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Friday, December 28, 2018

Week 1 (Book 2): Rosh Hashanah - Creation and the Grave, Avraham & Sarah and Acquiring the Torah, Shechem and Acquiring a Head (DRAFT)


Listen, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! (Deuteronomy 32:1)

And David spoke to the Lord the words of this song, on the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul; (II Samuel 22:1)

“Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is acquired with 48 ways.”

Avraham and Sarah

Shechem (also a city of refuge)

On the first week of the year, the week of Rosh Hashanah, the first verse of Haazinu speaks of the heavens and the earth. This is reminiscent of the creation of the world itself, the very first line of the Torah, which speaks of how G-d created Heaven and Earth.

The Haftarah opens with an introduction to David’s song, and the essential reason for why David is singing it – the fact that he was saved from all his enemies and specifically from the king at that time, Saul. On Rosh Hashanah we also celebrate the fact that we lived to see one more year and that (hopefully) we will be inscribed in the Book of Life  (Saul, “Shaul” in Hebrew, is spelled exactly the same as She’ol, which means grave, pit). We also celebrate how G-d is the one and only true King, Master of the Universe, King of kings.

The first quality needed to acquire the Torah is actually found in the introduction to the forty-eight qualities. It hints to well known statement from proverbs:The beginning of wisdom [is to] acquire wisdom, and with all your possession acquire understanding.” (Proverbs) Rashi explains this statement as follows: “At the beginning of your wisdom, learn from others and acquire for yourself the tradition from the mouth of the teacher, and afterwards with all your possession acquire understanding. Concentrate on it by yourself to understand the reasons, thereby deriving one thing from another.”

This first statement parallels the theme of Pirkei Avot found in Book 1, which is to acquire a rav (a master/teacher) The first step in acquiring wisdom is taking the initiative of seeking it out. We must embark on the path for acquiring wisdom just as we embark in the beginning of a new year.

The prophet(s) related to this first week are Avraham and Sarah. Avraham was the first to seek to acquire wisdom and knowledge of G-d. Avraham and Sarah mark the beginning of Judaism. Avraham and Sarah are both deeply connected to Rosh Hashanah, since the Midrash explains that the creation of the entire world was in the merit of Avraham (Eleh Toldot Shamayim V’Aretz B’hibaram – in the merit of Avraham)(find/check source). Furthermore, both Sarah’s birthday and her yahrzeit took place on Rosh Hashanah; it was also on Rosh Hashanah that G-d told Sarah that she would have a son. Finally, the Akeidah (the sacrifice of Isaac) took place on Rosh Hashanah.

In the first week of the year, the Levitical city is Shechem, which is also a city of refuge. Shechem in Hebrew literally means shoulder – the part of the body on which to attach the head (Rosh Hashanah means head of the year). Shechem was given by Yaakov to Yosef as a symbol of his distinction as the “first-born.” The word shechem is also used in the Tanach’s introduction to Shaul, and ultimately of why he was chosen to be king. The Book of Samuel states that “from the shoulders and upwards (MiShichmoh VaMa’alah) he was taller than [anyone else in] the nation.” Not only was Shaul made king, he also had the potential to be Mashiach Ben Yosef.

Shechem is the first place visited by Avraham, Yaakov, as well as Yehoshua when entering the Land of Israel. Even in modern times, the first settlement established in Judea and Samaria after the Six Day War was Elon Moreh, which is another biblical name for the city Shechem. Shechem is the gateway to the Land of Israel, very much in the way that the week of Rosh Hashanah is a gateway for the rest of the year.

An important lesson we learn from this week's quality to acquire the Torah is the need for desire, what in Hebrew we call Ratzon. Our sages teach us that "Ein Davar Omed Lifnei HaRatzon," nothing can stand in the way of desire. If our desire is pure and sincere, we are guaranteed to eventually succeed. Rebbe Nachman teaches that our Ratzon is in fact even more important than the actual outcome. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Week 2 (Book 2): Yom Kippur - Rain and Rescue, Isaac and Study, Gezer and Annulling Evil Decrees

