Weekly Cycle

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Week 18 (From the Book): To Live in Harmony with Nature in a Manner that is Above Nature

PEREK SHIRAH: The grasshopper is saying, "I lift my eyes up to the mountains, where shall my help come from?" (Psalms 121:1)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Nechunia the son of Hakanah would say: One who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is exempted from the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares; but one who casts off the yoke of Torah is saddled with the yoke of government duties and the yoke of worldly cares.

SEFIROT: Netzach shebeTiferet (victory and endurance within the context of beauty and balance)

In the eighteenth week, of Rosh Chodesh Shevat, it is the turn of the grasshopper to call out to G-d, stating: “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence will my help come?(Psalm 121:1) The song of the grasshopper is one of prayer and faith.

The song of the grasshopper, the eighteenth animal, is so closely tied to the song of the eighth animal, the swift. The swift’s song is the verse that immediately follows the grasshopper’s. It answers the grasshopper’s question, singing: “My help comes from the Lord, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” (Psalm 121:2) As mentioned above, the number eight is connected to that which is extraordinary, beyond nature.
The grasshopper’s song seems to always fall in the weeks in which we read the weekly Torah portions of Vaera or Bo. These portions depict the plagues (including that of locusts) inflicted on the Egyptians, perhaps the ultimate example of help coming directly from G-d, in a manner that is completely beyond nature.
The month of Shevat is marked by Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees, which occurs on the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat. There is a debate in the Mishnah as to whether the New Year of the Trees should be celebrated on Rosh Chodesh Shevat or on the fifteenth, as is the custom.

The month of Shevat is deeply tied to the concept of faith. We celebrate the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees while still in the midst of winter.

Shevat represents the tribe of Asher, and is related to ta'anug, “pleasure” or “delight.” According to the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the word asher also means delight, from the word ashruni.[1] Furthermore, Asher receives a blessing from his father Jacob that he will “bring delicacies to the king.” On Tu B’Shvat, we drink wine and eat many different kinds of fruit, all of which is very much tied to the above concepts. However, this month is not only tied to physical delights, but to spiritual and intellectual delights as well. Shevat, and particularly Rosh Chodesh, is also deeply connected to the Oral Torah. It was on this day that Moses began reviewing the teachings he had taught to the Jewish people during their forty years in the desert. This review is what comprises the entire Book of Deuteronomy. So connected is Shevat to the Oral Torah, that the Chidushei HaRim states that all insights one has in developing novel Torah ideas come to a person during the month of Shevat.[2]

The transmission and development of the Oral Torah requires a fundamental character trait: humility. Without humility, one cannot teach in a pure and objective way exactly that which he or she learned from the previous generation. Humility is the hallmark characteristic of Moses, the humblest of men, and the first to transmit the Oral Torah, which he received directly from G-d.

Perhaps this emphasis on humility is the reason why in Perek Shirah, the insects, the humblest of animals, are the ones to sing during each of the four weeks of Shevat. As King David, another great example of humility and an important link in the chain of the Oral Tradition, once said, "Ani Tola'at Velo Ish," "I am a worm and not a man."[3]

It is well known that the number eighteen represents life, which in Hebrew is chai. For this reason, it is customary among Jews to make donations in multiples of chai. Rosh Chodesh Shvat and Tu B’Shvat are, in a way, much more than simply a celebration of trees, but a celebration of life in general, and not just human life. 

The chai of something is not only associated with its life, but also with its essence. The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe were both born on Chai Elul, literally known as the life as well as the essence of Elul. The date that marks the death of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov is the eighteenth of the month, chai of Tishrei. Interestingly, the festival of Lag Ba’Omer is also on the eighteenth, chai of Iyar. Eighteen is also the number of blessings in the Shmoneh Esreh, which is also known as the Amidah, or simply as Tefilah, prayer, because it represents the essence of prayer.

Prayer is also related to the realization that the life of a Jew is anything but natural. Our life, sustenance, and salvation come from G-d, Who is beyond this world, as expressed in the songs of the grasshopper and the swift.

