Weekly Cycle

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Week 13 (from the Book): To Publicize Miracles with Pride and Humility

The starling is saying, "Their seed shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed that G-d has blessed." (Isaiah 61:9)

Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. From where you came--from a putrid drop; where you are going--to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting--before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

Yesod shebeGevurah (foundation and firmness within the context of discipline and judgment)

We now come to the thirteenth week, which includes the beginning of Chanukah, when in Perek Shirah the starling declares that "Their seeds will be known among the nations and their offspring among the people: all who see them will recognize that they are the seed that Hashem blessed" (Isaiah 61:9). During this week, it is actually a mitzvah to publicize the miracles of Chanukah to the rest of the world, so that all may recognize the blessings bestowed on the Jewish people during the times of the Greeks. This mitzvah in Hebrew is called pirsumei nissa, to publicize the miracle.

The starling’s song’s focus on the seed of the Jewish people appears to be an important reference to the kohanim, the priestly class, whose lineage, unlike most of Judaism, is actually determined by the physical male seed. There are even DNA tests available to check for a “kohen gene,” to know with almost complete certainty if someone is or is not a direct descendant of Aaron, the first kohen. The Maccabees were kohanim, and their miraculous actions during the days of Chanukah made the seed of Aaron known among the nations. They ensured that Aaron’s offspring would be recognized as the seed Hashem blessed.

Chanukah also comes from the word chinuch, which means education. The starling also teaches us that just as each of us is a “seed,” planted, nurtured and blessed by our parents, teachers, and most importantly, by G-d, so too must we ensure that the same or better is done for our children and students. It is ultimately through education that we will defeat the forces of darkness and assimilation.

In Pirkei Avot, Akavia the son of Mahalalel teaches: "Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin: know from where you came, to where you are going, and to Whom, in the future, you are to provide an accounting. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. To where you are going? To a place of dust, maggots and worms. To Whom will you provide an accounting? To the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He." (III: 1) It is interesting to note that this lesson in Pirkei Avot also speaks of the human seed, although in a much less flattering way.

Interestingly, there is quite a strong connection between the words of Akavia and Chanukah. Chanukah celebrates our victory against Hellenistic culture and humanism, which valued mankind, and in particular, the human body above all else. Akavia claims that the human being, or at least the body, comes from a putrid drop, and that its fate is to be consumed by worms. The lowly human being is then judged by G-d Himself. Akavia demonstrates to us that our life should be focused on G-d, not on man.

The thoughts of Akavia help us understand just how merciful G-d is towards His people. Despite our lowly past and lowly future, we nevertheless have a strong and direct relationship with the King of kings, just like children have with their Father. We have a spark of G-d within us, and when He punishes us, it is for our own good. Chassidism teaches us that we have no idea just how precious the body is to G-d, like the seed described in the song of the starling.

The sefirah combination for this week results in yesod shebegevurah. This could not be more appropriate: yesod means foundation, and it is this week that we celebrate Chanukah, when the Jewish people, through its deep connection to its religious foundation, as well as courage and strength, was able to resist the forced assimilationist policies of the Greeks.

Regarding self-improvement, we see from the song of the starling that we must not only publicize the miracles that we merit to witness, but also be aware that everything comes from G-d, our Creator, who is ultimately responsible for everyone and everything.

[Gematria Thought: The number thirteen represents the thirteen attributes of G-d’s mercy, as well as the thirteen principles used in studying and interpreting the Torah. Thirteen is also the gematria of the Hebrew word echad, one, as well as ahavah, love. It is also a reference to the Tribe of Levi, which is the “thirteenth tribe,” when counted together with the other twelve. As kohanim, the Maccabees come from the Tribe of Levi. Their highly improbable victory over the Greeks was a revelation of Hashem’s great mercy and love, as well as of His oneness, and absolute power over creation.]

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Week 14 (from the Book): To Believe in Our Own Strength, which Comes from G-d

The domestic goose is saying, "Give thanks to G-d and call upon His name, make His works known amongst the peoples, sing to Him, make music to Him, speak of all His wonders!" (Psalms 105: 1-2)

Rabbi Chanina, deputy high priest would say: Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.