HAAZINU: My lesson will drip like rain; my word will flow like dew; like storm winds on vegetation and like raindrops on grass. (Deuteronomy 32:2)
HAFTORAH: And he said, "The Lord is my rock and my fortress, and a rescuer to me. (II Samuel 22:2)
PIRKEI AVOT: [Constant] study
PROPHET: Isaac
LEVITICAL CITY: Gezer
On Week 2, the week of Yom Kippur, Haazinu’s main theme is water, rain and dew. Like the previous verse, this is also reminiscent of the beginning of time, and specifically of the Flood. Water represents purity and also life (the two concepts are closely connected). Dew specifically is related to resurrection and it was with dew that G-d resurrect the Jewish people at the time of the giving of the Torah. The Torah itself is also called "dew."
The Haftarah verse for this week speaks of G-d as a rock, a fortress, and a rescuer. These also are concepts related to Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippurwe are delivered from our sins.
The quality for this week is [constant] study. As mentioned last week, Torah is acquired first and foremost, through determination. Furthermore, there has to be discipline in order to acquire the Torah.
Isaac best exemplifies determination and discipline. As previously explained, he is associated with the divine attribute of gevurah related to this week, as explained in Book 1. Isaac’s total dedication and self-sacrifice can be gleaned from the Akeidah (the "binding"/sacrifice of Isaac). There is one opinion in the Talmud that the Akeidah took place on Yom Kippur. Like Jews on Yom Kippur, Isaac lived a purely heavenly existence while still here on earth. The Zohar says that after the Akeidah, he spent three years in the Garden of Eden. Isaac is also called a "pure offering," and never left the Land of Israel during his life.
The levitical city connected to the second week of the year is Gezer. Gezer is strategically located, one of the most explored archeological sites in Israel today. It was a gift given by Pharaoh at the time of his daughter's marriage to King Solomon. Gezer has the same root as the Hebrew word “Gzerah,” decree. One of the major themes of Yom Kippur is that through our tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah (prayer, repentance and charity/justice), we annul evil decrees.
A key lesson related to this week's quality to acquire the Torah is the need for creating a fixed schedule of Torah study. This is in fact one of the lessons that will be asked of every Jew is asked when they reach the World to Come: "Did you fixed (set aside) times for Torah?" The Alter Rebbe further explains that theses times must be not only fixed in time, but "fixed in the soul." It must become an essential aspect of the day.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Week 3 (Book 2): Calling out to G-d and Being Sheltered by Him, Listening and Jacob, Kibzaim and the Holiday of Ingathering

HAAZINU: When I call out the name of the Lord, ascribe greatness to our G-d. (Deuteronomy 32:3)
HAFTORAH: G-d is my rock, under whom I take cover; My shield, and the horn of my salvation, my support, and my refuge; [He is] my savior Who saves me from violence. (II Samuel 22:3)
PIRKEI AVOT: Attentive listening (Shmi’at haOzen)
PROPHET: Jacob
LEVITICAL CITY: Kibzaim
On the third week of the year, which includes Sukkot,Haazinu’s verse makes a reference to “the name of G-d,” as well as to the concept of ascribing greatness to G-d. The day after Yom Kippur is called “G-d’s name,” and the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot parallel the four letters of G-d’s name.[1] After these days, on Sukkot we go about ascribe greatness to G-d by performing his mitzvoth in a beautiful manner, such as having a nice Sukkah, a beautiful etrog, lulav, etc. Our sages explain that this is the meaning "Zeh Keili V'Anveihu – this is my G-d and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2; Shabbat133b)
This week’s Haftarah verse continues the theme of relating to G-d as a source of protection, although in a way that it is even more personal and physical than last week’s. This is the idea of the Sukkah. In the fragile Sukkah we can feel G-d as our shield, our souce of support and refuge.
The quality for this week is attentive listening, literally the listening of the ear. As explained in Book 1, the ear functions as a source of balance for the body, and is tied to the holiday of Sukkot. Listening also represents the concept of being a vessel in order to receive a teaching. On Sukkot we are all vessels to receive G-d’s blessings, which pour down through the roof of the Sukkah.
As also mentioned in Book 1, Jacob is connected to Sukkot, and the Torah itself states that he traveled to a place called Sukkot upon returning to Israel. His yahrzeit is also during Sukkot. Furthermore, Jacob truly represents the characteristic of listening. He is described in the Torah as Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim, a pure/simple man, who dwells in the tents. The most important prayer in Judaism, the Shemah, begins with “Listen O Israel…” The Midrashteaches that “Israel” is a reference to Yaakov himself.
The levitical city for this week is Kibzaim, which literally means two heaps/gatherings. Sukkot is also called Chag Ha’Asif – the Festival of the Gathering, in which the harvest is gathered. When it comes to the rituals performed on Sukkot, there are two groupings: we bring sacrifices on behalf of ourselves, and we also bring sacrifice on behalf of other nations.
An important lesson we also learn from this week's quality to acquire the Torah is the need for being balanced and realistic in what we wish to accomplish. At first we may get very excited about our goals and set a Torah study schedule that may be even possible to complete in the short-term, but has no chance of being sustained over a long period of time. We have to add little by little, just like a professional weight-lifter would do when lifting weights. Our sages use the following expression: "Tafastah Merubah, Lo Tafastah." If you grab on to too much, you haven't grabbed on to anything. In other words, "don't bite off more than you can chew."


[1] Rabbi Aryeh Citron in the name of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Week 4 (Book 2): Justice, Speech, Moses, Beit-Horon and Leaving the Sukkah.

HAAZINU: The deeds of the [Mighty] Rock are perfect, for all His ways are just[ice]; a faithful God, without injustice He is righteous and upright. (Deuteronomy 32:4)

HAFTARAH: With praise, I call to the Lord, for from my enemies I shall be saved. (II Samuel 22:4)

QUALITY TO ACQUIRE THE TORAH: Verbal enunciation

PROPHET: Moses

LEVITICAL CITY: Beth-Horon

Week Four includes the end of Sukkot, Hoshanah Rabbah, Shmini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. Haazinu’s verse is about how G-d’s deeds are perfect, completely just. On Hoshanah Rabbah the judgment for the year is dispatched.