The Pirkei Avot for this week it taught by Rabbi Nechunia son of Hakanah: "whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah, the yoke government and the yoke of worldly obligations are withdrawn from him; but whoever casts off the yoke of Torah, the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly obligations are imposed on him.” (III: 5) On Rosh Chodesh Shevat, Rabbi Nechunia is advising us to take upon ourselves the study and devotion to the Torah, the Tree of Life, Etz Chayim, which is above the world. If we do not, we subject ourselves to the world’s obligations. By depicting the Torah as a yoke, Rabbi Nechunia also appears to be making reference to the humility and self-sacrifice necessary for acquiring it. Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk teaches that although we know many examples of sages and Torah scholars that had worldly obligations and were even professionals, they did not feel that such obligations were a yoke or source of concern.[4]

This week, the combination of the sefirot is netzach shebetiferet: victory and persistence within beauty and balance. A tree represents a balance between roots, trunks, branches and leaves – it is only by having such a balance that the tree survives. Without roots, or with too many branches, a tree cannot stand. Without enough branches and leaves, trees cannot create enough energy to fully grow. In Shevat, still in the midst of winter, the tree has to persist and struggle in order to survive. (A similar equilibrium is required when balancing the yoke of Torah with the yoke of government and worldly obligations – the balance is required is often different for each individual person, as well as during different periods in their lives.

We learn from the song of the grasshopper that help will always come from G-d, as long as we are willing to lift our eyes above our limited perspective, and look up, to the mountains. The Midrash teaches us that the mountains are also a reference to our patriarchs, and that it is largely in merit of their deeds that G-d saves us. It is important to try to perceive more than just our current situation. Let us focus instead on the whole of our existence: who we are and where we came from: our parents.

[1] Likutei Diburim, Vol. III, p.137
[2] Ryzman, p. 89
[3] Psalms 22:7; In Chapter 12 of Tzava'at Harivash, the Ba’al Shem Tov further expands on this point:

Do not think that by worshipping with deveikut you are greater than another. You are like any other creature, created for the sake of His worship, blessed be He. G-d gave a mind to the other just as He gave a mind to you.

What makes you superior to a worm? The worm serves the Creator with all its mind and strength! Man, too, is a worm and maggot, as it is written “I am a worm and no man.” (Psalms 22:7) If G-d had not given you intelligence you would not be able to worship Him but like a worm. Thus you are no better than a worm, and certainly [no better] than [other] people.

Bear in mind that you, the worm and all other small creatures are considered as equals in the world. For all were created and have but the ability given to them by the blessed Creator.

Always keep this matter in mind.
[4] Marcus, p. 87

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Week 19 (From the Book): To Feel that G-d is Close Even When He Seems Far Away

The locust is saying, "O G-d, You are my Lord; I will exalt You, I will praise Your Name; for You have done wondrous things; Your counsels of old are faithfulness and truth." (Isaiah 25:1)

Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania would say: Ten who sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated: "The Almighty stands in the congregation of G-d" (Psalms 82:1). And from where do we know that such is also the case with five? From the verse, "He established his band on earth" (Amos 9:6). And three? From the verse, "He renders judgment in the midst of the tribunal" (Psalms 82:1). And two? From the verse, "Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard" (Malachi 3:16). And from where do we know that such is the case even with a single individual? From the verse, "Every place where I have My name mentioned, I shall come to you and bless you" (Exodus 20:21).

Hod shebeTiferet (glory and gratefulness within the context of beauty and balance)

In the nineteenth week, when we celebrate the Chassidic holiday of Yud Shevat, in Perek Shirah, the locust blesses and praises G-d, recognizing His wonders as well as His true and loyal advice given from afar. (Isaiah 25:1) Yud Shevat is the yahrzeit of the Sixth Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, and also the date in which his successor, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, became rebbe exactly one year later.

