mercy, as well as the thirteen principles used in studying and interpreting the Torah. Thirteen is also the gematria of the Hebrew word echad, one, as well as ahavah, love. It is also a reference to the Tribe of Levi, which is the “thirteenth tribe,” when counted together with the other twelve. As kohanim, the Maccabees come from the Tribe of Levi. Their highly improbable victory over the Greeks was a revelation of Hashem’s great mercy and love, as well as of His oneness, and absolute power over creation.

In Pirkei Avot, Akavia the son of Mahalalel teaches: "Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: know from where you came, to where you are going, and to Whom, in the future, you are to provide an accounting. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. To where you are going? To a place of dust, maggots and worms. To Whom will you provide an accounting? To the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He." (III: 1) It is interesting to note that this lesson in Pirkei Avot also speaks of the human seed, although in a much less flattering way.

Interestingly, there is quite a strong connection between the words of Akavia and Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates our victory against Hellenistic culture and humanism, which valued mankind, and in particular, the human body above all else. Akavia claims that the human being, or at least the body, comes from a putrid drop, and that its fate is to be consumed by worms. The lowly human being is then judged by G-d Himself. Akavia demonstrates to us that our life should be focused on G-d, not on man.

The thoughts of Akavia help us understand just how merciful G-d is towards His people. Despite our lowly past and lowly future, we nevertheless have a strong and direct relationship with the King of kings, just like children have with their Father. We have a spark of G-d within us, and when He punishes us, it is for our own good. Chassidism teaches us that we have no idea just how precious the body is to G-d, like the seed described in the song of the starling.

The sefirah combination for this week results in yesod shebegevurah. This could not be more appropriate: yesod means foundation, and it is this week that we celebrate Chanukah, when the Jewish people, through its deep connection to its religious foundation, as well as courage and strength, was able to resist the forced assimilationist policies of the Greeks.

Regarding self-improvement, we see from the song of the starling that we must not only publicize the miracles that we merit to witness, but also be aware that everything comes from G-d, our Creator, who is ultimately responsible for everyone and everything.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Week 12 (From the Book): Revealing Warmth to Those that Are Cold and Indifferent

The raven is saying, "Who prepares food for the raven, when his young ones cry out to G-d?" (Job 38:41)

Rabbi Tarfon would say: The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.

He would also say: It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it. If you have learned much Torah, you will be greatly rewarded, and your employer is trustworthy to pay you the reward of your labors. And know, that the reward of the righteous is in the World to Come.

Hod shebeGevurah (glory and gratefulness within the context of discipline and judgment)

During the twelfth week, it is the turn of the raven to exclaim with great humility that it is G-d that provides prey when its young roam in search of food. (Job 38:41) This is the week of Yud Tes Kislev, known as the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidism, the day in which the Alter Rebbe was released from prison and the yahrzeit of the Maggid of Mezeritch.

After being falsely accused of treason by the enemies of Chassidism, to the point of being threatened with the death penalty, the Alter Rebbe, through the help of G-d, emerged victorious. The release of the Alter Rebbe on Yud Tes Kislev directly led to a new phase in the history of Chabad philosophy. The Alter Rebbe saw it as not only a vindication of his work in earthly courts, but in the Heavenly Court as well. The Alter Rebbe became much more open and expansive in his teachings. 

The redoubled efforts to spread the Alter Rebbe’s teachings, celebrated this week, brought Chassidism’s warmth and love for Judaism into the coldest and most indifferent part of the Jew: the intellect. Geographically, the capital of "intellectual Judaism” was in Vilna, Lithuania, where the Alter Rebbe was sent as an emissary.

Chassidism has the power to uplift even the animals that are the most distant from Hashem. The raven was literally kicked out of Noah's Ark for not obeying its rule of celibacy.[1] The raven is also known for its cruelty and indifference to its offspring. However, even the raven can redeem itself. When Elijah the Prophet fled from the King Ahab and his evil wife, G-d determined that precisely the raven, which does not even provide for its own young, should bring food to Elijah.[2]

At the time Elijah ran away, he was overcome by despair and complained to G-d about the rebellious state of the Jewish people. G-d sought to teach Elijah that, like the raven, we all have the potential for warmth and good; it just needs to be revealed.

Interestingly, the very word for raven in Hebrew, orev, reveals that potential. Orev is related to the word arev, which, as explained in Week 3, means “responsible for the other,” as well as “sweet” and “mixed together” as in the saying, Kol Israel Arevim Zeh LaZeh, which means that “all of Israel is responsible for (sweet to and mixed together with) one another.” This saying also encompasses practically the entire basis of Chassidism and the Torah: to love your fellow as yourself.