The Haftarah verse speaks of praising G-d and being saved from our enemies. During these days, we call to G-d in praise and dance. The verse is also reminiscent of the words of the eagle in Perek Shirah, which asks G-d to remember the other nations and punish the evildoers.

The quality for this week is verbal enunciation. During Hoshanah Rabbah there is a great emphasis on verbal enunciation. We say out loud all the prayers said during the Hoshanot of the previous days, bringing down the blessings of the coming year. On Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, we engage with the Torah in a way that is not just intellectual, but also physical. We elevate the Torah through dancing, with our bodies. Torah cannot remain only in the realm of thought. It has to be brought down into this world through speech. 

Moses, the prophet linked to this week, is certainly the one most connected to verbal enunciation. The utterance of words did not come easily to him, in great part because Moshe’s soul was so elevated, that it was difficult to bring down his lofty thoughts into speech. Similarly, on Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, we have to bring down our pure thoughts into action, and into the dancing itself.

The levitical city connected to the fourth week is Beth-Horon. Beth-Horon literally means a “hollow house.” During this week, on Shmini Atzeret, we reluctantly say goodbye to the Sukkah, leaving it hollow. However, we take the holiness of the Sukkah with us to inspire us for the rest of the year and to spread forth its holiness to the rest of the world.


Another important lesson we learn from this week's quality to acquire the Torah is the need for speaking to others about what we learn. If Torah is to be made real in our lives, it cannot be limited to the times of study. It has to be made part of our daily conversations. It has to be communicated to others. The Book of Proverbs states, "Ner Mitzvah, Torah Ohr." A mitzvah is a candle and the Torah is light. Light is not limited to space and time like the mitzvah. The light of Torah is to be carried with you wherever you go.  


Sunday, December 2, 2018

Week 5 (Book 2): The Flood, Aharon, and Perception of the Heart

HAAZINU: Destruction is not His; it is His children's defect you crooked and twisted generation. (Deuteronomy 32:5)
HAFTARAH: For the pains of death have encompassed me; streams of scoundrels would affright me. (II Samuel 22:5)
QUALITY TO ACQUIRE THE TORAH: Perception of the Heart (Binat Ha’Lev)
PROPHET: Aharon
LEVITICAL CITY: Taanach
On the fifth week of the year, which includes Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan, Haazinu’s verse makes a reference to destruction due to a twisted a crooked generation. Cheshvan is the month of the Mabul, the Flood that took place in the times of Noah.
This week’s Haftarah verse has an even greater connection to the Flood – the use of the phrases “pains of death encompassing” and “streams of scoundrels” both appear to be references to the events of the Flood. The Hebrew word for used “streams of scoundrels,” Nachalei Bli’al, can be more literally translated as “rivers of G-dlessness.”   
The quality for this week is perception of the heart. Noah’s main mistake was not using his heart to perceive that G-d wanted him to pray to save the rest of mankind. Prayer is called “the service of the heart.” The word for ark in Hebrew, Teivah, also means “word,” and is a reference to prayer. It is ultimately prayer that keeps us above the tumultuous waters of the world around us. (Perception of the heart may also have a connection to music, the theme of the song of the Crane, in Week 5 of Book 1)
Furthermore, Cheshvan will be the month of the inauguration of the Third Temple, which is also connected to prayer and Divine service. Furthermore, the Torah states that those that made objects for the Temple were called “Chochmei Lev,” wise of the heart.
This week’s prophet is Aharon. “Perception of the heart” is probably the best description of Aharon’s qualities. He was known for his ability to serve as a mediator, someone who was able to bring peace between people, and between husband and wife. Furthermore, Aharon was the very first high priest, Kohen Gadol, to serve G-d in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the mobile Temple used from the time of that the Jewish people was in the desert until the construction of the First Temple. 
The levitical city for this week is Taanach. The origin of the word Taanach is unclear, but it appears to have its roots in the verb, Lehi’taanot, which means to fast. There is a custom among pious Jews to fast on the first sequence of “Monday, Thursday, Monday” of the month of Cheshvan. This is known as “BaHaB.”  We do not fast simply for the sake of fasting. We fast in order to improve ourselves, to mark a distinction between the holiday period of Tishrei (a similar fast exists after Nissan), and to gain control over physicality. Part of the idea of the month of Cheshvan is to conquer the physical world around us with the spiritual heights we obtained during the month of Tishrei.

Another important lesson we learn from this week's quality to acquire the Torah is the need to make the Torah we learn touch our hearts. It cannot simply stay in our minds. As Rabbi Simon, one of my Talmud teachers in Yeshiva University, would ask, "Do you feel the question?" If you do not feel the question, you cannot truly appreciate the answer. If the Torah is not in your heart, you will not be able to reach the heart of others.
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