Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Iyar: Connecting Physical with Spiritual Redemption

Iyar – Month of Great Beginnings
 B'erot Annual Dinner, NY, catered by a B'erot Alumna!
The month of Iyar is a month of great beginnings. In this month the erection of both the first and second Temple began,  in this month the beginning of the Third Temple Period was initiated with part of the Land of Israel returning to the hands of the Jewish people. This fits in with the astrological constellation of Iyar, the שׁוֹר/shor – (Taurus-ox), known for its physical strength with which it plows the Land. The letters that spell out this month also connect to the Land of Israel. These letters alef, yud, yud, reish are the initials of the names of our holy fathers and mother: Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov and Rachel.

Avraham is our first father to whom the promise of the Land of Israel was given, Yitzchak never left the Holy Land, with Ya’acov the covenant of the Land was confirmed and Rachel is known in Kabbalah to be the embodiment of Eretz Yisrael.  The three Holy Forefathers represent the beginning of the Jewish people, while Rachel represents our completion as in her merit all the exiles will return to the land of Israel.

Iyar is the month of connecting the beginning with its completion, the letter of this month is the connecting vav. During the month of Iyar we connect the Exodus from Egypt with the reception of the Torah, physical with spiritual redemption. We, furthermore, must connect the return to the Land of Israel on the 5th of Iyar, with the holiness of Jerusalem, the 28th of Iyar to the giving of the Torah in the beginning of the following month. Yom Yerushalayim falls on the yahrtzeit (day of passing) of Shmuel the Prophet who anointed the conqueror of Jerusalem, King David. Together they planned the building of the Holy Temple, which unifies the Jerusalem of below with the Jerusalem of Above. It is interesting that Yom Yerushalayim falls exactly one week prior to the giving of the Torah. In this way the two days are linked like the first day of Sukkot is linked with Shemini Atzeret, as the prophet  proclaims: כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר הָשֵׁם מִירוּשָׁלִָם – For out of Tzion  shall go forth Torah, and the word of Hashem from Yerushalayim.  The sequence of going out of Egypt, receiving the Land of Israel, Yerushalayim, and the Torah makes amazingly sense. It’s a process of moving from physical to spiritual redemption.

Month of Healing
The generation which emerged from Egypt was healed during this month from all their illnesses as they prepared to be a fit vessel to receive the Torah.  To promote our healing in this month, we are given the healing spiritual practice of counting the Omer by which we meditate upon and attach ourselves to divine energies. We contemplate on being created in the image of G-d, with all the divine emanations that we can express.

Iyar: I am Hashem Your Healer
The letters spelling out the word Iyar in Hebrew are acronyms for   אֲנִי יהשם  רֹפְאֶךָ:/Ani Hashem Rofecha – I am Hashem your Healer. The Torah itself brings about healing as Hashem promised us that keeping the Torah and Mitzvot will protect us from all the diseases of Egypt. “If you diligently hear the voice of Hashem your G-d, and do what is right in His sight, and listen to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon Mitzrayim: for I am Hashem your Healer.

Rashi explains that learning Torah and performing the mitzvot protects us from these diseases, like a doctor who tells his patient, ‘Don’t eat such and such because it will make you ill.’ And so it is written “[The Torah] will be health to your navel and marrow to your bones.”  How do we explain that sometimes Torah-observant people become sick? The kind of sickness that Hashem brought upon Egypt which hardened the hearts of the Egyptians and prevented them from repenting; Hashem promises not to place on those who keep His Torah. Yet, there are other ways of getting sick which actually can be a blessing in disguise. Sometimes an illness realigns the person with the true values in their life and sometimes upon recovery b”H the illness inspires a lifestyle or career shift.  In this way the illness comes in the way of healing. This is the meaning of “I am Hashem your Healer” – I will only send illnesses to you in a way of healing in order that you will remember to return in teshuva (repentance) before the Creator of the World. This will imbue within you the awareness that everything is from Him, nothing is by accident. Hashem supervises you continually and gives you the opportunity to turn any suffering into healing.   Iyar is the time of letting go of anything toxic and false that doesn’t support our wellbeing. Through self-awareness and effort we can realign ourselves with ourselves and become true to ourselves in a real sense while opening up to what truly support our wellbeing. As spring begins to emerge more fully during Iyar, we also begin to bring ourselves to a new order, a new alignment.