The number twelve represents the twelve tribes of Israel. Despite our differences, and setbacks, we all are mixed together and responsible for one another and sweet to one another. Upon his deathbed, Jacob was very concerned about the differences among the different tribes. The Talmud teaches that his twelve sons responded to his concern by calling out in unison: “Listen O Israel (a reference to Jacob), Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One.”[3]

The number twelve is also closely associated with Elijah the Prophet himself, “a man whose eyes have seen twelve generations." Bear in Hebrew, dov, has the gematria of twelve. The Tanach teaches us that before Eliyahu rose to Heaven, Elisha asked Elijah to bequeath to him twice Elijah’s own power.[4] Shortly thereafter, Elisha purified the waters of a city, and was insulted by a group of youths. When Elisha responded to their insult, two bears immediately appeared and killed them.[5]

Elijah is most likely the biblical figure most associated with the revelation of the hidden and mystical secrets of the Torah. Elijah’s own teacher, Achiah HaShiloni was also the teacher of the Ba’al Shem Tov. It is therefore quite appropriate that he should be connected to the week of Yud Tes Kislev, given that the Alter Rebbe, who was freed on Yud Tes Kislev, taught the kabbalistic secrets revealed by the Ba’al Shem Tov.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that "the day is short, the work is plenty, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the owner insists [urges]." (II: 15) There is also a strong connection between the New Year of Chassidism and the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon. Chassidism came to light up a fire in order to awaken those who were depressed and spiritually asleep. It was like an alarm clock, a spiritual wake-up call: time is short, now is the time to serve G-d![6]

The number twelve is also linked to time: there are twelve months in the year, twelve halachic hours during the day, and twelve halachic hours during the night. In the Jewish calendar, a daytime halachic hour (shaah zmanit) is defined as 1/12 of the time it takes from sunrise to sunset. A nighttime shaah zmanit is 1/12 of the time between sunset and sunrise. The exact amount of time of each of these hours varies throughout the year. When the days are long, as in the summer, a daytime halachic hour is equivalent to more than sixty minutes. In the winter, when days are shorter, the daytime hour amounts to less than sixty minutes.

In this week, the sefirah combination results in hod shebegevurah. This week, we are inspired by the Alter Rebbe, who after facing the gevurah of incarceration, reveals even more the hidden secrets of the Torah through the teachings of the Chabad Chassidism. The sefirah of hod is connected with the inner dimensions of the Torah, the Kabbalah, just as Lag Ba’Omer, which is hod shebehod. Lag Ba’Omer is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who wrote down the seminal kabbalistic work, the Zohar.

A lesson for this week is that even the raven and its offspring recognize G-d’s kingship and the importance of requesting one’s sustenance directly from G-d.[7] We inspire ourselves in the song of the raven, who knows that it is never alone - G-d is always by its side.

[1] Midrash Tanchuma, Noach
[2] 1 Kings 17:2-7
[3] Talmud, Pesachim 56a
[4] 2 Kings 2:9
[5] 2 Kings 2:23-25
[6] Hayom Yom, 17th  of Av, 79a
[7] Psalm 147:9

Monday, November 27, 2017

Week 11 (from the Book): Fighting Evil and Heresy, Yet Knowing How to Forgive

The stork is saying, "Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and call to her, for her time has arrived, for her sins have been pardoned, for she has taken double from G-d's hand for all her sins." (Isaiah 40:2)

Rabbi Elazar would say: Be diligent in the study of Torah. Know what to answer a heretic. And know before whom you toil, and who is your employer who will repay you the reward of your labors.

Netzach shebeGevurah (victory and endurance within the context of discipline and judgment)

In the eleventh week, in Perek Shirah, the stork sings to the heart of Jerusalem, repeating G-d’s words that the time of punishment has ended, and that the city will be rescued from iniquity: the city has received a double punishment for its sins. (Isaiah 40:.2) This week marks the Chassidic holiday of Yud Kislev, when the second Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Mitteler Rebbe, was released from imprisonment. He had been briefly arrested on purely fabricated charges of seeking a rebellion against the government, which were strikingly similar to the accusations made against his father (discussed in Week 12). The life of the Mitteler Rebbe was a great example of purity, righteousness, and wonders - the prevailing characteristics of this month.

