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Sunday, January 17, 2016

Week 51 (Book 4): Wholeness and Long Life

STORY OF CHANNAH: 23. And he said to them: "Why do you do the likes of these things, for I hear evil reports about you, from all these people.   

SONG OF SONGS: Chapter 7

TZADIKKIM: Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan (The Chafetz Chaim, 24th of Elul) and Rabbi Shalom Rokeach (The Sar Shalom, First Belzer Rebbe, 27th of Elul)

Week 51 is the last week of Elul, ending just days prior to Rosh Hashanah. The verse from the story of Channah speaks of how Eli spoke to his sons about the evil reports against them. It is a call to repentance, very much like the call Hashem makes to us prior to the coming new year.

The verse also speaks of what is often considered the worst of all sins: Lashon HaRah, often translated as slander. Lashon HaRah is said to “kill” three people, the one who speaks it, the one who listens, and the one of whom the Lashon HaRah is spoken. King David writes in Chapter 34 of the Book of Psalms:

13. Who is the man who desires life, who loves days to see goodness?
14. Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.
15. Shun evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.

This is ultimately the advice that Eli is giving his sons in order for them to attain life, just as we seek to be inscribed in the Book of Life in the coming year.

This week’s Pirkei Avot quality that is “becoming to the righteous and becoming to the world” is exactly this characteristic of long life, Seivah, translated as old age, or ripe old age. Seivah also represents the idea of wholeness, completion. In Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, it states that someone who reaches the age of 70 reaches Seivah. Our sages comment that 70 is considered a full life span, as stated in Psalm 90:10. (Marcus, p. 188) King David himself passed away at 70, and is described to have reached Seivah Tovah, good old age. (Chronicles I, Chapter 29, mentioned in Rav Ovadia Bartnura’s Commentary to the Mishah). This quality of completion is quite appropriate for this week, as we are about to complete the cycle of the Jewish year.  

The Lubavitcher Rebbe quotes the Arizal in explaining that achieving Seivah does not mean that our mission has likewise been accomplished. We must continue to rise higher and higher:

The AriZal follows a different text for that Mishnah: “At 60, one attains seivah(old age).” He does not, however, interpret “old age,” as a negative quality, and offers a non-literal interpretation of the verse: “Rise before a person who has reached old age,” stating that “reaching old age” summons up the inner resources that enable a person to rise and accomplish his purpose in life.[1]

It is worth noting that the word Seivah, even though it is connected to completion, also contains the letters of the word Shav, which means to return, to do teshuvah, to repent. Even those that are fully righteous must always be looking for ways to grow and accomplish more.

Chapter 7 of the Song of Songs begins by calling the Jewish people by the name Shulamit. The root of this name is Shalom, peace, but also wholeness and completion, just like the name Shlomoh, Solomon. It is a reference to a completeness reached in our service of G-d. The chapter continues by describing the perfection of each of the limbs and parts of the Jewish people’s “body.” The chapter embodies the close, intimate relationship with G-d we experience during this month, as well as the completion of the year, mentioned above. Interestingly, the verse regarding Shulamit, despite the name’s meaning, also speaks of returning, of doing teshuvah:

1. "Return, return, O Shulammite; return, return, and let us gaze upon you." "What will you see for the Shulammite, as in the dance of the two camps?

Also as mentioned above, despite feeling a sense of completion and wholeness, we must continue to strive for even greater accomplishments and an even greater sense of closeness.

This week contains the yahrzeits of two of our greatest Torah sages, who very much embodied the ideas of long life and completeness: Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim, 24th of Elul) and Rabbi Shalom Rokeach (the Sar Shalom, First Belzer Rebbe, 27th of Elul).


Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan is commonly known as the "Chafetz Chaim," the name of his famous work on guarding one's tongue. Born in Zhetel, Poland on February 6, 1838, he was taught untill age 10 by his parents and then moved to Vilna to further his Jewish studies. Refusing the pulpit rabbinate, the Chafetz Chaim settled in Radin (Poland) and subsisted on a small grocery store which his wife managed and he did the "bookkeeping"-watching every penny to make sure that no one was cheated. He spent his days learning Torah and disseminating his knowledge to the common people.
As his reputation grew, students from all over Europe flocked to him and by 1869 his house became known as the Radin Yeshiva. In addition to his Yeshiva, the Chafetz Chaim was very active in Jewish causes. He traveled extensively (even in his 90s!) to encourage the observance of Mitzvos amongst Jews. One of the founders of Agudas Yisrael, the religious Jewish organizaion of Europe and later the world, the Chafetz Chaim was very involved in Jewish affairs and helped many yeshivos survive the financial problems of the interwar period. Exemplifying the verses in Psalms 34:13-14, "Who is the man who desires life...? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit," the Chafetz Chaim passed away in 1933 at the ripe age of 95.
The Chafetz Chaim's greatest legacy is the 21 sefarim (holy books) which he published. His first work, Sefer Chafetz Chaim (1873), is the first attempt to to organize and clarify the laws regrding evil talk and gossip. He later wrote other works, including Shmirat HaLashon, which emphasized the importance of guarding one's tongue by quoting our Sages. The Mishnah Brurah (1894-1907), his commentary on the Daily Laws of a Jew (his first series in the Shulchan Aruch), is found in many Jewish homes and is accepted universally to decide Halacha.
Firmly believing that he was living right before the time of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple, the Chafetz Chaim wrote a work that stressed the learning of laws concerning sacrifices, the Holy Temple, and related topics. He also published seforim to strengthen certain aspects of Jewish life including kashrus, family purity, and Torah study.

Rabbi Shalom could trace his ancestry to the great gaon, Rabbi Eliezer of Amsterdam, author of Ma'aseh Rokeach. Orphaned at a young age, he was brought up by his uncle, Rabbi Yissachar Ber, the Rabbi of Skol, under whose tutelage he studied Talmud and Halachah with great intensity. The fire of his Chasidut was nurtured by his mentors, the Chozeh of Lublin,  Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel of Apta, the Maggid of Koznitz, and Rabbi Uri of Strelisk.
After his marriage he devoted 1000 days and nights to the uninterrupted study of both the revealed and kabalistic Torah, emerging as a recognized scholar of eminent stature. Young students and accomplished scholars flocked to him in even larger numbers, to see and to learn; foremost among these was the renowned Rabbi Shlomo Kluger of Brody. In Belz, Rabbi Shalom blazed a new trail: the fusion of excellence in Torah scholarship with the burning mystical zeal of Chasidism. Since the beginnings of the movement the mitnagdim had accused chasidim of devoting too much time to joyous celebrations in fellowship with their rebbes, at the expense of Torah study, which is the bedrock of Judaism. By stressing the overriding importance of in-depth Torah study, the Belzer Rebbe removed the stigma of superficiality that had plagued Chasidism.
He did not commit any of his discourses to writing. They were recorded from the memories of his followers, who collected and published them; Rabbi Shalom of Belza Al HaTorah (Hebrew).
Rabbi Shalom of Belz, also called Sar Shalom, erected a magnificent yeshivah and study hall in Belz that became the spiritual center for tens of thousands of Belzer chasidim in Galicia. He was succeeded by his illustrious son, Rabbi Yehoshua. In the 1940's, the Nazi persecutions all but wiped out the splendor that was Belz. After the Holocaust, the disconsolate scattered remnants of Belzer Chasidut - under the leadership of the surviving scion of the Belz dynasty, the young Rabbi Yisachar Dov - miraculously restored the former grandeur of Belz. Today the glorious new Belzer yeshivah building graces the Jerusalem skyline, and Belzer centers of learning can be found in every major city in America, Israel and Europe, teeming with thousands of eager young students and mature scholars. Indeed, with the help of the Almighty, Belz has risen from despair and is now carrying on the traditions of Torah and Chassidut of the first Belzer Rebbe, the Sar Shalom.
This week also contains the yahrzeits of Rabbi Uri of Sterlisk (the Saraph, 23rd of Elul), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Danziger (Alexanderer Rebbe, 23rd of Elul), Rabbi Yechiel Michil of Zlotchov (the Maggid of Zlotchov, 25th of Elul), and Rabbi Shmuel Abba Zikelinsky of Zichlin (26th of Elul).


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