Manna – The Bread of Heaven
The primary causes of illness are either due to the eating of improper food, or due to improper digestion and absorption.  During Iyar, the Jewish people who wandered in the desert began eating the manna, the bread from heaven, food of angels that contains no waste and is completely absorbed by the body. Therefore, this month received the positive healing influence of the manna throughout the generations. Sincere thought and deep reflection were nourished by eating the manna, which brought lucidity to the mind, while drinking water from The Well of Miriam purified the heart to become attuned to the light of truth. The manna which started to fall for the generation wandering in the wilderness on the sixteenth of Iyar  connects the physical with the spiritual. The lesson of the manna is to recognize that the source of all our physical nourishment is from Hashem, and we need to learn to trust that if we only carry out His will, He will sustain us and take care of all our needs. The manna was surely a test of ביטחון/bitachon – trust of how much we were able to trust in Hashem and not worry unnecessarily about the future. The manna literately taught us to turn to heaven for sustenance. Just as the exact portion of manna needed for that day fell daily, we can trust that each day Hashem blesses us anew with exactly the sustenance we need for that very day. The key to our parnassa (livelihood) is in the hand of G d, although we don’t always realize it. He is the only source of all the money we earn.  In order to perpetuate the lesson of the manna, Hashem commanded Moshe to save some of the manna for future generations to teach us that we shouldn’t be afraid to spend our money for charity and other mitzvoth, as this will only make us richer, since the blessing of Hashem is proportionate to our trust in Him.  Likewise, if we truly learn Torah, Hashem will take care of our livelihood the same way as He supported the Israelites in the desert with the manna. Rashi explains that many generations later Yirmeyahu the Prophet rebuked the Jewish people, saying “Why do you not engage yourselves with Torah?” They answered him, “Shall we leave our work and engage ourselves with the Torah? From where shall we earn a living?” At this point Yirmeyahu brought out the jug of manna which had been preserved for generation, and said to them “O Generation, see you the thing of Hashem!”   He didn’t say “Hear the word,” but “See the thing!” This thing is what your fathers were fed with. The Omnipresent G-d has many messengers (many means) to provide food for those who fear Him.  May we develop our trust in Hashem during this month of Iyar and may we merit realigning ourselves to achieve perfect healing!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Challenge of Retaining the Pesach Emunah (Faith) in Miracles

Part of the B'erot Pre-Pesach Program
We worked so hard to arrive at Pesach, we cleaned and scrubbed while the dust danced to the rhythm of our heavy-duty carpet beater. And now, it’s all over…. What can we take with us from Pesach? What is the message of Pesach that we need to breath into the rest of the year?  For me, one important message of Pesach is our renewed belief in miracles. Even if we surely believe in G*d and in His Holy Torah, it can be difficult to integrate this belief into our personal lives, especially when things get tough. Sometimes we fall into thinking that Hashem has forgotten us, allowing the negative side of darkness to have free rein. When we go through personal difficulties, we may be about falling so low into despair, that we think that everything is lost. Even when still believing that everything is from Hashem, and for the best, we may be prone to think, “It is for the best to punish me for all my multitude sins and shortcomings. I surely deserve that everything will end up in the worst possible way.” We may still think we have great emunah (faith) understanding that emunah is not just the naïve belief that everything will turn out well in the end, as many things don’t really turn out so well in the end. We all know that true emunah is to believe that even when things don’t turn out well, like the Holocaust; it’s still for our best. So we may spiral down into the negative thinking of the worst possible scenario that could happen to us, which of course in our great ‘emunah’ we accept would be for the best.