The verse of the stork is the continuation of the verses of the bat, and is also closely connected with Chanukah and the month of Kislev. The stork sings to the heart of Jerusalem. However, we must first ask ourselves, what is the heart of Jerusalem? As noted in week thirty-two, Jerusalem itself is called a heart. The heart of Jerusalem is most likely none other than the Temple itself, the Beit haMikdash. It was on Chanukah that the Temple in Jerusalem was liberated, cleansed of impurity, and rededicated to the service of G-d. The word Chanukah itself means "dedication."

The number eleven is also associated with kelipah, impurity, which consists of eleven attributes, known also as sefirot or crowns. In the Temple, that incense (ketoret), which consisted of eleven ingredients, was used in order to cleanse the people of Israel of their sins. Additionally, the incense functioned as a powerful remedy in the face of death, the greatest source of all impurity. The Torah states that Aaron “placed the ketoret [in the pan] and atoned for the people. He stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was halted.”[1]

Like the numbers five and eight, eleven is also connected to the idea of being above the natural order, this time represented by the number ten. The power to purify and cleanse from spiritual impurity, and even to prevent certain death, is certainly such an above-nature quality.

One of the basic teachings behind the ketoret is that among the required spices used was the chelbena, which had a very foul odor. However, when it was mixed with the other ten elements, the ketoret’s aroma was sublime. The same can be said about us: even though individually we may not all be perfect, as a group, we atone for one another, and have a “good smell.”

In Joseph’s dream, eleven stars (eleven sheaves of wheat in the other dream) bowed down to him, each representing one of his brothers. When Joseph told the brothers about the dream, they were outraged. The idea of his brothers bowing to him appeared to be heretical and presumptuous. However, this was not heretical on Joseph’s part – he simply saw things more deeply. Joseph’s dreams represented the concept of self-nullification before the tzadik (in this case, Yosef HaTzadik) both in spiritual matters (stars) as well as material ones (wheat). Through this nullification, the tzadik is able to properly bind and blend and bring out the best in all eleven elements, very much like the ketoret.

The Pirkei Avot lesson for this week is taught by Rabbi Elazar, who states that one must be diligent in Torah study and know how to answer an epicurean (or heretic, apikores in Hebrew). This lesson is directly related to Kislev and the festival of Chanukah, because it is in these days that we celebrate our success in combating aspects of Greek philosophy that run counter to Jewish values. Epicureanism in particular, with its focus on worldly pleasures, is most likely the kind of Greek philosophy that is most antithetical to the Torah, and one that had particular appeal during the time when Chanukah took place.

Rabbi Elazar also advises: “Know before Whom you toil, and Who is the Master of your work that will pay your wages.” The emphasis again is on our direct connection with G-d, and His involvement in our struggles, a concept the Greeks simply could not fathom or accept.

For Rabbi Elazar, in order follow the righteous path, it is very important to have a “good heart,” and avoid a “bad heart” at all costs (this is reminiscent of the song of the stork, which is also about the heart). Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai states that within the words of Rabbi Elazar are contained the words of all other disciples.

Rabbi Matis Weinberg points out that the difference between the Hebrew word Tzion (Zion, Jerusalem) and Yavan (Greece) is just a single letter, the tzadik.[2]The difference between Judaism and Greek philosophy is the tzadik: the need to act justly before G-d, with a good heart, as well as the ability to be bound to G-d and to the righteous individuals of every generation. (It is no coincidence that the Midrash states that the Greeks demanded that a heretical statement be written specifically “on the horn of an ox,” a reference to Yosef HaTzadik).

This week, the combination of sefirot results in netzach shebegevurah. Therefore, we should be inspire ourselves in the Mitteler Rebbe, a great tzadik, and be disciplined and determined in our pursuit of Torah and mitzvot. The first chapter in the Code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch, teaches that the main place of gevurah is in the heart, where we can defeat (lenatzeach) our internal enemy, the yetzer harah, the evil inclination.

As to a lesson in self-improvement, we should follow the example of the stork. We must learn how to humbly ask for forgiveness, and also to truly forgive. After all, we are only alive due G-d’s daily forgiveness.

[1] Numbers 17:13

[2] Matis Weinberg, Patterns in Time Volume 8: Chanukah, Feldheim Publishers, New York, 1992, page 78.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Fourth Set of 22 Days: Zayin & Chet, the Waters & the Seas

This Wednesday, the 4th of Kislev, begins the fourth set of 22 days of the Jewish calendar, which parallel the letters Zayin and Chet, as well as the Waters and the Seas in Perek Shirah.