Malchut shebeGevurah (kingship within the context of discipline and judgment)

In the fourteenth week, it is the turn of the domestic goose to sing: "Praise and proclaim the Name of G-d, disseminate His deeds among all nations, sing songs and hymns, narrate all His wonders" (Psalm 105:1-2). In addition to Chanukah, this week also marks Rosh Chodesh Teveth.

Teveth is considered a difficult month, as it includes the fast of the 10th of Teveth, when Jerusalem was besieged. Teveth is represented by the tribe of Dan, which is characterized by strength and the ability to be fruitful and multiply. Dan himself had only one child, and was perceived as being at risk of extinction. However, Dan quickly became one of the largest tribes.[1]Samson was from the tribe of Dan, and he also is associated with the physical strength and the power of procreation.[2]

This week also marks the Chassidic holiday of Didan Netzach, "Victory is Ours," on the 5th of Teveth, also known as “the day of victory of the books.” On Didan Netzach, the Lubavitcher Rebbe won a great victory, maintaining the sanctity of the sacred books of the Lubavitch library. He earned the recognition of a non-Jewish secular court, which openly acknowledged the special relationship between a Rebbe and his Chassidim. As will be explained in more detail next week, the month of Teveth is very connected to the importance of valuing our sacred writings. Didan Netzach is also closely linked with the physical and spiritual victory of the Maccabees.

The song of the domestic goose is related to the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle of Chanukah, pirsumei nissa, mentioned last week. On Chanukah, we sing to Him, praise Him, and thank Him, through various songs.

The teaching of Pirkei Avot for this week can be found in the words of Rabbi Chaninah, Deputy Kohen Gadol (High Priest): "Pray for the welfare of the government, because if it were not for fear of it, men would swallow each other alive." (III:2) Rabbi Chaninah is also speaking metaphorically, that without outside intervention, the strong exploit the weak both physically and economically.[3]

It is amazing that the Pirkei Avot teaching of the deputy kohen gadol falls exactly during the week of Chanukah, when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from Greek dominance and exploitation, due to the heroic acts of a group of kohanim. During these days, we thank G-d for “delivering the strong into the hands of the weak,” as can be found in the additions made to the daily prayer (the Amidah) inserted during Chanukah.

This week, we complete another cycle of seven weeks, and the sefirot combination is malchut shebegevurah. The Maccabbees were tough and disciplined (gevurah) and after their victory even started a dynasty of kings (malchut). Like the Maccabees, we must take action within this physical and material world, with discipline and strength, which is also an attribute of the entire month of Teveth.

We learn from the domestic goose about the importance of acknowledging the miracles that occur all around us on a daily basis, and of publicizing these miracles as well. To recall and publicize miracles that occur throughout life is a great way to be more grateful in our day-to-day. In fact, it is a great source of blessing and happiness.

[1] Ryzman, p. 77.
[2] Talmud, Sotah 10a.
[3] Marcus, p. 82, citing Bartenura’s commentary on the Talmud, Avodah Zarah 4a.

[Gematria Thought: Fourteen is comprised of the letters yud and dalet, which spells yad, meaning hand or arm. In the widely accepted version of the Order of the Passover Seder, attributed to Rashi or one of the Tosafot, fourteen steps are listed. That is because in the Torah it is written that G-d brought His people out of Egypt with a yad chazakah, a strong arm.[4] Fourteen is therefore associated with strength and firmness, as well as redemption. Such redemptive qualities are felt on Chanukah.

[4] Ki Yishalcha Bincha, Rabbi Bogomilsky, p. 56.]

