Weekly Cycle

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Week 18 (Book 3): Nahor and Ta'anug

SONG OF THE SEA: with the arm of Your greatness may they become as still as a stone, until Your people cross over, O Lord,

HAFTORAH: Out of Ephraim, whose root was against Amalek; after you (will be) Benjamin with your abaters;

TALMUD SOTAH: Daf 18 - Divided Actions


JOURNEYS IN THE DESERT: They journeyed from Libnah and camped in Rissah.

Week 18 is the week of Rosh Chodesh Shevat. Shevat is represented by the tribe of Asher, and is connected to the quality of Ta’anug, pleasure, and Emunah, faith. It is also a month connected to nature, as this is when we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees. Finally, this month is also connected to the Oral Torah, as it was on this month that Moshe began teaching the lessons of the Book of Deutoronomy.

The verses of the Song of the Sea speak of the enemy becoming “as still as stone.” As we enter the month of Shevat, we are reminded of the four levels of existence within nature, the four “kingdoms”: Domem (“still,” the mineral kingdom), Tzomeach (plant), Chai (“live,” the animal kingdom), Medaber (“speaking,” human kind). Each week of Shevat contains references to either Domem, Tzomeach, Chai or Medaber. The Song of the Sea for this week specifically mentions the stone as a metaphor for stillness.

The Haftorah’s verses begin a theme of describing the actions of each of the tribes during the fight against Siserah. This description runs through all the weeks of the months of Shevat and Adar. This week’s verses speak of Ephraim and Benjamin, which Rashi explains are references to Joshua and Shaul, and how they fought against Amalek. Joshua symbolizes the Oral Torah (Shevat), while Shaul is connected to Purim and the month of Adar.

Although the fight against Amalek is primarily a theme of the month of Adar, Amalek represents the opposite of Emunah, which is a theme of Shevat. It is well known that Amalek has the same numerical value as safek, doubt, which is the opposite of faith. In general, the fight against Sisera was a great test in Emunah, one in which not all the tribes succeeded. The theme of which tribes showed Emunah and which showed doubt will be the theme for each of the weeks ahead, through Adar.

Daf Yud Chet (Folio 18) of Sotah continues the discussion of the writing of curses on the scroll that is to be dissolved in the water. The general theme appears to be that if certain things are done twice instead of once, divided in two instead of whole, for two people instead of one, etc., they are invalid. Nature is about multiplicity – yet ultimately we must understand that everything comes from Hashem.

Nahor, son of Serug, is the grandfather of Avraham. We know that Nahor lived in Ur Kasdim, place of Avraham’s birth, and we also know that Nahor had a grandson whose name was also Nahor. This points to the theme of continuity through children, like in nature. Nahor comes from the verb “Nachar,” which means to blow the nose, sneeze, or snort. As will be explained further, this appears related to how G-d blew into the nose of Adam, which is connected to nature and the creation of the world. Sneezing is also something particularly connected with physical pleasure, (Ta'anug), associated with this month. The Talmud explains that sneezing during prayer is a good sign, since just as one is relieved below, he is relieved above. (Berachot 24b)

In the eighteenth week, the Jews journey from Libnah and camp in Rissah. Rissah means to be broken. It is only through such “brokenness” and humility that one can truly accept the Torah. Rabbi Jacobson explains that Rissah also means  a stopped up well in Arabic – to be able to draw water from the well of Torah, one must feel such brokenness and smallness. (See Book 1 on why the insects sing during the month of Shevat). The personal journey is to internalize the concept of proper Torah study and now focus on the idea of being broken in order to receive the Torah that is being taught.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Week 19 (Book 3): Terah and Nature


SONG OF THE SEA: until this nation that You have acquired crosses over. You shall bring them and plant them on the mount of Your heritage,

HAFTARAH: out of Machir came down officers,
and out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the scribe.

TALMUD SOTAH: Daf 19  Drinking the Sotah water.


JOURNEYS IN THE DESERT: They journeyed from Rissah and camped in Kehelathah.

Week 19 is the week of Yud Shevat. The verses of the Song of the Sea speak of Hashem acquiring His nation, planting them on the “mount of Your heritage.” The reference to “acquisition” and “inheritance” are reminiscent of themes of Yud Shevat, the Previous Rebbe’s yahrzeit, as well as the day in which the Rebbe took over the leadership of the Chabad movement a year later. The verses also contain references to two of the four elements: the plant kingdom (ie. “and plant them”) and the mineral kingdom (ie. the mountain).