Fear of the Evil Eye
Sometimes it may be that due to selfish bragging we open ourselves to the evil eye – (ayin hara). The Talmud quotes Rav proclaiming that “Ninety-nine percent of those buried in the cemetery died as a result of the evil eye, and only one percent died naturally.”  However, ayin hara only affects those who believe in it, because if we look at ourselves through Hashem’s eye of kindness we do not leave room for the evil eye to have any power over us. The problem arises when we allow other people’s evil eye to affect us, and we begin to look at ourselves in their negative judgmental light. However, as long as they are unable to affect our positive hopeful attitude towards ourselves, then we do not allow ayin hara to have any effect on us. 

G*d’s Unity Transcends the World of Light and Darkness
Negative thoughts of despair are really like idol worship because they empower the sitra acha (the side of impurity) by telling ourselves that the one and only G*d, has hidden His face and allowed evil to take over. This is almost like giving power to a dual Deity, the G*d of goodness and G*d forbid the god of negative darkness and evil eye, etc. The Torah teaches us to believe in One and only G*d, Whose unity overrides the world of dichotomy including good and evil, light and darkness, etc. The existence of darkness is only for the sake of illuminating the light which grows brighter through contrast and counterpoint. This is why Israel had to go down to the very darkest most perverse place in the world – Egypt, before we could be redeemed to receive the greatest light of the Torah. 

The Effects of Positive Thinking
So is it not naïve to always believe that everything will turn out good in the end?  Why should I believe in something which may be unrealistic? Positive thinking can affect the final outcome of every situation, according to the saying: “think good and it will become good.”  The righteous women in Egypt acted according to this principle when they packed their tambourines. “Miriam the prophetess sister of Aaron took the drum in her hand.”  The righteous women of that generation trusted that Hashem would perform a miracle for them, and they therefore brought drums with them from Egypt.   King David writes in his Tehillim, “Hashem is your keeper; Hashem is your shadow upon your right hand.”   Just as the shadow follows the movements of the person, likewise, according to how a person acts below, so is he acted upon from Above. In the same vein when we have mercy towards others, Hashem will have mercy upon us. Therefore, if we are sure that Hashem will provide for all our needs, all our requests will be fulfilled from Above. However, if we are always worried, then the object of our worries will come to pass, G*d forbid.  “Happy is the person who won’t forget You, but places his trust in Hashem, then Hashem will be his shadow.” King David trusted so greatly in Hashem, that he would recite songs of praise to Hashem before the redemption from the many troubles he experienced. Likewise, Israel recited song at the Sea before the actual redemption, as they trusted that Hashem would surely part the Sea for them. When we trust that Hashem will fulfill all our needs, then G*d will fulfill all our needs, for He is our shadow. 

Believing in the Best Possible Outcome
True emunah is to believe that things will turn out according to the revealed best possible way, even if it will take a miracle to make that happen, for “is anything too hard for Hashem?”  Our positive thinking will affect the final result both because a positive attitude energetically attracts positive outcomes, and also because our actions are affected by our attitude. If we have a positive outlook, we will act in ways that bring about the positive end result. Our prayer is so much more powerful when we believe that Hashem will answer it for good. However, if in the end things don’t turn out the way we had hoped, then is the time to have emunah that this too was from Hashem for our own good. Yet, to begin with we must always believe in the very best possible outcome. Even when things look impossible, “Hashem’s salvation is like a blink of an eye.” 

Exodus from Darkness
The Pesach story teaches us to believe in miracles to bring about a happy end. Although we had sunk into the very lowest level of being absorbed within the darkness of Egypt in the 49th gate of impurity, Hashem still took us out with a strong arm  full of wondrous miracles, to the 49th gate of purity. The Exodus is called: יסוד היסודות ושורש הכל /yesod hayesodot v’shoresh hakol – “The foundation of the foundations and the root of all.”   Through the revealed miracles of the Exodus we learn to recognize the hidden miracles of everyday life, which are the foundation of the entire Torah.  In order to have a portion in the Torah we need to believe in everything described in it which is all miracles beyond nature.  

Let us take every opportunity to thank Hashem for His goodness and blessings, and let us strengthen our emunah that for those who are still single the right man is just around the corner, that the barren women will bear fruit, and that we all be strengthened in the belief that the final Geulah (redemption) is at our doorsteps! May our strengthened emunah draw down the Shechina to become our shadow for the ultimate good!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pesach: A Meat and Potatoes Holiday?