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Week 15 (From the Book): Giving Proper Value to Torah and to the Presence of the Shechinah

PEREK SHIRAH: The wild goose flying in the wilderness, when it sees Israel busy with Torah, is saying, "A voice cries out: Prepare in the wilderness the way for G-d, make straight in the desert a path for our G-d" (Isaiah 40:3). And upon finding its food in the wilderness, it says: "Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings; Blessed is the man who trusts in G-d, and G-d shall be his assurance." (Jeremiah 17: 5, 7)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Chanina son of Tradyon would say: Two who sit and no words of Torah pass between them, this is a session of scorners, as is stated, "And in a session of scorners he did not sit" (Psalms 1:1). But two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them, as is stated, "Then the G-d-fearing conversed with one another, and G-d listened and heard; and it was inscribed before Him in a book of remembrance for those who fear G-d and give thought to His name" (Malachi 3:16). From this, I know only concerning two individuals; how do I know that even a single individual who sits and occupies himself with the Torah, G-d designates reward for him? From the verse, "He sits alone in meditative stillness; indeed, he receives [reward] for it" (Lamentations 3:28).

SEFIRAH COMBINATION: Chesed shebeTiferet (kindness within the context of beauty and balance)

In the fifteenth week, the wild goose sings two songs: When it sees Israel occupied with the study of Torah, it calls for us to prepare a way for the Lord, to make a straight path for our G-d. Then, after finding food, is blesses the Lord, and curses those that place their trust in man. (Isaiah 40:3; Jeremiah 17:5-7) This week marks the fast of the Tenth of Teveth, when Jerusalem was besieged at the time of the First Temple. It was the first step towards its destruction and the exile of the Shechinah. The 10th of Teveth is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Nathan of Breslov, the main disciple of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

Few Jews survived the destruction of the First Temple. Even so, they multiplied and returned to being a numerous people, just like the Tribe of Dan, the symbol of the month of Teveth. Similarly, when Rabbi Nathan took the reins of the Breslov movement, it was still very small, and he had to face incredible obstacles and adversities. Nonetheless, not only did the movement survive, but it grew exponentially, and today Rebbe Nachman’s fire is more alive than ever.

The Midrash states that Jerusalem was besieged and the First Temple later destroyed because the Jewish people did not “recite the blessing over Torah study.” In other words, this tragedy took place due to the lack of spiritual importance given to the Torah and other holy texts at that time. There is a strong connection here with Didan Netzach, the day of the “victory of the books.”

Through the words of the wild goose, we mourn the destruction of the First Temple, when the Jewish people not only was not properly occupied with the study of Torah, but also put inappropriate trust in their alliance with the Kingdom of Egypt at the time. The prophets warned against trusting in Egypt. In a prophecy made on the twelfth of Teveth, still prior to the siege, the prophet Ezekiel calls Egypt a “reed-like support for the House of Israel – whenever they held you in their hand you would snap, piercing their every shoulder…”[1]  When Egypt fell to the Babylonians, the Kingdom of Israel soon followed.

In the Pirkei Avot lesson for this week, Rabbi Chaninah ben Teradion teaches: "If two [people] are sitting together and do not exchange words of Torah, this is a company of scorners... However, if two sit together and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests between them.” (III:2) Rabbi Chaninah further explains that even when a person sits alone and is occupied with the Torah, G-d provides him with a reward. The connection with the above concepts is quite clear. 

During this week, the sefirot combination results in chesed shebetiferet. When the siege of Jerusalem began, the situation was not yet so precarious. There was still a chance for the people to repent and avoid the tragedy altogether. This can be regarded as kindness within mercy (rachamim), which is another meaning for the term tiferet. (This week would also represent the “eighth week,” of Shavuot and “Shivah Yemei Miluim” of the cycle of Gevurah)

Regarding self-improvement, we learn that even the wild goose understands the great importance of Torah study, and that its survival and sustenance depends solely on G-d, not on human beings. If we do our part, surely G-d will do His.

[1] Ezekiel 29:6-7

[Gematria Thought: The number fifteen contains the first two letters of Hashem’s name, yud and heh. These two letters also form another name for G-d, Yah. This is a feminine name and a reference to the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. The moon, which represents the feminine sefirah of malchut, is always full on the fifteenth of the Jewish month.

