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Sunday, February 24, 2019

Week 43 (From the Book): To Pursue the Enemy and to Pursue Peace

The Cat is saying, "If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars, from there I shall bring you down, says G-d." (Obadiah 1:4) (…) And when the cat catches [the mouse], the cat says, “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them, and I did not return until they were destroyed. (Psalms 18:38) 

Rabbi Yehudah [Bar Ilai] would say: Be careful with your studies, for an error of learning is tantamount to a willful transgression.

Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yochai] would say: There are three crowns--the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty--but the crown of good name surmounts them all.

Chesed shebeMalchut (kindness within the context of kingship)

Week forty-three is the week of Rosh Chodesh Av, when in Perek Shirah it is the turn of the cat to praise Hashem. At first, the cat sings that although the enemy may rise as high as the eagle and make its nest among the stars, G-d will bring it down. (Obadiah 1:4) After catching the mouse, the cat declares that it pursued its enemies and seized them, and did not return until they were destroyed. (Psalm 18:38) During this week we begin counting the Nine Days leading up to Tisha b’Av, a period of mourning over the destruction of the Temple that is even more intense (and requires greater hardships) than the rest of the Three Weeks.

The cat is like a miniature lion. On this month, we all have the potential to be like lions. Mashiach will be born in the month of Av, and will reign on earth like a lion. Rosh Chodesh Av is the yahrzeit of Aaron, one of the few yahrzeit dates mentioned explicitly in the Torah. Aaron was known for his incessant pursuit of peace.

The month of Av corresponds to the zodiac sign of Leo. The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni, quoted in Week 38, shows the clear relationship of the month of Av with the lion. This month is represented by the tribe of Shimon, who was known for its attribute of severe judgment. This month is also related to the tikkun, repair, of the sense of hearing. The name Shimon comes from the Hebrew word Shmiah, hearing, and this month is also connected to the tikkun of the sin that took place when the Children of Israel listened to the report of the spies.

It was in Av that the spies returned from the Land of Israel and described it to the people. Instead of focusing on Kalev and Joshua’s positive account, the people focused on the negative account of the other ten spies and wept bitterly. Our sages teach us that because the Jewish People cried for no reason, Hashem would now give them a reason to cry for generations to come. The night the Jewish people cried was Tisha B’Av, the day in which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.[1]

The relationship between the cat and the mouse in Perek Shirah can be interpreted (at least) in two different ways. First, throughout history, the Jews played the role of the mouse, serving as prey for our enemies inside the nations in which we were exiled. For approximately the past two thousand years, we have been in the exile of Esau/Edom (Rome). However, in messianic times, these roles will be reversed. We will be the ones to pursue our enemies, specifically, the nation of Amalek, a descendant of Esau, who represents the height of immorality and G-dlessness.

The song of the cat comes from the prophet Obadiah, a convert from the nation of Edom, and whose entire prophecy is directed against it. Edom represents Rome and its descendants, and it was Rome which caused the destruction of the Second Temple. The prophet predicts that one day Edom will be punished for its actions.

The number forty-three is formed by the Hebrew letters gimmel and mem. These letters appear to reference the war of Gog uMagog, the two root letters of these words. According to Jewish tradition, Gog uMagog will be the final war before the coming of Mashiach. This war is believed to involve the descendants of Esau and Yishmael.

Mem and gimmel also form the Hebrew word gam, which means “also.” This word appears prominently in the Psalm most connected to Aaron, whose yahrzeit is this week: “Hineh Mah Tov uMah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad... “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers also to dwell together!  / As the good oil on the head runs down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron...”[2] Rav Ovadia Yosef asks why the word gam (also) is included in this verse, as it seems to be completely superfluous. He explains that when brothers sit together usually family problems come to the surface. Nevertheless, this also is for the good; we should also sit together despite such problems, and do our best to solve them.

There is also a similar connection here with the song of the cat, Aaron’s yahrzeit, and the tikkun of the month of Av. Like the cat, Aaron also pursued enemies, but only did so in order to achieve peace between them and to bring them closer to the Torah. As Hillel states in Pirkei Avot, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.” This is how we transform the negative forces of this month into positive ones. As previously mentioned, the Temple was destroyed due to Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, and will be rebuilt through Ahavat Chinam, baseless love.

