Weekly Cycle

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Week 33 (From the Book): To Recognize the Spiritual Treasures Hidden within Each One of Us

The donkey is saying, "Yours, G-d, is the greatness, and the might, and the splendor, and the victory, and the glory, for everything in the Heavens and earth [is Yours]; Yours, G-d, is the kingship, and the exaltation over all." (Chronicles I, 29:11)

Rabbi Yochanan the son of Berokah would say: Whoever desecrates the Divine Name covertly, is punished in public. Regarding the desecration of the Name, the malicious and the merely negligent are one and the same.

Hod shebeHod (glory and gratefulness within the context of glory and gratefulness)

We now arrive at week thirty-three of the Jewish calendar, the week of Pesach Sheini and Lag Ba’Omer. As explained earlier, Lag Ba’Omer is a day of great celebration, because it was then that the students of Rabbi Akiva stopped perishing. On Lag Ba’Omer, we also celebrate the yahrzeit of the great tzadik, Yesod ha'Olam (foundation of the world), Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. It is customary to light a bonfire in his honor, representing the great light that he brought to the world through his teachings of Kabbalah.

This week, in Perek Shirah, the donkey proclaims: “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, and the might, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and on the earth [is Yours]; Yours is the kingdom and [You are He] Who is exalted over everything as the Leader.” (1 Chronicles 29:11) King David recited this verse when he was at the height of his glory, reiterating that everything is from Hashem: glory and kingship, the Heavens and the earth.

This is the week of hod (acknowledgement) in the Counting of the Omer, and therefore it is quite appropriate that the song of the donkey so gracefully acknowledge that everything comes from G-d. The song of the donkey contains all seven emotional sefirot: gedulah is a reference to chesed; then comes gevurah, tiferet, netzach, and hod; hakol is a reference to yesod; and mamlachah, a reference to malchut.

Pesach Sheni is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest Torah scholars of all time. This week also includes the yahrzeit of the great Rabbi Yehuda Bar Ilai. All three men, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah, were disciples of Rabbi Akiva. The Zohar (the main text of Kabbalah, written by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai) tells us that during this week the Gates of Heaven are wide open.

Rabbi Chanan Morrison, based on the teachings of the Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, helps us better understand the importance of the donkey. Donkeys are considered extremely impure. They have both signs of not being kosher – they do not chew their cud and do not have uncloven hooves. The Zohar teaches that the donkey is so impure that is considered an avi avot hatumah, a great source of impurity (as mentioned previously in Week 12, Kabbalah and Chassidism have the power to elevate even the most impure animals).
Despite being extremely impure, the donkey has a mitzvah that no other non-kosher animal has: "Every firstborn donkey must be redeemed with a lamb."[1] The Talmud, in the tractate of Bechorot (5B), explains that the reason why the donkey has this special mitzvah is because it was instrumental in helping the Jews transport the treasures they had received in Egypt. However, there is also a deeper meaning here: the donkey represents the treasure to be found within each one of us.

The word for donkey in Hebrew, chamor, comes from the word chomer, matter, physicality. In the messianic age, physicality will be merged with spirituality.[2] According to the prophecy of Zachariah, Moshiach will arrive on a donkey!

According to Rav Kook, the Messiah's donkey represents the period of Ikveta d’Mashicha, the time when the “steps” (ikvot) of messianic redemption begins to be heard. Ikvot also comes from the word ekev, which means heel or sole of the foot¸ the roughest and most insensitive part of the body. The era of Ikveta d’Mashicha is one of great spiritual decline, full of chutzpah, deceit, immorality and corruption. However, the Zohar writes that despite their external faults, the generation of this time will be good on the inside. This inner good will be reflected in the special souls of the pre-messianic era. Despite the gloom weighing on their behaviors and beliefs, they will be blessed with an innate holiness, as expressed in their great love for the Jewish people and for the Land of Israel.

The Ikveta d’Mashicha is to be a difficult period, and not all Torah scholars were eager to go through the experience. However, Rav Yosef showed great spiritual strength in saying: "May the Messiah come, and may I have the merit to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s dung."[3] Rav Yosef was accustomed to look at the inner essence of things. He recognized the holiness hidden in this special generation, symbolized by the Messiah’s donkey. Perhaps the above is also the deeper meaning for the statement: "If the earlier generations were like angels, we are like humans. But if they were like humans, we are like donkeys."[4]

Rabbi Moshe Wolfsohn explains that recognizing inner holiness was also the power of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai himself. It is no coincidence that hundreds of thousands of Jews of all backgrounds and levels of religiosity flock to his grave on Lag Ba’Omer. Rabbi Shimon was not only able to understand the deep meaning of the mystical side of the Torah, but he also knew of the enormous value hidden inside every Jew. Just as each of the 600,000 letters of the Torah are special, and essential to a scroll’s validity, so too is each of the 600,000 souls of the Jewish people holy and an essential part of the Jewish people as a whole. If only one letter in a Torah is missing, even if it seems to be the most insignificant one, that Torah is considered invalid and cannot be read in the synagogue. The same goes for the Jewish people and every soul that is part of it. Without even a single soul, even the lowest of the low, we are not complete.