The Haftorah’s verses mention officers/lawgivers of Machir, from the tribe of Menashe, and scribes from Zebulun. Even those in high government positions came down to engage in battle. That is the message of Yud Shevat and the Maamar studied that day, “Bati L’Gani,” where we are told to “spend all the treasures,” using everything at our disposal. Even lofty Chassidic texts available only to a select few in manuscript form (“by the pen of the scribe”) were now printed and available to all. The Rebbe’s decision to become rebbe also represents a decision to “come down” and join “the wars of Hashem” in a most dedicated way.

Daf Yud Tet (Folio 19) of Sotah is about her drinking the water and waving the mincha offering. There is a discussion of when a woman can be forced to drink, and it is related to whether the name of G-d has already been erased. Here also there is a discussion of how different elements in nature interact. It also seems somewhat parallel to how much the Chassidim urged the Rebbe to accept the position – he could not be forced into it.

Terah, son of Nahor, is the father of Avraham. Terah moved from Ur Kasdim to Charan, on his way to the Land of Canaan, even though he never made it. (Terah – “delay” delayed in making it to the Land of Canaan. It also means “to breathe,” and comes from the word re’ach, smell). This appears to be a continuation of his father’s name Nahor, which means sneezing/snorting – breathing and smelling are very much related to pleasure, and to nature, qualities related to the month of Shevat.

In the nineteenth week, the Jews journey from Rissah and camp in Kehelathah. Kehelathah means “gathering.” It is also the place of Korach’s rebellion – on Yud Shevat, the emphasis is on the exact opposite, a gathering in order to accept a new leader, one who was completely devoted to the previous leader. The personal journey is to internalize the concept of being broken in order to receive the Torah, and now focus gathering with others and commitment to the leader.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Week 20 (Book 3): Avraham and Giving

SONG OF THE SEA: directed toward Your habitation, which You made, O Lord; the sanctuary, O Lord, [which] Your hands founded.

HAFTORAH: And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah, as was Issachar with Barak; into the valley they rushed forth with their feet.

TALMUD SOTAH: Daf 20 - Water, Teaching Torah, Withholding from Pleasure


JOURNEYS IN THE DESERT: They journeyed from Kehelathah and camped in Mount Shepher

Week 20 is the week of Tu B’Shevat. The verses of the Song of the Sea speak of Hashem’s habitation, which His “hands” founded. As in week 18, the verse contains various anthropomorphisms. Rashi explains the line, “directed toward Your habitation,” as follows: “The Temple below is directly opposite the Temple above, which You made.” At this point in time, the neither the Temple or the Tabernacle had been built. They were there only in potential, a reflection of the Temple above. Such is the case with Tu B’Shevat itself. We celebrate in the middle of the winter, when the fruit is only there in potential.

The Haftorah’s verses mentions the princes of Issachar, as well as the tribe as a whole. Issachar was completely dedicated to the learning of Torah and its transmission. Perhaps more than any other tribe, it represents the idea of the Oral Torah, an essential characteristic of the month of Shevat.

Daf Kaf (Folio 20) of Sotah continues the discussion of drinking the water, and when the Sotah can refuse. There is also discussion about teaching Torah to women, how the water tests her, what ink can be used, and how a woman’s merit can withhold punishment. Again, there are references to interactions of different elements in nature, as well as a focus on the Oral Torah. The daf also contains a passage that looks down on situations of improperly withholding from pleasure. Pleasure is the theme of Tu B’Shvat.

Avraham is the forefather of the Jewish people, but also the father (Av) of many other peoples, which is the meaning of his name (father of multitudes). Yet, at the time his name was changed (and even before when his name is Avram), he was still childless. His children were there only in potential. Avraham was very much known for his hospitality, serving food to his guests and providing them with all kinds of delicacies. This was also a way he found to teach them about Hashem, the One True G-d. This all appears related to the major themes of this month, such as pleasure and the Oral Torah.

There is also a clearer connection between Avraham and Tu B'Shvat:

With regard to the time during which Avraham lived in the land of the Philistines, this week’s Torah portion tells us:27 “And Avraham planted an eshel, a tamarisk tree… and there he called in the name of G‑d, L-rd of the world” i.e., he publicized G‑d’s presence28 “And Avraham lived in the land of the Philistines for an extended period.” It is after these verses that the Torah tells us about the binding of Yitzchak.