As explained above, Shevat represents the transmission and the development of the Oral Torah. The first to pass on this tradition was Moses, who transmitted it to Joshua. Yud Shevat represents the transition, as well as the transmission of the Torah of Chassidut from the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to the Seventh.

This week, which immediately precedes Tu B'Shvat, the song of the locust includes the words etzot as well as emunah. Etza means "advice," but etz means tree. Emunah means faith. As already explained, the month of Shevat is related both to trees and to faith. In the middle of winter, the Jewish people celebrate Tu B’Shvat, trusting that the trees, which are now cold and leafless, will soon be able to blossom and yield fruit.

Interestingly, the song of the locust includes several different terms used in order to make reference to G-d:

The first name used, Hashem, is the name of G-d that represents how He is above nature and time. It is connected to Rachamim, mercy.

Elohai (my Elohim), refers to G-d as He is expressed in nature. This name is connected to gevurah, strength or discipline.

Atah, you, is a way of calling out to G-d that shows closeness. In addition, Atah refers to G-d’s essence as manifested even higher and far above any given name.

The song of the locust, and Shevat as a whole, represents this duality of connecting to G-d in a way that is above nature yet still within it. Furthermore, the song of the locust reflects the feeling we have in Shevat of feeling distant from G-d, while still close to Him at the same time. Faith itself is a concept closely linked to this duality. Sometimes we might feel very far from G-d, but we need to understand that in actuality He is always very close.

Rav Moshe Wolfsohn explains the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, the Akeidah, along the same lines, based on the Zohar. Ness means a test, but also to raise. Rav Wolfsohn teaches that the main test of the Akeidah, the tenth and final test, was not the willing to sacrifice his son (think about his first test, throwing himself into a furnace before G-d had even revealed Himself to him), but the fact that Hashem seemed to be so far away, as the verse states, “Vaya’ar Et HaMakom Merachok,” Abraham “saw the place [he was to sacrifice his son] from a distance.” Hamakom, which is usually translated as“the place,” is also one of Hashem’s names.

After years of closeness, Hashem stripped Abraham of all his levels of greatness, and Abraham now needed to serve G-d like the simplest of Jews, with simple emunah, like the Jews of our generation, of Ikvessa d’Meshicha, the times of the “heels of Mashiach.” Abraham succeeded in this test and was rewarded, “Ekev Asher Shamatah beKoli,” because you hearkened to My voice. Ekev, however, also means heel. The words can therefore mean that Abraham was rewarded because he made himself like an ekev, a heel. Abraham’s test is the test of emunah for our generation, Maaseh Avot Siman Labanim. Interestingly, the Perek Shirah verse for this week ends with the words, “Merachok Emunah Amen.” (one of the verse’s first words is Aromimchah, which means, “I will raise You,” like the word Ness) Rav Wolfsohn concludes stating that our generation, in which we do not have with us tzadikim for whom miracles were a regular occurrence, has a particularly difficult test in emunah. Certainly, Yud Shevat, which marks the passing of the Previous Rebbe, was an example of such a test.

The connection of the song of the locust to Yud Shevat is also very strong. Bati LeGani, the last ma'amar (Chassidic discourse) of the Previous Rebbe, as well as the first ma'amarof his successor, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. For over forty years, the Rebbe delved deeper and deeper into the teachings of this ma'amar, and its contents are still studied every year on this date by Chabad chassidim. The discourse is about how at first in the beginning of creation, the Shechinah resided and was revealed in the world, but then became distanced and hidden due to certain sins, beginning with the eating of the Tree of Knowledge by Adam and Eve. However, through the righteous acts of certain tzadikim, the Shechinah gradually returned to its closeness to us, culminating with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The discourse then draws a parallel to the final redemption.

The number nineteen is also related to the idea of increments: the prayer of Shmoneh Esrehwas increased from 18 to 19, and represents a ladder to G-d, just as the ladder in Jacob's dream. In that dream, the angels ascended and descended a ladder. With every blessing of the Shmoneh Esreh, we ascend this ladder, getting closer and closer to G-d.