This week in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilai warns us to be cautious in our study because an inadvertent error (due to insufficient study) is considered a voluntary transgression. It is well known that the cause of the destruction of the First Temple was due to the lack of importance given to Torah study.
Moreover, Rabbi Yehudah is a perfect example of the possibility of peace between Jacob and Esau, the Jewish people and the Romans. Once Rabbi Yehudah encountered a Roman stranger, who had just experienced a shipwreck and was its only survivor. Despite not knowing who this stranger was, Rabbi Yehudah immediately gave the man of his own clothes. It was later discovered that this man was a powerful Roman legislator, and that due to Rabbi Yehudah’s kindness he annulled all the harsh decrees that were about to be imposed on the Jewish people at that time.[3]

This week also includes an additional statement by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who teaches that there are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of the kingship, but that the crown of a good name surpasses them all. (IV: 13) The crowns mentioned by Rabbi Shimon are also all closely related to the major figures of this week and this month: Aharon HaKohen (priesthood) and Mashiach (kingship), as well Rabbi Shimon himself (Torah).

It is fascinating that additional words of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai are included along with Rabbi Yehudah’s statements. Unlike Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Shimon initially did not get along well with the Romans. When Rabbi Yehudah once praised the Romans for building bridges, etc., Rabbi Shimon stated that he should not praise the Romans, because all that they do is for their own benefit. When the Roman emperor heard of this, Rabbi Yehudah was honored with a high position, while Rabbi Shimon was forced to flee and famously spent the next 12 years inside a cave with his son, Rabbi Elazar.

There is a tradition that Rabbi Shimon is a descendant of the Tribe of Shimon, the tribe of this month.[4] Rabbi Shimon’s own life reflects a transition and tikkun of Shimon’s strict justice. While in the cave, along with his son, he was concerned with pure spirituality. After leaving the cave, he could not understand how people were spending so much time with material concerns, to the extent that everything that he and his son saw would be consumed by fire. He was therefore sent back to the cave, and stayed there for another year. When he came out of the cave the second time, he understood the value of being involved with the material world, which is related to his problems with the Roman way of doing things. 

Rabbi Shimon’s sayings in Pirkei Avot also appear to reflect this transition. Rabbi Shimon’s previous sayings strictly focused on the importance of Torah over material things, while these additional sayings include the importance of other qualities other than Torah. It is quite appropriate that his sayings here are juxtaposed with Rabbi Yehuda’s.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s additional words also seem to be literally complementing his saying in Week 16. There he mentions “three,” but does not specify to what exactly three is referring. It is assumed that it means "three people." This time, he states, “there are three crowns.” (It is interesting that both his sayings start with the word shloshah, three, and that the number he is most associated with is thirty-three, as Lag Ba’Omer is the 33rd day of the omer). This could also be read as "the three [mentioned previously] are the crowns (shloshah, ketarim hem). His previous saying can then be understood as follows: if a person has all three crowns “on his table,” meaning he has the qualities of Torah, priesthood, and kingship, such a person should be praised by others and seen as a true example of a “Torah lifestyle” (i.e. given the crown of a “Good Name”).

There is a well known story in which Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai gave an interpretation of “Hineh Mah Tov uMah Naim Shevet Achim Gam Yachad...” and ended a drought. Again, Rashbi now understood the need for material concerns as well.

When each rabbi of Pirkei Avot represents a day of the omer count, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's words span approximately the entire month of Iyar, the month of Rabbi Shimon's yahrzeit (as well as Rabbi Yehudah's).  His first saying falls on 16th day of the omer, the 1st of Iyar, and his additional words are on the 43rd day of the omer, 28th of Iyar, Yom Yerushalayim. In terms of weeks, they span from the week after the Tenth of Teveth, to the week before Tisha B’Av.

This week, the combination of sefirot results in chesed shebemalchut, kindness within the context of kingship. Like Rabbi Yehudah Bar Ilai, we strive to do good deeds that have a direct impact on this material world. (This week would also represent the “eighth week,” the “Shavuot” and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of Yesod)

Similarly, the lesson we can draw from the cat is that just as it chases after the mouse, we should be like Aaron and "pursue" those around us in a positive and friendly manner, to bring them closer to the path of unity, love, peace, and truth, all of which are quintessential “Torah values.”