The Mystery of Healthy Eating During Pesach
Beautiful flowers of Bat Ayin
After having slaved for weeks to prepare for Pesach, we have finally been liberated. Now is the time to free ourselves from our daily routine and enjoy the renewal of this blessed holiday. No more scrubbing cabinets, no more re-organizing kitchen drawers, just the minimum of work needed for the enjoyment of the holiday. This work is mainly cooking, cooking and cooking. Let me share with you my personal experience of Hashem’s Hashgacha Pratit (Divine Supervision) this Pesach.

With some Yekish (Jewish German Jewish) blood within me, Pesach cleaning is quite an ordeal in my home, especially since the month of Nissan is also the peak season for gardening. With all of the good rain, Hashem called me outside of my kitchen, to weed and transplant every single day during the week prior to Pesach. I had emunah that Pesach preparation would work out somehow, and Baruch Hashem it did! You won’t believe it, but Hashem actually sent me a professional cook Erev Pesach. My friend, Rivkah, called and asked if I would like an additional guest for the Seder, a young many from Antwerp who has no family here. I was eager to fulfill the mitzvah to invite someone who really had no other place to celebrate Pesach, and I gladly consented. Then to my great surprise, Rivkah told me not to worry about cooking for Pesach; the guest was an experienced chef who would whip it all up. So it ‘happened’ that I became a guest in my own kitchen on the eve of Pesach.

The Mitzvah to Eat
Pesach is a holiday which centers around cooking, because Pesach is the only holiday when we have a mitzvah from the Torah to eat, as it states.
בָרִאשןֹ בְּאַרְּבָעָה עָשָר יוֹם לַחדֶֹש בָעֶרֶב תאֹכְּלוּ מַצתֹ עַד יוֹם הָאֶחָד וְּעֶשְּרִים לַחדֶֹש בָעָרֶב
“In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, shall you eat unleavened bread, until the twenty first day of the month at evening” (Shemot 12:18).

Therefore, we must pay special attention to what and how we eat during this time. All the kitchen utensils are new and different, the countertops are covered, and we eat only special food strictly Kosher for Pesach. Not a crumb, not even a spoon that ever touched a crumb of chametz, without being koshered for Pesach, must come near our lips on Pesach. Some people even peel all of their vegetables in case they ever came in contact with chametz. With all of this fuss over food, still, I’m devastated every single Pesach. As an Ashkenazi Jew, not only can I not have my sprouted wheat bread, but I may not even eat any legumes. How can I attempt to eat healthy, in the midst of this potato and meat holiday?

What Can I Eat on Pesach?
Although wheat grass juice is not actually forbidden on Pesach, since the grass and not the wheat kernels are used, I’m unable to drink it because we moved all our kitchen utensils out of the kitchen for Pesach, and use only utensils that have not been used or cleaned within a chametz kitchen. In addition, sometimes on the ends of the wheatgrass you may find a kernel of wheat which mustn’t be found on Pesach, so we are not letting any wheat grass into our chametz-free home. In the past I was unable to have my daily morning drink consisting of lemon juice and cayenne pepper diluted with water, since I couldn’t find any cayenne pepper with a Kosher for Pesach certification. However when I shared this a couple of years ago a very nice reader actually sent me special cayenne pepper kosher for Pesach which I now have saved with my Pesach utensil and use sparingly each year. I also really miss my special grey Celtic sea-salt, which could have been contaminated by a trace of chametz as the bag was open in a chametz kitchen.

What about sprouts? Why should sprouts be legumes? All vegetables were originally sprouts before they grew and we are allowed to eat vegetables on Pesach, thank G-d! This year our rabbi (Rav Daniel Kohn), permitted those kinds of sprouts which you can easily remove the hull of the seed itself – this rules out alfalfa, radish and broccoli sprouts. Baruch Hashem, I was able to get sunflower sprouts and their (occasional) hull easily comes off.

