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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Introduction - How to Read the Blog


"For everything there is a season and for every time there is a purpose under Heaven." (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

We spend much of our life in spiritual darkness. We often go about our lives with great uncertainty, without the benefit of sage advice or guidance. Yet somehow we just keep going, attaching ourselves to values that confuse our minds and our hearts, and ignoring the real needs and wants of our soul.

We become so busy with our own personal affairs and so distracted by the avalanche of superfluous information directed at us, that we blind ourselves to the signs all around, the lessons and warnings G-d presents to us at every moment. Certain instances, however, awaken us from this darkness. In those times, which are like lightning bolts of clarity, we realize that there is something greater, something beyond this physical plane and our worldly concerns.

The reality is that our soul needs to sing! Yet what are we to do if we do not know the melody and the lyrics of the song? The Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explains that this is the feeling behind the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is the most basic and primal expression of the soul, and it is with this cry that the Jewish people awaken spiritually at the start of every year.

This blog’s objective is to bring us closer to our song - the song of the soul - and the Jewish calendar itself is its sheet music. In an effort to promote more harmony in our lives, we will study important Jewish figures, texts, values and techniques for spiritual enhancement that will make ourselves attuned to the energy of each week of the year. This book will give access to unknown tools, which allow for an open channel of dialogue with G-d. These teachings are not new. They are already found in the Torah itself. They are within everyone’s reach, close to the mouth and to the heart. (Deuteronomy 30:11; Tanya - Introduction)

Through continuous effort, an individual who is committed to change can obtain personal as well as collective transformation: in the family, the local community, the city, and beyond. As the prophet Isaiah exclaims, the Earth was not created to be chaos. (Chapter 45:18) We desperately need to live in a better world, and leave it more peaceful for future generations.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, teaches that one should “live with the times.” (Hayom Yom, 2nd of Cheshvan, p. 101) By connecting Jewish lessons to fixed times in the Jewish calendar, the book is meant to serve as a tool for self-reflection and spiritual development.

The Counting of the Omer


The Counting of the Omer, known in Hebrew as Sefirat Ha'Omer, is a Torah commandment to count the weeks and days from which the omer sacrifice was offered in the Temple. This sacrifice was made of barley, which in those days was primarily an animal food, and had the Biblical measurement of one omer. The counting takes place every year during the 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost).

The Counting of the Omer has always been used by the Jewish People as a basis for spiritual development. In Egypt, the Jewish People had reached the 49th level of spiritual impurity. During the first 49 days that followed their escape from Egypt, the Jewish people gradually purified itself, until it reached the 49th level of purity. Within but seven weeks, upon reaching Mount Sinai, the Jewish people had become so spiritually and emotionally refined that the entire nation was able to encamp there in complete harmony, peace, and unity: “as one person with one heart.” It was only in this way that they merited to receive the Torah. 

During the omer count performed every year between Passover and Shavuot, there is a custom to spend each day concentrating on a different combination of sefirotSefirot, as further explained below, are Divine attributes which are also found within every individual. By doing so, it is possible to obtain a level of spiritual and emotional improvement similar to what the Jewish people achieved after leaving Egypt.

The Counting of the Omer takes places mostly during the Jewish month of Iyar, a month known for its healing powers. A hint of Iyar’s connection to healing is found within the letters of its name, alefyud and reish, an acronym from the biblical verse Ani Hashem Rofechah, “I am G-d your Healer.”

Besides from being a time of great spiritual elevation and healing, unfortunately the omer is also a reminder of a sad period in the history of the Jewish people. Twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva passed away during these days. They suffered from a plague inflicted due to their lack of unity and respect for one another, the very opposite of what characterized the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai.

The plague ended on the 33rd day of the omer, known as Lag Ba’Omer. This is one of the reasons why this date is so commemorated. Another reason for celebrating Lag Ba’Omer is because it is the yahrzeit – the anniversary of the passing – of the great tzadik Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who died many years after the plague. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, himself a student of Rabbi Akiva, is the author of the Zohar, the basic and most important text of the Kabbalah.