The Talmud states that in the Temple, there were fifteen steps from the Israelite men’s courtyard to the women’s courtyard, corresponding to the fifteen Songs of Ascents (Shir haMaalot) found in King David’s Psalms.[2] The Talmud further explains that it was through the power of composing these fifteen songs that King David saved the entire world from being engulfed by the waters running under the Temple Mount. Here again we see a reference to the Temple and to the power of the written Torah.

[2] Talmud, Sukkah 51a] 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Week 16 (from the Book): To Use Adversity as a Way to Grow, Relying on G-d for Support

PEREK SHIRAH: The ducks are saying: "Trust in G-d forever and ever, for G-d, the Eternal, is the strength of worlds." (Isaiah 26:4)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yochai] would say: Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten of idolatrous sacrifices; as is stated, "Indeed, all tables are filled with vomit and filth, devoid of the Omnipresent" (Isaiah 28:8). But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at G-d's table, as is stated, "And he said to me: This is the table that is before G-d." (Ezekiel 41:22)

SEFIROT: Gevurah shebeTiferet (discipline and judgment within the context of beauty and balance)

We now come to the sixteenth week, when the ducks proclaim their everlasting trust in G-d, the Eternal Rock (Isaiah 26:4). The song can also be understood as praise, that G-d is the strength of all worlds. During this week of the month of Teveth, we remain connected with the strength of the tribe of Dan, and to its ability to multiply. The Talmud states that Teveth is the coldest month of the year, “when the body takes pleasure in the body.”[1]

It is no coincidence that Perek Shirah mentions the ducks in the plural. Ducks multiply quickly and have large families; they travel in groups and rely on each other for survival during migration from the cold. After the destruction of the First Temple, the number of Jewish survivors was very small. According to the Book of Jeremiah, 4,600 people were exiled to Babylon in total. [2] And yet, in a relatively short period of time, the Jewish community in Babylon thrived, becoming numerous, influential, and wealthy.

The song of the ducks also appears to be a reference to G-d’s strength as well as to the fact that He grants us the ability to procreate. The name Tzur is a reference to G-d’s strength, but can also be translated as Creator or Craftsman. The word Yotzer, which as the same root as Tzur is used in Tanach specifically as a reference to G-d, who “fashioned you from the womb.”[3]

The song also contains a mixture of both masculine and feminine names of G-d. It contains the name formed by the letters yud and heh, which is feminine, and Tzur, which is masculine. In between, the name Hashem is used, which contains both masculine and feminine aspects.

The teaching of Pirkei Avot for this week is found in the lesson of Rabbi Shimon (Bar Yochai): "Three [people] who ate at the same table and did not speak words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten of sacrifices to the lifeless [idols] ... But three [people] who ate at the same table and spoke words of Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of G-d." (III: 3)

Rabbi Shimon speaks of the importance of using words of the Torah, so that we are always connected to Hashem. This teaching of Pirkei Avot is connected to the month of Teveth because, as explained earlier, the disregard for the spiritual importance of Torah study was the cause of the destruction of the First Temple. Rabbi Shimon was the greatest expert of the hidden secrets of the Torah. He understood perfectly how by refraining from words of Torah, one can negatively affect the world.

Furthermore, by teaching us about the importance of infusing our meals with words of Torah, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is teaching us how to serve Hashem with our bodies. That is the deeper meaning behind the above Talmudic statement that in this month, “the body takes pleasure in the body.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that by serving Hashem with our bodies, not just with our minds and souls, we bring forth an even deeper impact, affecting Hashem’s “body,” His very essence.[4] In this way, we fulfill G-d’s ultimate desire, which is to build a dwelling place for Him in this lowly realm.

If we follow Rabbi Shimon’s advice, our eating a simple meal, becomes as if we were eating from the “table of G-d,” in the Temple. The same can be said for marital relations. It can be the most holy of activities, or the most profane, it all depends on the circumstances and the intentions of the couple.
This week, the combination of the sefirot results in gevurah shebetiferet. We recover from the pain of the destruction of the Temple and use our strength and discipline to connect to the balanced and spiritual beauty of the Torah.

