Weekly Cycle

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Introduction to 22-Day Cycles


We live in a time of tremendous material disparity. While many of us have access to technologies and luxuries previous generations could not even dream of, large populations remain deprived not only of such advances, but also of even the most basic needs and services such as food, water, shelter, healthcare, and personal safety. Millions have been displaced, many of which are still searching for a place to call home, while many more millions live in tension and often despair.

We also have become enslaved to a culture of always having to know what just happened in the last moment, and eager for constant updates, no matter how impersonal or irrelevant to our daily lives. We are made aware of “breaking news” and “latest developments,” tragedies and dangers across the globe that stimulate, but also alarm us and cause additional anxiety. We are impacted by this deluge of information,[1] which often is opinionated and sensationalized, meant to seek attention instead of to inform, when not to deliberately mislead and slander.  We lose ourselves, our focus and time, and cannot even accomplish the simplest of tasks without interruption. In the process, we have also lost much of our privacy. Every piece of information gleaned about us becomes a marketing tool, if not something worse.

In the area of social interaction and networking, we have never been so electronically “connected” and yet so distant and “disconnected” at the same time. Many become enamored and even addicted to receiving personal approval through “likes” and “hearts” on social media that are not only impersonal, but probably mean next to nothing or nothing at all. Responses are also expected to be almost immediate, as more and more devices track not only if a message was sent, but also when it was read. Relationships are becoming empty and superficial, and many suffer from loneliness and depression, which can go unnoticed and untreated.

Furthermore, individuals are often in a state of constant struggle. This can be due to past traumas or disappointments, addictions or fraught relationships, or perhaps challenges in the areas of health, finding a spouse, fertility, raising children, caring for a loved one, or making a living.  Even for the most privileged among us, there is a general sense of unfulfilled potential, a sense that there's something missing.

The truth is that in fact there is something missing. Humanity remains "unredeemed," even if most of us do not even know what such “redemption” would entail. In the quest for fulfillment, many are unaware of how Judaism, Chassidism in particular, can provide us with the tools necessary to address our challenges and to live in a state of gratitude and joy.

With these tools, one is better able to face struggles and losses, both collective and individual. While acknowledging shortcomings, one learns to be compassionate and forgiving, focusing on the good within others and within oneself. One can also rediscover how to have faith and live in the present, as well as the wisdom and delight contained within every Divine teaching and commandment. 

This approach is best exemplified in the period in the Jewish calendar known as the "Three Weeks of Mourning." Every year, between the 17th of the Jewish month of Tammuz[2] and the 9th of the month of Av, the Jewish people remember our greatest losses: the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The Temple, originally built by King Solomon, and then rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah,[3] was the focus of Jewish observance at the time. Even today, many of our rituals and symbols, prayers and houses of worship, are based on how services in the Temple were performed. Its destruction, first by the Babylonians (684 B.C.E.) and then by the Romans (70 C.E.), represents a calamity of gigantic proportions, and was accompanied by murder and persecution of the Jewish population of those times.

The Book of Lamentations[4] states that, "all her pursuers overtook her [Jerusalem] within the straits." The "straits" is a reference to this three-week period. On the 17th of Tammuz, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple. Both Temples were destroyed on the same date on the Jewish calendar: the 9th of Av. The Code of Jewish Law states that when Av begins, “we decrease in joy.”[5]  As further explained below, there are certain restrictions that apply to the Jewish people during this time, so as to decrease activities that lead to happiness.

But if the goal in overcoming our struggles and losses is to be joyful and grateful, how can we learn to do so specifically from the days in which such tragedies took place, to the extent that we are urged to decrease in joy on them? With G-d’s help, the answer to this question, as well as to how we can incorporate the lessons from this period into the entire year, will be found in the following chapters of this book.

Seeking Balance

Tisha B’Av is the day of our greatest tragedies, yet it is also the day that marks the birth (and the much anticipated arrival) of Mashiach. Everything in G-d’s creation is balanced in perfect equilibrium: darkness and light, purity and impurity, good and evil, and even sadness and joy.[6] This is best exemplified by the teachings of the wisest man to ever live, King Solomon. In Ecclesiastes, he sets out various opposing emotions and actions, and states that there are specific times for each. There is also a famous legend about King Solomon’s ring, which could balance out a person’s joy or sadness, and had the following words inscribed: “This too shall pass.”[7]

Rabbi Moses Maimonides, known as the most important codifier of Jewish law since perhaps Moses himself,[8] also begins his magnum opus, the Mishna Torah, by stating that a person should always strive for balance and moderation, also known as the “middle path.” Maimonides, who was also a physician, elaborated on the known scientific concept of Homeostasis, which means that the human body itself is always in search of balance.