Quinoa is one of my everyday main food staples, as it is loaded with fiber, protein, and minerals. While being gluten-free, quinoa contains more calcium, iron, and protein than wheat. Every year for almost the last ten years, since I first heard that quinoa has been deemed permissible for Pesach in USA, I have been bugging my husband to ask Rav Daniel to permit quinoa. Every year the answer was “no,” but I had emunah that this would change, so I kept asking my husband to ask. Last year, he somehow evaded the issue as he had already asked so many times in the past. This year, I ensured he would ask, and finally my husband came home with the good news: “You can eat quinoa this Pesach!” Speaking with my friend, the rabbi’s wife, I marveled, “This year we are finally eating quinoa!” She responded, “Last year we also ate quinoa!”

Although quinoa is a sesame-seed looking kernel reminiscent of rice, it is not a grain, but a member of the beet family. Therefore, Rabbi Heinemann of the Star-K determined that quinoa is not kitniyot (legume). It does not grow in the vicinity of chametz and its growth does not resemble kitniyot. It, furthermore, has no religious precedent included in the prohibition against kitniyot. According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, foods which were not consumed by Jews at the time the minhag of kitniyot began are not forbidden on Pesach.  Since no Jews lived in South America, where quinoa grew, at the time when the minhag to avoid eating kitniyot on Pesach began (3-4 centuries ago), quinoa is not considered kitniyot. As long as we can ascertain that no chametz grains or kitniyot are mixed in, we may consume quinoa on Pesach. In the USA, the whole quinoa sold under the Ancient Harvest and Trader Joe brand names are produced in plants which do not package chametz grains, and some authorities permit them for Pesach use.

However, other Rabbinic authorities hold that Quinoa requires kosher for Passover certification to ensure that it was carefully kept from contact with barley or other grains, as quinoa is often grown in close proximity to grains which can become chametz, such as barley. It is also often processed in the same factories as other grains, and the machines may not be adequately cleaned between runs of grain products and quinoa; both of these factors lead to a risk of chametz traces being found in the quinoa. Furthermore, the leading kashrut agencies have recently discovered that some farmers cover their quinoa with barley and/or oats to keep the birds from eating the quinoa while it dries; creating a concern that there may be grain kernels within the packaged quinoa. Finally, the sacks used to transport quinoa may have been previously used to hold barley or oats, which again raises the same concern.

This year we are fortunately finally to celebrate the exodus from the ‘Pesach quinoa uncertainty.’ Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, announced on December 20, 2013 that quinoa, the grain-like seed grown in South America, is Kosher for Pesach when processed with special OU Passover supervision and bearing the OU-P symbol.   I am still wondering how to get OU-P certified quinoa here in Israel this year. 

Matzah – the Bread of Healing
With quinoa available for Pesach, I had decided that I would eat matzah only during the Seder when it is obligatory, since, on the remaining days of Pesach, eating matzah is only an optional mitzvah.   Although in our home, we only eat shemura matzah, which is made from whole wheat flour, I generally try to avoid eating food made from flour, as all the vitamins are lost when the grain is made into a powder, similarly to the process of producing juice from fruits.

However, during the Seder night, something changed in me. I understood in the very fiber of my being how our health is a gift of Hashem. Healthy food is only a vessel for Hashem’s life-giving light, whereas keeping Hashem’s mitzvoth connects us directly with the light of Creation. Hashem, the healer of all flesh, tells us that matzah is good for us. In the Zohar matzah is called “bread of healing.”  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach explains that the matzah is the greatest healing in the world. If we don’t feel it, that’s because we are not yet on the level to experience this. If Hashem commands us to eat matzah, this means that the matzah heals us both physically and spiritually.

Matzah – Rectification for the Tree of Knowledge
Eating matzah on Pesach is a rectification for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, because when Adam and Chava ate from this forbidden Tree, their eating was like stealing. Any food which is not connected to our soul root is considered ‘stolen’ food. Since the time of eating from the Tree of Knowledge, whatever we eat has a taste of being stolen, and this makes us sad, as Hashem told Adam, “. . . in sadness you shall eat all the days of your life.”  Regular food does not necessarily come from the channel that connects us directly with Hashem. However, matzah is prepared especially for us and therefore it comes down to us directly from Heaven. When I ate the homemade matzah prepared so carefully by my son for the very first time since reaching manhood, I felt how it brought down Hashem’s light directly from Above. My heartfelt prayer while chewing each bite of this matzah was engendered by my son’s excitement for keeping the mitzvah of baking matzah.