A lesson in self-improvement that we can learn from the ducks’ words is that we must have total confidence in G-d, relying on Him always, just as we would rely on a strong and stable rock for support.

[1] Talmud, Megillah 13a
[2] Chapter 52:28-30
[3] Isaiah 44:2
[4] “Love in the Ice Age,” based on the talks of the Rebbe, ShabatVayeishev 5735 and Shabat Vayigash5750, available at: https://meaningfullife.com/torah/parsha/bereishit/vayigash/Love_in_the_Ice_Age.php

[Gematria Thought: Similarly, while last week’s number fifteen contained two letters of Hashem’s name, yudand heh, and was feminine, the number sixteen also contains two letters of Hashem’s name, yud and vav, but is masculine in nature. The yud in Hashem’s name represents the sefirah of chochmah (also known as the “father”) while the vav in His name represents the six masculine emotional sefirot from chesed to yesod (known as Ze'er Anpin). These concepts are in line with this week’s theme of procreation, as well as contrasting     G-d’s masculine and feminine qualities.

The number sixteen also contains aspects of strength and support evoked in the song of the ducks. Sixteen is four times four. Just as the number four represents stability, as explained above in the fourth week, so too does the number sixteen express an even higher dimension of such stability.] 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Week 17 (From the Book): To Pay Attention to G-d’s Guidance and to Trust in Our Redemption

PEREK SHIRAH: The bee-eater[1]is saying,"I will whistle to them and gather them, for I have redeemed them, and they shall increase as they have before increased." (Zechariah 10:8)

PIRKEI AVOT: Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina'i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, has forfeited his life.

SEFIROT: Tiferet shebeTiferet (beauty and balance within the context of beauty and balance)

In the seventeenth week, still in the month of Teveth, in Perek Shirah, the bee-eater sings that, “I will whistle [as a Shepherd to his flock] to gather them, because I have redeemed them, and they shall increase as they increased [in the past]. (Zechariah 10:8) The song of the bee-eater has a clear connection with the tribe of Dan, as it explicitly speaks of the power to be fruitful and multiply.

This week also marks the yahrzeit of the Alter Rebbe, on the 24th day of Teveth. The Alter Rebbe passed away due in great part to the struggles he faced when running away from Napoleon, during the war between Russia and France. The Alter Rebbe supported Russia’s efforts in the war, for fear that Napoleon’s egalitarian principles would cause assimilation. The Alter Rebbe felt that such spiritual persecution (similar to the threat of the Greeks in the times of Chanukah) was more dangerous than the physical oppression of the Russian government.

During the flight from Napoleon, the Alter Rebbe sat in a carriage that was third in line, and his grandson, Rabbi Nachum, would sit in the first carriage. Whenever they would approach a crossroads, the Alter Rebbe would be asked which road to take. In one of the crossroads, Rabbi Nachum mistook the Alter Rebbe’s directions. Much later, when they realized the mistake, “[T]he Alter Rebbe sighed deeply and said: ‘How good is it when a grandson follows in the path of his grandfather – and the opposite is true when a grandfather has to follow the path in which his grandson leads him.’ … The mistake at the crossroads caused all kinds of troublesome detours, and soon after Alter Rebbe passed away in Piena.”[2]

The whistle mentioned in the Song of the bee-eater is a metaphor for the various methods that G-d uses guide us and to help a lost Jew return to Him. As further explained in Week 26, and as is well known from Psalm 23, G-d is our Shepherd and we are His flock. Furthermore, the Zohar teaches that Moses was called Rayah Mehemnah, a faithful shepherd (also a shepherd of faith), and that the leader of every generation is like the Moses of that generation, as was the Alter Rebbe. It is important that we follow their advice in order not to lose our way in the darkness of exile, as unfortunately occurred in the above story.