[1] Talmud, Ta'anit 29a
[2] Psalm 133
[3] Marcus, p. 138
[4] Ryzman

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Week 44 (From the Book): To Recognize Our Mistakes and Change



And the Mouse says, "I shall exalt you, G-d, for You have impoverished [uplifted] me, and You have not let my enemies rejoice over me.” (Psalms 30:2) (…) And the mouse says [after being caught]: You are just for all that comes upon me, for You have acted truthfully, and I have been wicked." (Nehemiah 9:33)


Rabbi Nehora'i would say: Exile yourself to a place of Torah; do not say that it will come after you, that your colleagues will help you retain it. Rely not on your own understanding.

Gevurah shebeMalchut (discipline and judgment within the context of kingship)

The forty-fourth week of the Jewish calendar is marked by Tisha B'Av. In Perek Shirah, the mouse first thanks the Lord for elevating it, and for rejecting its enemies (Psalm 30:2). However, after it is caught by the cat, the mouse recognizes that G-d has been just and true regarding all that has happened, and that it had acted with iniquity. (Nehemiah 9:33)
The song of the mouse is closely related to Shimon and Tisha B'Av. Shimon, both the individual and the tribe, made serious mistakes. For example, Shimon was instrumental in the sale of Joseph, and the Tribe of Shimon, including its prince, openly rebelled against Moses. However, through repentance, Shimon will also be fully redeemed. Furthermore, just as the mouse is caught by the cat due its own iniquities, so too was our Temple destroyed on Tisha B'Av due to our sins. The first step towards redemption is recognizing this fault of ours (it is said that every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is as if that generation destroyed it). 

The word used my the mouse, for you have impoverished/uplifted me "dilitani," which is connected to the word Dal (poor) and Delet (door). The Bnei Yissachar teaches, based on the writings of the Arizal, that the month of Tammuz is the letter dalet and the month of Av is the letter lamed, spelling out Dal. The following month, however, Elul (the month of Teshuvah) is the letter Tav, spelling out Delet. The secret to being uplifted in the "poor" months of Tammuz and Av is to connect them to the "doors" of Teshuvah of the month of Elul. That is actually part of the words we recite during Selichot, "kdalim uchrashim dafaknu dlatecha," like the poor and destitute we knock on Your door.

The letters that comprise the number forty-four, mem and dalet, spell the word dam, blood, as well as mad, from the verb limdod, “to measure.” Historically, Av has been a month in which much blood has been spilled. However, once the Jewish people finally learn their lesson, measure their actions and improve, this will be a month of plenty of light and joy.
The same letters also spell the Hebrew word dom, to be silent. This word is often used in praise of how our greatest sages dealt with tragedy. Regarding Aaron, when he discovered that his two eldest sons had died, the Torah states “yehidom Aharon,” Aaron was silent and did not complain. Our Chassidic masters explain that King David’s approach to tragedy even surpassed Aaron. Even after experiencing great suffering, he states, “l’man yezamerchah velo yidom,” I will sing to you and not be silent. There is much to gain from these approaches in learning how to properly observe Tisha B’Av. 

The word dom also has a more positive side as well. When pursuing the enemies of the Jewish people, Joshua calls out to the sun, and commands it to be silent, “Dom!” By telling the sun to stop its song to G-d, Joshua causes the sun to literally stand still in its place. This gives the Jewish people enough time to finish pursuing their enemies before the beginning of the Sabbath.
In Pirkei Avot this week, the lesson comes from Rabbi Nehora’i, who advises us to exile ourselves to a place of Torah. He also cautions us not to rely on our own understanding, but rather to debate and discuss our ideas with colleagues. Tisha B'Av is generally about exile, but specifically about the exile to a place of Torah: Yavneh. It was through establishing Yavneh and bringing our sages there that Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was able to ensure the continuation of Judaism long after the Roman Empire had ceased existing.