Nineteen also equals the gematria of Eve (Chavah); some Biblical commentaries state that Eve, who was created after Adam, is a loftier version of him. It is well known that women generally have stronger and purer faith than men. It was in the merit of the Jewish women that we were redeemed from Egypt, and it will be in the merit of the Jewish women that we will be redeemed from this last exile through Mashiach.

The teaching of Pirkei Avot for this week is that of Rabbi Chalafta the son of Dosa of the village of Chanania. He asserts that ten men gathered and involved in the study of Torah have the Shechinah with them, as it is said, "G-d resides in the assembly of G-d "(Psalm 82:1). The same is true with five: "He established His band on earth" (Amos 9:6). The same happens with three, as we read: "G-d renders judgment in the midst of the tribunal." The same happens with two: "Then the G-d-fearing conversed with another, and G-d listened and heard." (Malachi 3:16) And finally, G-d is present even if there is only one: "In every place where I have My name mentioned, I will come to you and bless you" (Exodus 20:24; Pirkei Avot III:6).

Just as with the song of the locust, Rabbi Chalafta teaches about the different levels of G-d’s closeness and revelation. Rabbi Chalafta also teaches about the greatness of the Torah and of its ability to bring down G-d’s presence into the material world. The Rebbe specifically comments about how the actions of the ten men show different levels of G-d’s Presence. First the men are gathered – that’s one level; then they become involved – that’s a second level; then they become specifically involved in the study of Torah, that’s a third level and an even higher revelation of the Shechinah.[1]

The combination of sefirot for this week is Hod shebeTiferet: grateful service within beauty and balance. During the month of Shevat, as we celebrate trees and nature as a whole, we have the ability to behold the wonderful and beautiful works of G-d, and to be uplifted and dazzled by it.

A similar lesson can be taken from the words of the locust: with the right amount of gratitude, appreciation, and humility, it becomes much easier to have faith and hope in our Creator. After all, are we not here witnessing His works at every moment? Conversely, we must try to fully internalize the truth that He too, is with us at every moment, even when He may seem to be very distant. In fact, those “distant” and difficult moments are when He is with us the most. In order to feel Him around us and within us, all we need to do is let Him in. As a child, the Kotzker Rebbe was once asked, "Where is G-d?" The expected answer was for a child to say what is normally taught in school, "everywhere." Instead, the Kotsker responded: "G-d is wherever you let Him in."

[1] Marcus, p. 88

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Week 20 (From the Book): To Be Solid and Giving in Our Relationships

The spider is saying, "Praise Him with sounding cymbals! Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!" (Psalms 150:5)

Rabbi Elazar of Bartota would say: Give Him what is His, for you, and whatever is yours, are His. As David says: "For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand we give to You" (I Chronicles 29:14).

Yesod shebeTiferet (foundation and firmness within the context of beauty and balance)

The spider is the twentieth animal in Perek Shirah. It cries out to the Jewish people to praise G-d with sounding cymbals and clashing cymbals (Psalm 150:5). This is the week of Tu B'Shvat, the New Year of the Trees.

For King David, to whom Perek Shirah is attributed, the spider had a very special significance. A Midrash teaches that once King David pondered on the purpose of why G-d had created the spider – he could not find a purpose for it. Later, when King David was fleeing from Saul, he entered a cave. A spider then spun an entire web at its entrance. When Saul’s men saw the spider’s web they figured no one could have been inside the cave for long, so they went away, not bothering to check the cave. The spider’s web not only saved his life, but also made him realize that everything that G-d creates has a glorious purpose. That is perhaps why King David reserved the spider for Tu B’Shvat itself, the New Year of the Trees, and the high point of Judaism’s celebration of nature, and why the verse of the spider comes from the very last Psalm, which also serves as a culmination of G-d’s praise.

There is also a remarkable parallel between spider webs and trees. A tree takes a long time to grow, but eventually it bears fruit. Similarly, the spider takes a long time to make its web, and its "fruits" are the insects caught in it. The spider web is an example of balance and resistance, just like a tree. Both the tree and the spider web are somewhat delicate, yet can withstand very strong winds, due to their ability absorb impact flexibility, without breaking or falling. Both are testimonies to G-d’s greatness and to the complexity of His creation.