During the Three Weeks, from the Seventeenth of Tammuz to Tisha B’Av we remember that our world was literally torn apart – our walls breached, our Temple destroyed - but that was only in order to rebuild ourselves and achieve even greater heights. Whenever we are faced with struggles that bring us down, we must quickly strive to regain our balance and keep moving forward, in harmony with ourselves and the world.

This book will focus on three concepts in order to achieve this balance:

I.                    The Hebrew Alphabet and the Sefirot –the Building Blocks of Creation

Our sages teach us that the building blocks of Creation are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the Alef Beit.[9] G-d used these letters in order to create each and every element of existence. The letter by itself is an ingredient – the word is the smallest unit.[10] It is interesting that in Hebrew, letters only create words once they connect to one another, and are balanced by one another.

Each one of us is also an Olam Katan, a “small world,” and we also contain within us the elemental forces of the Alef Beit, just as each one of us contains a mirror image of the Sefirot.[11]

Just as the Alef Beit has twenty-two letters, there are twenty-two days from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av. We may therefore use these days to strengthen our connection to the Alef Beit within ourselves.

On Tisha B’Av, we read together the Book of Lamentations, in which each of the four first chapters is written as an acrostic – the first verse starts with an Alef, followed by Beit, Gimmel, etc. until the last verse of the chapter which starts with the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the Tav. The last chapter of Lamentations has twenty-two verses, but is not an acrostic. This break in structure appears to symbolize how everything has gone out of order, and is in desperate need to be put back in place. That is our job during these days – to put things, including our internal Alef Beit, back in order,[12] in balance.

Study of Torah – the Blueprint of Creation

Another way in which we seek to build ourselves and find balance during this period is through the study of Torah. While on Tisha B’Av we do not study most Torah subjects, there are certain topics that are permitted, particularly those related to the destruction of the Temple. One Talmudic story in particular that is generally studied is the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza. This is an account of the baseless hatred, extremism, and the general lack of harmony that existed among the Jews (and also between the Jews and the Romans), which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple.

More broadly, during the summer months that include Tammuz and Av, there is a widespread custom to continue to study Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of our Fathers.[13] This work is particularly geared towards improving our relationships and being in harmony with our fellow human beings. During the 9 days of Av, there is also a custom of making Siyumim (completing tractates of Talmud study, and sharing the joy of completing the study with others.[14]

Perek Shirah – Balance within Creation

Another potential source of balance is to look at Creation itself. In the first chapters of Perek Shirah, a Song of Nature attributed to King David, the elements listed come in pairs that are often diametrically opposed: Heaven and Earth, Day and Night, Gan Eden (Paradise) and Gehinom (Purgatory), etc. Here is as well the lesson appears to be that G-d is not to be found in one extreme or another, but in moderation. This was G-d’s ultimate message to Elijah the Prophet:

Then the word of the Lrd came to him: ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’ He replied, I am moved by the zeal for the Lrd, Gd of Hosts…” The Lrd said to him, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lrd, for the Lrd is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lrd. But the Lrd was not in the wind. After the wind was an earthquake, but the Lrd was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But the Lrd was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice.
(I Kings 19:9-12)

Yeridah L’Tzorech Aliyah (Descent for the Purpose of Spiritual Ascent)

A key concept in Jewish thought is the notion of “Yeridah leTzorech Aliyah,that every descent is only for the sake of an even greater and fuller ascent. After Tisha B’Av, comes Tu B’Av, the day in which the moon is full again. The joy of Tu B’Av is the greatest of the entire year because it comes after the tragedy of Tisha B’Av.[15]

As we seek to find our balance, we can learn from the brokenness and deep introspection of Tisha B’Av how to be joyful and empathetic, and connected to others during the rest of the year.[16] From certain acts which we are prohibited to do on Tisha B’Av (specifically because they increase our joy), we can learn what we should do during the rest of the year. We also learn how to be joyful and apply these lessons from the customs connected to Tu B’Av.

For example, on Tisha B’Av, we are not supposed to greet people and ask how they are doing. (The exact language used is to “inquire about their peace,” which involved more than just a superficial greeting.)[17] We learn from this, how important it is to greet people with a smile and show sincere interest in their wellbeing during the rest of the year. Tu B’Av commemorates a series of events in which the Jewish people were reunited and showed empathy for one another. On that day, young men would go out of to greet the young maidens in order to find their brides.

The potential brides would exclaim, “Young man, please lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself for a wife. Do not set your eyes toward beauty, but set your eyes toward a good family.” The Talmud teaches that each woman would speak of different qualities that they thought might make a good impression on a potential groom, focusing on their good points. Similarly, by asking the men to “lift up their eyes,” the young women would encourage them to look at them in a more spiritual way.