The question arises: What lesson can we learn from the fact that Avraham planted a tamarisk tree? Previously, the Torah described the greatness of Avraham, relating how although he was the one and only Jew, and that he spread faith in the one G‑d. After such heights of devotion, what is added by the fact that he planted a tamarisk tree? And how does planting a tamarisk tree relate to the narrative of the binding of Yitzchak?

The tamarisk is a large tree with broad branches. Since Avraham was living in a desert, he planted such a tree to provide wayfarers with protection from the scorching sun. The Talmud29 extends the interpretation of the Hebrew word eshel , explaining that it refers not to only one tree, but to an orchard. Avraham planted an orchard so that passersby could refresh themselves with the fruit.

The Talmud also offers a second interpretation, stating that eshel refers to an inn. Besides fruit, Avraham gave wayfarers bread and meat, drink and lodging.30 Indeed, the Midrash31 states that he even provided his guests with a court of law in which they could settle any dispute that might arise among them.

Avraham did not content himself with providing bread, salt and water, so that his guests’ basic needs would be met. He did not provide only the bare minimum; he gave his guests items which brought them pleasure: fruit, wine, delicacies and lodging; and gave them also a court to resolve their difficulties. 


Bereishis 21:33-34.


Sotah 10a.


Sotah, loc. cit.; see Rashi’ s gloss.


Midrash, as quoted in Rabbeinu Bachaye in his gloss to Bereishis 21:33.


Bereishis Rabbah 54:6.


In the twentieth week, the Jews journey from Kehelathah and camp in Mount Shepher. Rabbi Jacobson explains that Mount Shepher means “beautiful mountain,” and cites Targum Yonasan, which renders it as “mountain with beautiful fruit.” The quality of beautiful fruit is clearly linked to Tu B’Shevat. The personal journey is to internalize the concept of the gathering of Chassidim and commitment to the leader, and now focus on the enjoyment and beauty of both natural and spiritual worlds/fruits.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Week 21 (Book 3): Isaac and Emunah

The Lord will reign to all eternity; When Pharaoh's horses came with his chariots and his horsemen into the sea,

(But) among the divisions of Reuben, (there were) great resolves of heart.
Why do you sit between the borders,

Talmud Sotah: Daf 21: Merit of Women


They journeyed from Mount Shepher and camped in Haradah.

Week 21 is the last week of the month of Shevat. This week marks the yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe’s wife, on the 22nd of Shevat. The verses of the Song of the Sea are first and foremost a declaration of faith, Emunah, one of the themes of this month. They also contain elements of nature: 1) Pharaoh and the horsemen (man); 2) the horses (animal); and 3) the sea (mineral/Domem).

The Haftorah’s verses point to Reuben’s doubts, and lack of resolve and Emunah. In general, this is a challenge that Reuben as an individual seemed to face. He knew he had to save Joseph, but lacked to emunah to do it outright. He later knew that he had to find a way to take Benjamin to Egypt, but again, his lack of resolve led to his failure to convince his father.

Daf Kaf Alef (Folio 21) of Sotah continues the discussion of how the merit of Torah and mitzvoth can protect from punishment. It also discusses how a woman can earn merit from Torah. This seems connected to the Rebbetzin’s yahrzeit.

Yitzchak is the second forefather of the Jewish people. Isaac's whole life, particularly his near sacrifice, was all about Emunah. His name comes from the word Tzchok, laughter. Yitzchak means “he will laugh,” which also points to faith in future events,  as well as pleasure (Ta’anug), related to the month of Shevat. 

In the twenty-first week, the Jews journey from Mount Shepher and camp in Haradah. Haradah means “trembling” and is related to the fear that the Jewish people experienced after the plague in the aftermath of Korach’s rebellion.[1] Haradah, trembling, is also connected to happiness and rejoicing, as in Psalm 2, “Vegilu b’Readah, rejoice in trembling. (See also Talmud, Brachot 30b, 31a: “Where there is gilah (rejoicing), there must be trembling.”) The personal journey is to internalize the concept of enjoyment and beauty of both natural and spiritual worlds/fruits, and now prepare for the trembling happiness of the month of Adar.

[1] http://meaningfullife.com/oped/2008/07.11.08$BalakCOLON_42_Journeys_Part_4.php

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