Furthermore, as noted in Pirkei Avot, the suffering and destruction endured by the Jewish people during this week is indeed very difficult to understand. Therefore, it is extremely appropriate for Rabbi Nehora’i to teach us not to rely on our limited understanding, but rather to remain connected to the rest of our people.
The sefirot combination for this week results in gevurah shebemalchut, discipline and judgment within the context of kingship. This week, we work on our strength and determination to achieve goals in this material world, even in the face of many obstacles. Similar to the week of Yom Kippur, gevurah shebechesed, we also fast, although on this day we do not feel like angels – we feel more like the mouse. On Yom Kippur, one of the happiest days of the year, we fast for spiritual reasons. On Tisha B’Av, we fast out of a sense of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

Tisha B'Av is also closely linked to the sefirah of gevurah since so many tragedies have occurred on this day, including the decree that the Jews would spend 40 years in the wilderness, as well as the destruction of both Temples. However, it is also connected to sefirah malchut, because it is exactly in the wake of such tragedy that Mashiach is born.
A lesson in self-improvement we can learn from the mouse is that G-d can raise us up at any given time. To leave a state of sadness, it is important to increase our prayers and direct them to G-d alone. Furthermore, it is important to understand that any fall we may experience, individually or as a people, is an opportunity to begin the process of teshuvah. Nevertheless, we must also keep in mind that judging oneself is only positive if it leads to better behavior, and not sadness. There is a fine line between temporarily feeling broken hearted over our sins, a regret that is positive, and sadness, which should be avoided at all costs. Broken-heartedness should lead to even greater joy, as will be further explained in the following week.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Week 45 (From the Book): To Raise Ourselves Up Through Love and Humility



The Creeping Creatures are saying: "Let Israel rejoice in He Who made him; let the children of Zion be joyful in their King." (Psalms 149:2) Alternate version: “May the glory of G-d endure forever; may G-d rejoice in His works.” (Psalms 104:31)
Rabbi Yannai would say: We have no comprehension of the tranquility of the wicked, nor of the suffering of the righteous.
Tiferet shebeMalchut (beauty and balance within the context of kingship)
The forty-fifth week is the week of Tu B'Av, and in Perek Shirah it is the turn of the creeping creatures to proclaim that Israel rejoice in its Creator and King; alternatively, they sing that the glory of G-d shall endure forever, and that He rejoice in His creations. (Psalm 149:2 and 104:31)
Tu B'Av is known to be the most romantic day on the Jewish calendar. It was at this time that the Tribes of Israel were once again allowed to intermarry among themselves. To celebrate this day, young Jewish women would dress in white, form a circle, and present themselves before the single men of the community that were in search of a bride. The Talmud teaches that each woman would speak of different qualities that they thought might make a good impression on a potential groom.[1] This is related to the tikkun of the sense of hearing connected to this month, which requires a constant focus on one’s good points.
The main thrust of the song of the creeping creatures is joy, and according to the Talmud, Tu B'Av, along with Yom Kippur, was the happiest day of the year. The song specifically mentions the joy of Zion (Jerusalem), and Tu B’Av comes on the heels of Tisha B'Av, when Jerusalem was destroyed. It is important to understand that in many ways the joy of Tu B'Av can only come about through the sadness that we experienced on Tisha B'Av.


The creeping creatures are so numerous that their rate of reproduction serves as an example for the Jewish people. The Hebrew word in the Torah used to describe the extremely high rate in which we multiplied in Egypt is yishretzu, from the Hebrew word for creeping creature, sheretz.[2]
The number forty-five is the gematria of Adam, the first person created by G-d and the first to receive a soul mate, Eve. Mem and heh also spell the Hebrew word mah, meaning "what,” and is closely associated with the humility, as in Moses’ well known statement, “Nachnu Mah,” we are what/nothing.


In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Yannai states that we are not given the capacity to understand the serenity of the wicked or the affliction of the righteous. (IV: 15) Rabbi Yannai speaks of serenity, such as is found during Tu B'Av, as well as suffering, such as in Tisha B'Av. Just as in last week’s Pirkei Avot lesson, the thrust of this week’s message is that we will never be able to fully understand His ways. All we can do is to have complete faith that everything He does is for the good.


This week, the sefirot combination results in tiferet shebemalchut, beauty and balance within the context of kingship. On Tu B'Av, balance and beauty connected to this physical world reigns supreme, just as in a Jewish wedding. In kabbalistic texts, it is well known that Tiferet is represented by Jacob, while malchut is represented by his wife, Rachel. Tiferet also means compassion, and this week is closely linked to mercy and consolation, as reflected in the haftorah readings for the seven weeks after Tisha B’Av.