Similarly, on Tisha B’Av, along with not eating and drinking, we also do not bathe, perfume ourselves, wear leather shoes, and do things that give us physical benefit and embellish us, improving our general wellbeing. We learn from this that during the rest of the year, we are supposed take care of ourselves, and make sure that we can feel and be at our best. On Tu B’Av, the young women would dress nicely in borrowed pure white garments. The Talmud states that the clothes were borrowed out of concern for the women who may not have a garment. This carries a tremendous lesson regarding the need for empathy.

On Tisha B’Av, we are forbidden to study topics of Torah that make us happy. We learn from this how great it is to study Torah (and to find joy in it!) during the rest of the year. The Talmud teaches that starting from Tu B’Av, as the nights become longer, the Jewish people would increase in their Torah study.

On Tisha B’Av, and during the entire three weeks that precede it, we do not listen to music. On Tu B’Av, the young women would dance together.

As will be explained in further detail in the next chapter, the entire year can be divided into cycles of 22 days, and the Three Weeks is one of those cycles. We can apply the lessons of these three weeks to the entire year using fundamental tools and sacred texts that follow this 22-day pattern, and thereby function in greater harmony with the Jewish calendar. As noted in our first book, the idea is to find and connect our fourfold song: the song of the individual, the song of the Jewish people, the song of humanity, and the song of nature as a whole.

[1] As mentioned in Book 1.
[2] The Jewish Calendar, which is determined by both the sun and the moon, consists of 12 months (13 in leap years): Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Teveth, Shvat, Adar (I and II in leap years), Nissan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, and Elul. Each month is also connected to various other “forces” in nature, including also the signs of the Zodiac.
[3] Ezra the Scribe was…. Nehemiah was…
[4] This book was composed by the Prophet Jeremiah and is part of the Tanach (the Jewish Bible). Contrary to public perception, the writings in that book were composed prior to the destruction of the First Temple, even though it describes in great detail all the tragedies that took place.
[5] (Explain Code of Jewish Law – “set table”; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, 122:7)
[6] Jewish law itself balances the statement that as of the month Av begins we decrease in joy, with the statement that when the month of Adar begins we increase in joy.
[7] Footnote?
[8] “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.”
[9] The Sefer Yetzirah, one of the foremost Kabbalistic works, begins by explaining that G-d created the world through 32 mystical paths, which represent the ten sefirot and the twenty two letters. The verse first of the Torah, “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth, Bereshit Barah Elokim Et HaShamayim ve’Et Ha’Aretz,” can also be read as, “Bereshit Barah Elokim ‘Et’ [spelled Alef Tav” In the beginning, G-d created [the Hebrew letters] from Alef, the first letter, to Tav, the last.
[10] http://www.askmoses.com/en/article/228,2266616/A-Language-of-Letters-Inside-the-Hebrew-Alef-Bet.html
[11] The Kabbalah explains that G-d’s attributes manifest themselves in heavenly spheres known as sefirot. Sefirah (sefirot in the plural) can be translated as emanation, characteristic, quality or divine attribute. We also have a reflection of these sefirot within us, which are also known as middot. There are ten sefirot in total, three intellectual (Keter (or Da’at), Chochma, Bina) and seven emotional (Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod and Malchut).
[12] The Hebrew word for order is Seder, which is also the name of the Passover meal. Part of the redemption process is putting everything, including our intellectual and emotional energies, in its proper place. An aspect of this spiritual work begins on Pessach and goes through the entire 49-day period of the Counting of the Omer (in which each day we “work” on a combination of Sefirot, and culminates on Shavuot.” The Passover Seder and Tisha B’Av are extremely connected – to the extent that we even place an egg on the Seder Plate as a reminder of Tisha B’Av and the destruction of the Temple. Both nights also always fall on the same day of the week. 
[13] The communal study of Pirkei Avot begins in the Counting of the Omer, as a way to fix our emotions, as mentioned in the previous note.
[14] Despite our limited understanding, we focus on the good: we celebrate our achievements in Torah and promise to return to our study.

[15]  Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel says, “Never were more joyous festivals in Israel than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.” On this day, young maidens of Israel would dress in white and dance in the vineyards. Young men would come greet them in order to find their brides. Thus the full moon of Av is seen as greater than that of any of the other months, due to the contrast between its brightness and the deep darkness of the Ninth (Tisha b'Av) that precedes it. The greater the descent the greater the ascent, and "greater is the light that emerges from darkness." (see Tanya ch.26 — based on Prov. 14:23 and Eccl. 2:13.) https://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/4089863/jewish/FIFTEENTH-OF-AV-TU-BAV.htm
[16] Story about the Friederker Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, putting the clothes of others.
To be able to truly relate to others, we must try our best to put ourselves in the other’s shoes.
[17] Shulchan Aruch p. ___ - Shulchan Aruch, which means “Set Table,” is the compilation of Jewish Law for practical day-to-day activities, including festivals, etc.

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