The order in which the combination of sefirot takes place for each day of the omer follows a very simple principle. As further explained below, there are seven emotional sefirot, and since the Counting of the Omer occurs over seven weeks, each week represents one sefirah. The first week represents the first sefirahchesed (kindness), while the second week represents the second sefirahgevurah (discipline), and so forth. Furthermore, each day within each week represents a subdivision of one of the seven emotional sefirot within that sefirah. For example, the first day of the omer represents the attribute of chesed within chesed (chesed shebechesed), as it is the first day of the first week. The second day of the first week represents the attribute of gevurah within chesed (gevurah shebechesed). Lag Ba'Omer is the fifth day of the fifth week. The fifth sefirah is hod, and therefore Lag Ba’Omer represents hod shebehod. The sefirot combinations of each day of the omer are found in most prayerbooks.

Furthermore, the most basic element in the commandment of the Counting of the Omer is to give each day a specific number. Numbers in Judaism have tremendous meaning that goes much beyond their day-to-day usage. Each number has kabbalistic significance, and each letter in the Jewish calendar has a numerical value.

Incredibly, just as Lag Ba’Omer takes place on the thirty-third day of the omer,  two thirds into the counting between Passover and Shavuot, so too – and this is quite remarkable – the week of Lag Ba’Omer falls two thirds into the Jewish year, exactly on the thirty-third week! Each week of the year therefore parallels each day of the Counting of the Omer, and each week is connected to the sefirah combination for that day. It is therefore possible to work on oneself through the sefirot and the numbers related to the omer during the entire year.

Pirkei Avot and Perek Shirah

In addition, from Passover to Shavuot, in most religious Jewish communities there is a custom to study the Pirkei Avot, also as a mechanism of self-improvement. Pirkei Avot, which literally means “Chapters of the Fathers,” is part of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah) compiled by Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi. In these chapters, each of the main rabbis of the generation writes in concise form what he considers to be most important in order to live ethically and in accordance with the principles of the Torah. Pirkei Avot can also be understood as “Father Chapters,” since these chapters include the fundamental principles for the study and fulfillment of the rest of the Torah. In this sense, the teachings of Pirkei Avot are like "parents," and the rest of the Torah’s teachings are like their children.

This book shows how the teachings of rabbis found within the first four chapters of Pirkei Avot are organized in such a way that each rabbi corresponds to a week of the year. Similarly, this book will show how this weekly method of self-improvement is also related to each animal of Perek Shirah.

Perek Shirah, which means Chapter of Song, is an ancient text that is not very well known, as it has been published only in a handful of prayerbooks around the world. While the authorship of this work is not certain, many attribute it to King David. Perek Shirah itself hints to David’s authorship as it describes his interaction with a frog immediately following the completion of the Book of Psalms. In this conversation, the frog exclaims, “David! Do not become proud, for I recite more songs and praises than you.” 

Among sacred Jewish texts, Perek Shirah is a pioneer when it comes to the environment. It is a work of enormous lyricism and exaltation of the Creator, including songs from the sun and the moon, Heaven and Earth, as well as from various members of the plant and animal kingdoms. The praises found in this book are like a great orchestra in which, instead of musicians, each element and living being contributes to a beautiful and emotional masterpiece. That result is the best possible exclamation of G-d’s greatness by all of His Creation.

It is extraordinary that of all the different elements and creatures listed in Perek Shirah that glorify the Creator, there are exactly fifty-two animals in Perek Shirah, one for each week of the solar year.

In Judaism, as well as in many other cultures, it is well known that humans can learn many important lessons on how to behave by observing animals and nature. The Book of Job, for example, teaches that we should learn how to glorify G-d by observing birds.[8] The Talmud teaches that “Had the Torah not been given, we would have learned to be modest from cats, to avoid theft from ants, to avoid promiscuity from doves, and derech eretz (proper conduct) from roosters.” The Book of Proverbs advises those that are lazy to observe the ant. Despite the fact that this animal has no supervisor, it collects its food in the summer and stores it during the harvest season. In a similar vein, in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Teima tell us to be “bold like the leopard, swift like the eagle, fast like the deer, and courageous like the lion, in order to fulfill the will of your Father in Heaven.”

It is quite often easier for a person to learn character traits from animals because human beings are full of paradoxes and internal conflicts, while animals have emotional attributes that are strong and clear, without room for human subtleties. The fact that during the omer we work on our emotional characteristics (our animal qualities) is reflected in the omer offering itself, which was made out of barley, an animal food. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the process of self-analysis which begins on Passover and runs through the Counting of the Omer, culminating on Shavuot, is parallel to the kind of food related to each of these days. On Passover we eat matzah, which involves total nullification of the ego; the omer, made of animal food, reflects our struggle to improve our emotional/animal characteristics; on Shavuot, once our character traits have been refined, leavened bread is brought into the Temple for the first time.