Just as we saw with Gimmel and Dalet and then with Heh and Vav, the letters Zayin and Chet are also complementary. Zayin represents Creation, the physical struggles connected to it as well as the spirituality within it, such as the ShabatZayin means weapon, and Zan means to provide (materially). There is a deep connection between making a living and going to battle. The word for Lechem (bread/sustenance) is also found in the word Milchama (war). 
(See Rabbi Michael Munk's, "Wisdom of the Hebrew Letters")

Chet, on the other hand, represents tremendous power and inner qualities that are above nature. Chet stands for Cheit (sin), but also the ability to overcome sin and live (Chaim). (Munk) Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, in the opening pages of Likutei Moharan, explains that Cheit is Chiut (vitality), which is also the inner wisdom (Chochmah) and thinking (Sechel).

The Water and the Seas have a similar kind of relationship. Water is the source of life in the physical world. We ourselves are made of mostly water. Yet water also represents the Torah, and is deeply connected to all things spiritual. The Waters sing: "The sound of His voice places the multitude of waters in the heavens and He raises the vapors from the end of the earth." (Jeremiah 51:16) Water is connected to both heaven and earth; the material as well as the spiritual.

The Seas represent tremendous awe-inspiring might, deep below the surface, yet reflecting also G-d's tremendous heights. The Seas say: "More than the voices of many waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea, Hashem is mighty on high." (Psalms 93:4)  The Seas also represent inner wisdom, waiting to be revealed, like in the splitting of the Sea of Reeds in our redemption from Egypt. (See Rabbi Slifkin's, "Nature's Song") 

The 22 days of this cycle all fall within KislevKislev represents the month of the physical and spiritual struggle against the Greeks. It is also a month very much connected with supernatural redemption (ie. the 8 days of Chanukah) as well as deep supernatural kabbalistic wisdom (represented by the olive oil and the light of the Menorah) and secrets, such as those revealed beginning on the 19th of Kislev - the Rosh Hashanah of Chassidut and the date of the personal redemption of the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Week 10 (From the Book): To Trust in G-d’s Mercy

The Bat is saying, "Comfort My people, comfort them, says your Lord." (Isaiah 1:40)

Rabbi Shimon would say: Be meticulous with the reading of the Shemah and with prayer. When you pray, do not make your prayers routine, but [an entreaty of] mercy and a supplication before the Almighty, as is stated ``For He is benevolent and merciful, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and relenting of the evil decree'' (Joel 2:13). And do not be wicked in your own eyes.

Tiferet shebeGevurah (balance and beauty within the context of discipline and judgment)

On the tenth week, the Bat reiterates G-d’s words, asking that His people be comforted. (Isaiah 40:1) In this week, we fully enter into the month of Kislev, which is represented by the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin is known for its ability to preserve Jewish values for future generations and for its great capacity for self-sacrifice.[1] The Bat has the ability to see in the dark, an important trait in this month of long and cold nights. Yet it is also on this month, during Chanukah, that we feel that G-d does indeed comfort us. On Chanukah, the Jews defeat the spiritual darkness of the Greeks, and the light of the Temple is restored.

The number ten represents a complete unit, an intensification of the concept of unity reflected in the number one. Ten represents the Ten Commandments, the ten sefirot, as well as the ten Divine expressions.[2] In Pirkei Avot, ten is also associated with ​​mercy. G-d waited ten generations from Adam to Noah before punishing humanity. The generations after Noah also sinned, and G-d also mercifully waited ten generations from Noah to Abraham, who then began the process of returning humanity back to the belief in One G-d.[3]

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon states: "Be careful with the reading of the Shemah and with prayer. When you pray, do not act as if this were routine, but rather a plea for mercy and supplication before G-d… Do not be evil in your own eyes." The Shemah is the greatest expression of monotheism and of the acceptance by the Jewish people of G-d as One, and as the King of the Universe. Similarly, the prayer shows our intimacy with our Creator. These concepts are exactly what the Greeks wanted to destroy. They had a problem with the people’s monotheism. They even accepted the concept of a Cosmos - cold and indifferent to human behavior - but not of a G-d that was a Merciful Father and King.

For Rabbi Shimon, in order to follow a righteous path, it is very important to see what lies ahead, and to avoid not paying back loans. He states that one who borrows from his friend is as if he borrows from G-d. To be able to see what is about to happen (literally, “seeing what is being born”) is one of the Talmudic definitions of being truly wise, and achieving Chochmah. The Greeks were known for their wisdom. However, wisdom it and of itself, is not sufficient. Wisdom must be tied to the ethics of monotheism and to a firm relationship with a Merciful G-d. Not paying back loans, for example, is not only unethical, it is a rejection of the great mercy someone had towards us, an ultimate reflection of G-d’s mercy. Giving interest-free loans to our neighbors is a Divine commandment from the Torah.