The number twenty represents two complete units. It represents an intensification of the concepts of duality and relationship represented by the number two. In addition, twenty is the age of full maturity, when a man may be enlisted for war, and is expected to fully provide for his own sustenance. Beginning at the age of twenty, we are held accountable for our actions in the Heavenly court.

The Pirkei Avot teaching of this week comes from Rabbi Elazar of Bartota, who states: give to Him what is His, for you and all that is yours is His, as said King David: everything comes from You, and from Your hand we give to You (Pirkei Avot 3:7, Chronicles I 29:14). It is very appropriate that King David be quoted since the Perek Shirah section of this week is so intrinsically related to him.

Tzedakah, in a general sense, is the commandment to give charity, and comes from the word justice. The Tanya explains that is arguably the highest of all mitzvoth because when we give tzedakah, a part of our livelihood and sustenance, it is as if we are giving away part of our very lives. We usually have to fight very hard to obtain this money, and to give it away is the ultimate realization that everything we have is really a gift from Hashem. Even after Hashem gives, it still remains His, because ultimately He is the Supreme Owner and Ruler over everything.

Rabbi Elazar’s statement is also related to Tu B'Shvat, because the first fruits one would reap would be brought as an offering to the Temple, and all fruits require ma'aser (tithing). In fact, on Tu B’Shvat is when one would first be obligated to bring the tithe of the fruits, and that is why it is called the Rosh Hashanah of the Trees. Hashem is the One who grants us various kinds of fruits and produce. It is therefore appropriate that we give (at least) ten percent of these to Him in return, just as we are supposed to set aside at least ten percent of our income towards tzedakah.

A similar principal holds true when it comes to transmitting the Oral Torah. One has to be extremely conscious that one is transmitting that which comes from and belongs to G-d, the Ultimate Teacher. Both regarding what one receives directly from a teacher as well as new Torah insights that appear to have been independently conceived, everything comes from G-d. He grants us knowledge for safekeeping, and for us to put to the best use possible. There is also a concept of “tithing” one’s time to teach Torah.
In this week, the resulting sefirah combination is yesod shebetiferet. On Tu B'Shvat, we see that a tree represents this very concept: a foundation that has both beauty and balance.

We learn from the spider that with total confidence, and with a loud and firm voice (like the smashing of cymbals), we can be good examples and good influences on others. We can help others understand that we are never alone – we all have the inner strength that comes from having G-d always on our side.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Week 21 (From the Book): To Keep Things in Perspective

The fly, when Israel is not busying itself with Torah, is saying: "The voice said, 'Call out'. And he said, 'What shall I call out? All flesh is grass, and all its grace is as the flower of the field.' ‘…The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our Lord shall endure forever.’" "I will create a new expression of the lips: Peace, peace for him who is far off and for him who is near, says G-d, and I will heal him." (Isaiah 40:6,8; 57:19)

Rabbi Yaakov would say: One who walks along a road and studies, and interrupts his studying to say, "How beautiful is this tree!", "How beautiful is this ploughed field!"---the Torah considers it as if he had forfeited his life.

Malchut shebeTiferet (kingship within the context of beauty and balance)

On the twenty-first week, coming to the end of the month of Shvat, in Perek Shirah the fly calls out to the Jewish people when they are not engaging in the study of Torah. The song of the fly appears to be a kind of dialogue. One voice exclaims, "Call out!" and then a second voice responds, "What shall I say? All life is like the grass and the flower of the field… the grass withers and the flower fades... but the word of the Lord our G-d shall stand forever. The Creator of speech of the lips is saying, Peace, peace to the distant and to the near, says the Lord, and I shall heal." (Isaiah 40:6-8 and 57:19). This week marks the yahrzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, the Rebbe’s wife, on the 22nd of Shevat.