When reading Perek Shirah, it is fascinating to observe how the animals so gracefully praise and acknowledge G-d’s actions. If animals glorify G-d in such a way, how much more so should we! Furthermore, through each animal and its respective song, we extract examples and lessons on how to help us heal and combat sadness.


How to Read This Blog

The blog can be read from beginning to end all at once, but its main purpose is to be experienced during each cycle. Along with the meaning of every Jewish month and the important dates of the Jewish calendar, the idea is to connect with the spiritual energy of the cycle through the paradigms listed in each book. While doing so, one should try to absorb and internalize the teachings found in them, in order to improve one’s daily conduct.

The 32 paths of wisdom can be experienced through cycles of 22 days, which parallel the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, culminating with the 22 days of the Three Weeks of Mourning, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av. 

Books 1 through 7 of the blog can also be experienced during each day of the actual omer count, from Passover until Shavuot (using one week for each day), given that the omer count is itself a microcosm of the whole year. The fifty-two weeks of the year are also reflected in the rituals and times connected to each day. 

The weeks of this book can even technically be applied on a yearly basis, with each week representing a different year. This may have both an individual application, with each week representing a year in a person’s life, but could even be applied to history as a whole, which would more or less parallel the cycles of Sabbatical and Jubilee years.

For the individual, the cycle would start at birth, and then restart at age 52. Examples of this would be King Solomon and Shmuel HaNavi, who both lived 52 years. This may also apply to more than one reincarnation. In the Passover Hagaddah, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah states that he “was like a man of 70.” The Vilna Gaon teaches that Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, who was only 18, knew that he was a reincarnation of Shmuel HaNavi, and so therefore, he saw himself as being 18 plus 52, which equals 70.

For those seeking a daily connection throughout the year, this can be done simply by subdividing each week, using a different sefirah for each day. In this way, a person would perform seven separate “omer counts.” The first day of the year is chesed shebechesed shebechesed (the first day of the first week of the first series of seven weeks), and Lag Ba'Omer will represent not only hod shebehod but, hod shebehod shebehod (the 5th day of the 5th week of the 5th series of seven weeks).

In order to succeed in this journey, the reader will benefit from one more ingredient: emunah. Emunah means faith in G-d. The Midrash states that the Sea of Reeds only split, allowing the Jewish people to cross, after Nachshon ben Aminadav threw himself into the water. At that time, we know that the Jewish People was completely cornered, seeing the Egyptian army approach on one side, and facing the deep waters of sea on the other. What was the way out?  The Jewish people hesitated, and somewhat panicked, despite the great number of Divine miracles they saw upon being freed from Egypt. At this moment, without having second thoughts and believing firmly that everything would work out for the best, Nachshon jumped into the sea. When the waters were already entering his nostrils, the Sea of Reeds split and all of the Jewish people followed him.  The Midrash explains that G-d wanted His people to act based on emunah.

Thus, it is through Nachshon’s example that we learn how to conduct our lives. Emunah is a process we develop (it is etymologically linked to the Hebrew word for craft, omanut), but to begin, a person needs a certain amount of faith, to just jump in like Nachshon. The obstacles in Nachshon’s way were removed because he was determined to bring G-d’s will into reality. After all, nothing is impossible or even difficult for the Eternal One, Who took His people out of the land of Egypt. G-d took His dear people out of slavery; He did not do so through an angel or a messenger, but did it Himself, through His strong hand and outstretched arm. For this reason, besides celebrating Passover annually, the Jewish people also remember its freedom from Egypt in its daily prayers, despite the fact that this liberation took place a few millennia ago.

Filled with emunah, one can march onward with ease in this beautiful spiritual journey. It is with this strong sense of faith, truth and hope that we present the tools for Jewish wisdom, understanding and knowledge contained in the pages to follow.

The Rebbe's well known commentary to the introductory words of
Pirkei Avot (Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, p. 1175ff), are adapted and summarized below, from an excerpt of the book, "In the Path of our Fathers."  The words in brackets, red, and italics are added to explain the connection with the Five Books of Moses. The author also humbly shows how the books of “The Kabbalah of Time” attempt to reflect this same pattern.  


If the Mishnah's purpose was merely to describe the chain of tradition, a more detailed list would have been appropriate.[4] By mentioning only these five individuals or groups, the Mishnah alludes to five traits that are essential in developing a relationship with the Torah.