The sefirah combination for this week is tiferet shebegevurah: beauty and balance within strength and discipline. As explained above, tiferet also is known as rachamim, mercy. While we are more distanced from Tishrei, we still remember the beauty of our Torah, we ask Hashem for mercy, in order for us to maintain our strong our dedication to the spiritual resolutions we had made on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

An important teaching of self-improvement to be drawn from the words of the Bat is to always pray for mercy, and to remember to support our fellow, especially the needy and the oppressed.

[1] Ryzman, pp. 64, 232.
[2] Pirkei Avot, 5:1.
[3] Pirkei Avot, 5:2-6

Monday, November 13, 2017

Week 9 (from the Book): Fighting Darkness with Light

The stormy petrel is saying, "Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the straight-hearted." (Psalms 97:11)

Rabbi Yossi would say: The property of your fellow should be as precious to you as your own. Perfect yourself for the study of Torah, for it is not an inheritance to you. And all your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven.

Gevurah shebeGevurah (discipline and judgment within the context of discipline and judgment)

In the ninth week of Perek Shirah, the stormy petrel announces that, “Light is sown for the tzadik (righteous) and joy for the upright of heart.” (Psalm 97:11) In some years, this week falls entirely in the month of Cheshvan, while in other years it already includes the first day of Kislev, the month of Chanukah. Even in years when Rosh Chodesh Kislev does not take place this week, there is another date in it closely linked to the Maccabees: the 23rd day of Cheshvan. In the era of the Talmud, this date was quite celebrated, as it marked the removal of the stones of the Temple’s altar that had been rendered impure by the Greeks. The stormy petrel’s verse, which mentions light, seed, and protection for the righteous, is very connected to the Maccabees and to the events that took place during Chanukah, which is called the “Festival of Lights.” Miraculously, G-d made it so that ​​the Maccabees, righteous warriors of the seed of Aaron, defeated Greece, the greatest empire of the time.

The number nine is associated with the nine months of pregnancy. It is also connected to truth. If one adds the digits in the gematria of the Hebrew word for truth, emet, the total is nine. The total of the sum of the digits (also known as gematria ketanah) in all of G-d’s names is also nine, because G-d’s “seal” is truth.[1] Nine is also three times three, a “double chazakah,” as explained in week three.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yossi states: "The money of your neighbor should be precious to you as if it were your own. Ready yourself for the study of Torah¸ as it does not come to you as an inheritance, and may all your actions be for the sake of Heaven." (II:12)

This teaching in Pirkei Avot is deeply connected with the month of Kislev and to the struggle of the Maccabees. While the Greeks admired the Torah as a philosophy, with highly practical concepts (like the idea of ​​respecting other people's money), they tried to break our link to the Torah, as well as our personal connection with G-d. The Midrash tells us that "darkness symbolizes Greece, which darkened the eyes of Israel with its decrees, ordering Israel to, 'Write on the horn of an ox that you have no inheritance in the G-d of Israel.'”[2]

It is also worth noting that Rabbi Yossi was himself a kohen, just like the Maccabees. Also like the Maccabees, Rabbi Yossi is called a “chassid” – extremely pious, going beyond the letter of the law to do the will of G-d.

For Rabbi Yossi, in order to follow a righteous path, it is very important to have a “good neighbor,” and avoid a “bad neighbor” at all costs. Here, a good neighbor, Shachen Tov, may be a reference to the Shechinah, which dwells among the Jewish people and in the Temple. A bad neighbor, is likely a reference to the Greeks, which tried so hard to make us assimilate and to take us away from our roots.

The combination of sefirot for this week is gevurah shebegevurah. Note that for those that are part of the Lubavitch Chassidic movement, Rosh Chodesh Kislev’s connection with gevurah shebegevurah is quite clear. The first is an openly positive one: with great strength and courage, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, miraculously survived a heart attack, and returned to his home on Rosh Chodesh Kislev. On the other hand, with much sorrow, it is on Rosh Chodesh Kislev that we commemorate the day that the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries of Mumbai, India, were killed.

The stormy petrel tells us that one of the most important steps in achieving happiness is to be a good, honest and fair person. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that one should always take note and focus of such good qualities and actions in others and in oneself. Even if these good points are small, imperfect and incomplete, they are nonetheless a cause for great joy.[3]

[1] From the writings of the Rebbe’s father, Rav Levi Yitzchak Schneerson.
[2] Genesis Rabba 2:4
[3] Likutei Moharan I:282


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