Pesach celebrates the birth of the Jewish people. According to Ariza”l, we were conceived on Seder night, and born seven days later on the last night of Pesach, at the splitting of the sea which was the breaking of the birth waters.  During the seven days of Pesach, when we begin our lives anew, we may eat only matzah. The beginning – our root – needs to be matzah – the Tree of Life. According to the level of our emunah, is the depth of life which we receive from Hashem. Matzah is called “the Bread of Emunah.” On Pesach we renew our emunah that Hashem wants to give us endless life. Rabbi Shlomo explains that the last meal that we eat on the last day of Pesach is called “the meal of Mashiach” because when Mashiach comes, the earth will be healed from its curse. It will again believe in humanity and bring forth blessed produce. At this time one piece of matzah will be enough to give us eternal life. Let us enjoy our special Pesach food without guilt! “L’Chaim!”

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tapping Into the Energy of Shabbat HaGadol

A Once a Year Opportunity
Spring Blooms!
We did it! We got ready for Pesach, (almost at least). The house is almost shining waiting for bedikat hachametz – Checking for chametz this Sunday night. In a corner of the kitchen the chametz box filled with leftover cookies, cereal, and noodles displays its ugly evil face. Soon it will be consumed if not by hungry folks then by the flames of fire, ready in the backyard. I love to gaze at my clean, spotless, cabinets and window sills with the spider web and the old dried up leaves of the plants removed. Here and there the paint is peeling, well, nothing is perfect. Perhaps before next Pesach we will do a paint job. As I sweep up the sweepings in the kitchen and notes the few remaining jobs to do after Shabbat I sigh in relief.  Looking back over the last two weeks of exhausting and strenuous toil, I feel the freedom of accomplishment. Rather than slaving for a foreign master I worked for Hashem and for myself, exhilarating in fulfilling the mitzvah of removing chametz, getting in a bit of spring-cleaning as a hidur mitzvah (doing more than what is required literally ‘beautification of the mitzvah.’) This, extra spring cleaning I promise to do only when I can, knowing the famous dictum, “Dust is not chametz and the children are not a Pesach sacrifice.” So if doing extra spring cleaning is going to wipe us out so we will be grumpy or even become threatening to our health then we must stick to the chametz cleaning proper. This year cleaning it was a bonding experience as it should between the members of my family who worked well together as a team with me, naturally, as the chief master. Now we look forward to Shabbat HaGadol – The Great Shabbat prior to Pesach.

To Slaughter Their God
The Shabbat before Pesach is called Shabbat HaGadol, because of the miracle that took place on that day. On Shabbat HaGadol, (the first year it was on the 10th of Nissan), the enslaved Jews took the paschal lamb – the Egyptian deity – and paraded it through the streets of Egypt past the infuriated Egyptians.  Miraculously the Jews were able to tie the Paschal lambs to their bedposts and ultimately slaughter these Egyptian gods, to eat them as the korban Pesach, (Pesach Sacrifice) on the night of the Exodus.  When the Egyptians would ask, “What is this lamb for?” The Jews would answer, “To be slaughtered as a Pesach sacrifice according to G-d’s command.”  The Egyptians would then gnash their teeth in anger without being able to utter a sound,  or stop the Jews from slaughtering their god.

The Pascal Lamb and the Astrological Sign of Aries
The month of Nissan is under the influence of the astrological sign of Aries (the ram).  Explicitly during this time when the power of the sign of the ram was strongest, Israel was commanded to slaughter and eat it, to prove that Hashem’s power nullifies the power of the ram.

Additional Reason’s for the Name Shabbat HaGadol
1. We keep Shabbat to remember that Hashem created the world, and also to commemorate the Exodus. The second reason was only added on the last Shabbat in Egypt – Shabbat HaGadol. On this day the reasons for keeping Shabbat were increased, to make the Shabbat itself greater.