"Moshe" represents a unique fusion of humility and pride. Although he was "more humble than any man on the face of the earth,"[5] he served as a firm leader of the people, confidently telling them: "It is I who stood between you and G-d."[6]  [Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, is essentially about Derech Eretz, proper behavior, as in the statement, Derech Eretz Kadma LaTorah, “proper behavior” preceded the Torah. In Bereishit, the Torah first teaches us about how to properly behave by recounting the deeds of our forefathers. It is only in Shemot, the Book of Exodus, that we learn about the Torah itself and its commandments.  Book 1 in "The Kabbalah of Time” is also focused on proper behavior, which we learn even from animals. Interestingly, in the end of the Book of Genesis, various tribes are compared to animals, because certain good behaviors of each tribe have become instinctual, like that of an animal.]

"Yehoshua" represents the epitome of dedicated devotion - "a youth who never left the tent."[7] Such dedication is also necessary if one is to make the Torah a part of one's thinking processes. [As mentioned above, it is in Shemot, the Book of Exodus, that we acquire the Torah. Acquiring the Torah demands tremendous commitment, like that of Yehoshua. Acquiring the Torah is also the theme of Book 2 in the “Kabbalah of Time.”]

"The elders" represent the virtues of maturity and cultivated wisdom. The commitment of Yehoshua must be nurtured through disciplined study. [Disciplined study and cultivating wisdom parallels the main theme of Vayikrah, the Book of Leviticus, which is primarily about the services and sacrifices of the priests in the Tabernacle. Book 3 in "The Kabbalah of Time” is also about Divine service and prayer.]

"The prophets" represent a drive to make one's thinking processes reflect one's spiritual values. This is necessary to ensure that the knowledge of the elders remains more than human wisdom, and reflects the G-dly source of the Torah. [The Torah’s spiritual values are in clear display throughout Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, particularly in the first part of it. Each member of the Jewish people is counted, and a particular focus is given to the Nasi, the leader of each tribe. Book 4 in "The Kabbalah of Time” is also about our spiritual values, realizing that we are spiritual in essence, and connecting to the Nasi.]

In regard to "the Men of the Great Assembly," our Sages explain the name was given because they "restored the original glory."[8]

Moshe referred to the Almighty as "the great, mighty and awesome G-d."[9]

Yirmeyahu said: "Gentiles are celebrating in His palace; where is His awesomeness?" And when he referred to G-d,[10] he did not use the term "awesome."

Daniel said: "Gentiles are subjugating His children; where is His might?" And he did not use the term "mighty."[11]

They [the Men of the Great Assembly] arose and said: "On the contrary, this is His might; that He overcomes His natural tendency, and shows patience to the wicked. And this is His awesomeness; for were it not for His awesomeness, one nation could not endure among the many."[12]

The Men of the Great Assembly were able to see G-dliness even in the darkness of exile. This is the last quality which the mishnah chose to emphasize as a prerequisite for our study of the Torah; regardless of the situation in which we find ourselves, we must appreciate G-d's intent. [The second half of Bamidbar also focuses on the tests and the darkness of exile. The tests of exile bring about tremendous tragedy; yet they also reveal our true nature, our Divine Essence. Book 5 in "The Kabbalah of Time” is also about being able to see G-dliness, particularly in exile.]

In the above discourse, the Rebbe also mentions that “the Men of the Great Assembly” established guidelines, applicable to all, that ensured the continuation of the Judaism and the Jewish people throughout the long exile to come. Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy, is also about setting general guidelines applicable to future generations that would find themselves in different circumstances, such as those living in the Land of Israel. Book 6 in “The Kabbalah of Time” is also about general guidelines, prayers applicable to all people in all situations, such as the Book of Psalms and Tikkun HaKlali (Rebbe Nachman’s General Remedy).

Book 7 in the “The Kabbalah of Time” is a song that provides a microcosm/summary of the previous books, and parallels Haazinu.

Footnotes:
  1. See the Rambam's Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, where he indeed provides a more detailed index.
  1. Bamidbar 12:2.
  1.  Devarim 5:5.
  1. Shemot 33:11.
  1. Yoma 69b.
  1. Devarim 10:17.
  1. Yirmeyahu 32:18.
  1. Daniel 9:4.
  1. Hence, in the daily prayers which they instituted we say "the great, mighty, and awesome G-d," as Moshe did.

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