It is well known that seventeen is the gematria of tov, which means “good.” Yet, it also connected to exile and to the sad events of the seventeenth of Tammuz, which led to the destruction of the Temple. The Alter Rebbe’s premature and apparently preventable passing presents us with same dilemma.

How could G-d have permitted such an occurrence? In fact, the Talmud makes an explicit connection between these two kinds of events, stating that the passing of tzadikim is likened to the burning of the Temple.[3]

The Lubavitcher Rebbe specifically addresses this apparent contradiction, both regarding exile as well as regarding the premature passing of a tzadik, in this case, his own father:

This is a descent for the purpose of ascent. Indeed, the ascent to be achieved through the Messianic redemption will be great enough to make the time we spend in exile worthwhile.

There is no other means for us to reach this high rung. Were we able to make this ascent without going through the pains of exile, G-d surely would not have exposed us to them.

The above concept also helps clarify a difficult problem in regard to the death of Tzadikim. (…) The passing of the Tzadik allows us to reach a high level that could not be approached through any other means. Therefore, this ascent compensates for the tremendous loss caused by death.

If the above is true regarding the passing of any Tzadik, it surely applies regarding the passing of a Tzadik who sacrificed his life for the entire people. Indeed, his self-sacrifice caused him to die before his time. Surely, the only reason for such a passing is the ascent achieved through it.

Seventeen is in fact associated with good, although the full extent of that good is hidden for now. Nowadays, seventeen might be associated primarily with the tragedy of destruction and exile, but in the future, when we fully return to Hashem, He will gather us and redeem us through Mashiach, and we will then understand that everything that happened was genuinely good all along. (Seventeen is also the gematriaof cheit, which means sin, which is the only thing that is truly preventing us from entering the messianic era – as we say in our prayers, “mipnei chateinu galinu m’artzeinu” – because of our sins we have been exile from our land. Therefore, if we truly repent from our sins, we will be immediately redeemed.[4]

The Pirkei Avot of this week can be found in the words of Rabbi Chaninah son of Chachina’i, who states: "Whoever stays up at night or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness, forfeits his life.” (III: 4) Rabbi Chaninah is referring to the night of exile. In exile, we cannot be isolated and concerned only with vain works in our hearts. We have to be assembled and attentive to the whistle of G-d, and occupy ourselves with the study of Torah, so that we do not lose our way and endanger our lives. This lesson is reminiscent of the story of the passing of the Alter Rebbe. There is also a strong connection between this teaching and the month of Teveth, given that it was negligence regarding proper Torah study that caused the destruction of the Temple.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov explains the words of Rabbi Chaninah in a completely different light. He explains that travelling alone is in fact a reference to someone who forges his own path in prayer and meditation (hitbodedut) and that the Hebrew word for idleness, batalah, is in fact a reference to bitul, nullification of the self. “Forfeits his life” in Hebrew is mitchayev et nafshoh, which Rebbe Nachman interprets as makes his soul worthy that the whole world be obligated (chayav) to exist. This is the condition of the tzadikof the generation, as was the Alter Rebbe.

The combination of the sefirot of the seventeenth week results in tiferet shebetiferet. To survive these cold days and long nights, we have to temper the darkness of exile with the light and inspiration of Chanukah, as well as the Alter Rebbe’s yahrzeit, connecting ourselves with the beauty and balance of the Torah. We must also trust in G-d’s infinite mercy - mercy in Hebrew, Rachamim is another meaning for tiferet– knowing that He will soon bring us out of this exile. The root of the bee-eater’s name in Hebrew, Rachamah, is Rachamim.

Similarly, the lesson in self-improvement we can derive from the words of the bee-eater is to hold strong to the conviction that G-d is always with us, guiding us through adversity, and that He will ultimately raise us up. We must not only believe that His call will come, but must also be attentive to it, so that when it does come we do not miss it.

[1] The Bee-Eater is a type of bird.
[2] Likutei Diburim, Volume I, Chapter 2a, Section 5, pages 34-35
[3] Rosh Hashana 18b
[4] From the Rebbe’s Sichot.

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