The lesson in self-improvement we derive from the creeping creatures is that despite their humble condition (and perhaps exactly because of it), they are able to be truly happy, exalt and praise G-d’s name, and be extraordinarily reproductive.







[1] Talmud, Taanit 31a
[2] Exodus 1:7

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Week 46 (From the Book): To Know Our Place in Order to Be Truly Happy



The Prolific Creeping Creatures are saying: "Your wife shall be like a fruitful vine in the recesses of your house; your children like olive shoots around your table." (Psalms 128:3)


Rabbi Matya the son of Charash would say: Be first to greet every man. Be a tail to lions, rather than a head to foxes.


Netzach shebeMalchut (victory and endurance within the context of kingship)

In week forty-six, the last week of the month of Av, in Perek Shirah the prolific creeping creatures state, “your wife shall be like a fruitful vine and your children as olive branches around your table.” (Psalm 128: 3) This week also contains the yahrzeit of the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, on the 20th of Av.

In the week that follows that of Tu B'Av, Perek Shirah is still focused on marriage and reproduction. The continuation of this theme further emphasizes that love, marriage, and building a home together is not a one-time action or decision. That initial feeling that brought the couple together has to be worked on and improved throughout one’s entire life, day by day, week by week, month by month, and year by year.

The gematria of forty-six is ​​Levi. Levi and Shimon were individuals who both contained in them an overwhelming capacity for violence and radical behavior, especially when they acted together. The two were responsible for the killing of the inhabitants of the city of Shchem, and were the main actors in the kidnapping and sale of Joseph. The tribe of Levi was able to transform these extreme qualities into positive traits. They used their zealousness in acting on behalf of G-d, and became a tribe consisting solely of priests. Ultimately, Shimon will also use its enormous strength and potential only for the good.

In Pirkei Avot this week, Rabbi Matya the son of Charash teaches that we should be the first to greet another, and that it is better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox. (IV: 15) It is amazing to note that this lesson is contained exactly in the last week of the month of Av, whose zodiac sign is Leo, and is just a week away from being the week of Rosh Chodesh, which literally means the "head of the month."

In the past, Shimon, and his tribe as a whole, led actions that were “fox-like.” However, the Tanach also recounts that the tribe also ultimately agreed to act as the tail of a “lion,” the tribe of Judah. After the passing of Joshua, when it came time for the tribes to conquer the remaining parts of the Land of Israel, Judah was chosen to act first. Judah then approached Shimon and asked that it follow it in battle. Judah said, “Come up with me into my lot, and we will fight against the Canaanites, and I will also go with you into your lot."[1]

The Bnei Yissachar explains that this statement has a much deeper meaning, and is connected to the redemption of Passover, which occurred in the month of Nissan (Judah) and the future redemption connected to Mashiach, born on Tisha B’Av (Shimon). On Passover, we keep an egg on the Seder plate to remind us of the destruction that took place in Av. In the final redemption, even though it will be one of unprecedented miracles, we will still remember the redemption from Egypt that took place in Nissan.

Similarly, despite enormous Soviet pressure and oppression, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was very firm in his values and refused to associate himself with the “fox-like” Communist leadership. His extreme piety and stringency when it came to the kashrut of the matzah he mass-produced for Passover is a great example of his tremendous resolve. His refusal to give in to Communist demands caused him to be exiled to Siberia, where he passed away on this week of the Jewish calendar. It is known that the lion brings its tail to its head, while the fox brings its head to its tail.[2] While today, the father of the Rebbe is still held in tremendous esteem as a great leader, rabbi, and scholar, Soviet Communism is a completely outdated and bankrupt concept.

This week, the combination of sefirot results in netzach shebemalchut, victory and endurance within the context of kingship. We must be persistent in our attempt to connect ourselves to the King of kings and reveal Him in this material world.

The lesson in self-improvement we derive from the prolific creeping creatures is that the humility that we achieved during this month of judgment must be used productively: to grow and reproduce, just as the vine and the olive tree.






[1] Book of Judges 1:3


[2] Midrash Shmuel
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