At this level of thinking, one can understand that no one is above anyone else. This understanding is exactly what was lacking to the 24,000 (12,000 pairs) of students of Rabbi Akiva who died during the Counting of the Omer. In a pair, one of the partners might think he is superior to the other in understanding, and come to think that he need not show respect to the other. On the contrary, his partner should show him respect. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai came into the world to fix this way of thinking.

When one looks at others while focusing on their inner essence, their soul, whose source is the same for all – G-d – there is no room for difference. On this level, we all truly equal, all siblings, children of one Father. This is the primary lesson taught by the Alter Rebbe in chapter 32 (lev, heart) of the Tanya; the Alter Rebbe explains that that this is the secret of how to love your neighbor as yourself. It was Rabbi Akiva who stated that to love your neighbor as yourself is the great general principle of the Torah.

It is also worth noting that while Rabbi Akiva’s deep love for his fellow might have always existed in potential, in the beginning of his life however, he expressed the exact opposite emotion. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Akiva, who states that before became learned, he hated the sages so much that he wanted to bite them like a donkey. His students ask why he did not want to bite them like a dog. Unlike a dog, Rabbi Akiva says, a donkey’s bite can break the bone. The Hebrew word for bone is etzem, which also means essence. Perhaps herein lies the secret to Rabbi Akiva’s teachings, which is connected to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s path mentioned above: Rabbi Akiva was able to transform tremendous hatred into the greatest love by focusing on people’s essence.[5]

The number thirty-three is the number associated with Lag Ba’Omer and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The combination of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimmel spell Lag, but also form the word gal, which means to reveal. One of the Rebbe’s best known ma’amarim on Lag Ba'Omer is entitled “Gal Einai v'Abita Niflaot miToratecha,” a verse in Psalm 119.

The lesson of this week’s Pirkei Avot is the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan the son of Berokah, who states: one who profanes the Name of Heaven in secret, will be punished in public. Either inadvertently or intentionally, it is all the same when it comes to the desecration of the Name (IV:4). This teaching appears related to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who sanctified the name of Hashem in secret and then publicly revealed his greatness. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai spent twelve years in a cave studying Torah with his son. After this long period, he left the cave and spread his teachings to the rest of the Jewish world. (Rabbi Shimon’s additional teaching in Week 43 found along with that of Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilai, in which Rabbi Shimon praises the importance of the “crown of a good name:” Having a “good name” means being a good example and thereby publicly sanctifying the name of G-d.)

This week’s sefirot combination is hod shebehod, just as Lag Ba’Omer itself. It is a week of tremendous revelation of divine glory. In the yearly count, Lag Ba’Omer is hod shebehod shebehod.

A lesson in self-improvement that we can learn from the song of the donkey is that everything comes from G-d, both what we perceive as bad and also what we perceive as good. Thus, as explained in the previous week, we must not only direct ourselves to Him when we are in trouble, but also thank Him in moments of glory.

[1]Exodus 13:13
[2] One of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings: "When you see chamor, a donkey" (Sh'mot 23:5) - when you carefully examine your chomer ("materiality"), your body, you will see... ..."your enemy" - meaning, that your chomer hates your Divine soul that longs for G-dliness and the spiritual, and furthermore, you will see that it is......"lying under its burden" placed upon it - (the body) by G-d, namely, that it should become refined through Torah and mitzvot; but the body is lazy to fulfill them. It may then occur to you that......"you will refrain from helping it" - to enable it to fulfill its mission, and instead you will follow the path of mortification of the flesh to break down the body's crass materiality. However, not in this approach will the light of Torah reside. Rather... ..."you must aid it" - purify the body, refine it, but do not break it by mortification.

There was indeed a method of subordinating the body through afflicting it with ascetic practices, but the Baal Shem Tov rejected this path. He saw the body not as an obstacle to the spirit, something intrinsically evil and unG-dly, but as a potential vehicle for the spiritual, a means for the soul to attain heights otherwise inaccessible. The "enemy" is to be transformed into an ally, an instrument. In great measure the Mitzvot employ gross physical matter to fulfill G-d's will, e.g. leather for tefillin thongs, wool for tzitzit, etc.

[3] Sanhedrin 98b
[4] Talmud, Shabbat 112b
[5] Talmud, Pesachim 49b

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