Soon after Tu B'Shvat, when we emphasize the importance of trees and nature, the fly comes to remind us that nature and life itself, although beautiful, pleasurable, and meaningful, are ultimately fleeting. Even though they are a reflection of the Creator, but it is ultimately only the Creator Himself, and those indelibly attached to Him, that are eternal. Interestingly, flies do not disturb the tzadikim. Perhaps this explains why we only know the song that the fly sings when the Jews are not studying Torah. When we are truly engaged in the study of Torah, we are all tzadikim. Flies do not approach us, and therefore we cannot know what they are singing.

The fly reminds us of one of the most beautiful and happy stories of our people linked to a woman: the story of Ishah Shunamit, the Shunammite woman. This woman performed the great mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, hospitality, based on a tradition inherited from our father Abraham. She prepared a special room for the prophet Elisha to always be able to stay with her and her husband. The Talmud and the Zohar explain that she understood the greatness of the prophet Elisha, because she never saw a fly land on his table.[1] This story is about the sanctification of pleasure – Elisha’s table was like the Temple’s altar, where there were never any flies, despite the constant meat and blood.

Even though she was childless, the Ishah Shunamit was always very satisfied with what she had. When asked by the prophet if she needed anything, she replied by stating, "I dwell within my people." Her behavior towards Elisha the prophet, the disciple of Elijah, is one of the prime biblical examples of humility, modesty, kindness and hospitality.

These characteristics also find expression in the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka. The Rebbetzin also had no children of her own, yet considered all her "people," the Chassidim, to be her children. She was the Rebbe’s best friend and most devout partner throughout his life. The Rebbetzin was also known for her great kindness, hospitality, and modesty, which she learned from the home of her father, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. (See Week 19)

The number twenty-one is the sum of the first three letters of Hashem’s name. Interestingly, 21 is also the square root of 441, the gematria (numeric value) of the Hebrew word Emet, truth, which, as explained in Week 4, is G-d’s “seal.” This continues building on the above themes of maintaining the proper focus on Hashem and his eternal truth. 

The lesson in Pirkei Avot for the week after Tu B'Shvat, taught by Rabbi Yaakov, continues on this same theme: “When one is on a path studying Torah, if one interrupts his study and exclaims: ‘How beautiful is this tree! How beautiful is this plowed field,’ it is considered by Scripture as if he were endangering his life. (III:7) Rabbi Yaakov’s words parallel the song of the fly. We must maintain our focus on what is truly important and everlasting, and continue in our main path, which is to advance in our study and transmission of Torah knowledge. The study of the eternal words of the Creator should not be interrupted in order to enjoy fleeting occurrences or even to exalt His own Creation.[2]

During this week, we complete the third cycle of seven weeks, and the sefirah combination results in Malchut shebeTiferet: kingship within beauty. Malchut is a female sefirah. The truest and everlasting feminine beauty is inner beauty, as the verse in Psalms states, "Kol Kvudah Bat Melech Pnimah, all the glory [and beauty] of the princess is within.” Similarly, one of the last verses of Eshet Chayil sung before Kiddush on Shabbat night, "charm is deceitful and beauty is vanity; a woman that is G-d-fearing, she is the one to be praised." These verses are also one of the last verses in Solomon’s Book of Proverbs. King Solomon, who also wrote Ecclesiastes, knew very well which things were of permanent value, and which were simply “vanity of vanities.”

Similarly, we can learn from the fly the invaluable lesson that while most things are temporary, Hashem and His Torah are eternal and permanent. Therefore, we should also try to strengthen even more our connection with G-d, speaking directly to Him – there is no need of intermediaries. Healing always comes through Him, and only the ways of the Torah can bring true peace and satisfaction.

[1] Brachot 10b
[2] The Maggid of Mezritch explains that this teaching is referring to someone who stops learning in order to reflect on how much he has learned. (Marcus, p. 91) The 22nd of Shevat  is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, known for cutting through people’s “flowery” egocentric behavior and focusing completely on the truth.

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