2. “Just as a child is called gadol when he becomes of the age to keep mitzvot, so is the day, when the entire Jewish people kept their first mitzvot, called gadol.

3. Just as Shabbat is separated from the profane work of the week, so on Shabbat HaGadol did Israel separate themselves from idol-worship.

4. The haftorah for Shabbat HaGadol from Malachi, Chapter three culminates in the promise that Hashem will send us “Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the Great (HaGadol) and awesome day of Hashem.” 

Why Shabbat HaGadol and not the Tenth of Nissan?
Why do we commemorate the miracle of the Pascal lamb on Shabbat, and not every year on the tenth of Nissan when the event took place, regardless of which day of the week it falls? During Shabbat, each of the ten plagues that Hashem inflicted upon the Egyptians was temporarily suspended. In honor of the greatness of Shabbat, even the plagues ‘rested.’  On the tenth of Nissan, in the middle of the plague of darkness, the Jewish people led the lambs through the streets of Egypt. Had this event taken place on a weekday instead of on Shabbat, due to the plague of darkness, the Egyptians would not have been able to see what the Jews were doing, and there would have been no need for Hashem to miraculously protect the Jewish people. Therefore, we celebrate Hashem’s performance the wondrous miracle of saving the Jews specifically on the Shabbat before Pesach, rather than on the tenth of Nissan, because it was Shabbat that caused the miracle. Had the date not occurred on Shabbat, the entire land would have been engulfed in darkness, and this event would not have been a miracle worthy of commemoration.

Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov explains that the Egyptians were fully aware that the Israelites kept Shabbat and would not busy themselves with animals on that day. Therefore, when the Egyptians saw them take the sheep and bind it to the bedpost on Shabbat, they were surprised and inquired about it. The Israelites were in great danger at being thus confronted and were saved only by a miracle.   A further reason to remember the miracle on Shabbat and not on the tenth of Nissan is that, forty years later, Miriam died on that day and the well ceased to exist.

The Anniversary of Miriam’s Death
The source of water for the Israelites in the desert was the well of Miriam. Its source was at the entrance of the courtyard of the Tabernacle, near the tent of Moshe. The waters of the well would separate into different rivers to form boundaries between each tribe and even between each family, so that everyone knew his personal place and position in the camp of Israel. 

Why did the well of Miriam determine the boundaries of Israel?
Miriam was the midwife of the nation of Israel. She gave birth to the redemption. She was the one who molded the Jewish people. Miriam was the mother who enabled her children to find their place and bring forth their full potential. It is, therefore, fitting that she determined the boundaries of each tribe.

What is the spiritual significance that the well dried up on the tenth of Nissan?
On the tenth of Nissan we gained spiritual freedom from the Egyptian exile. This is followed by our physical freedom on Pesach. Thus, Israel went beyond themselves on this day. They freed themselves from their personal boundaries to merge with the Divine.

Shabbat HaGadol includes the Spiritual Powers for the Entire Year 
Rav Raphael Luria explains that the holiness of Shabbat is beyond time since the worlds rise on Shabbat through the revelation of the root of emanation. The holiness of all the holidays derives from the power of Shabbat that precedes it. The first holiday that we celebrated as a people, is Pesach. Since Pesach is the head of all our holidays, the other holidays receive their sustenance from it. First we bring holiness into the head and from the head into the rest of the body. Therefore, when we draw down the holiness for the holiday of Pesach, on Shabbat preceding Pesach, its lights include the holiness for all of the other holidays.  From this we may conclude that we should be extra careful to honor Shabbat HaGadol properly, as this will enable us to draw down more holiness not only for the holiday of Pesach but for all the other holidays as well. As difficult as it may be this last Shabbat before Pesach, let us make the greatest effort to light the Shabbat candles at the preferred time. Let us tap into the energy of Shabbat HaGadol which occurs only once a year by being careful to speak only words of holiness, avoiding mundane activities, and devoting ourselves to prayer and Torah learning!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Month of Nissan: Rectifying the Sense of Speech

Nissan's special blessing on flowering fruit trees
One of the reasons I usually don’t leave my home and garden during spring is that this is the loveliest time here in Bat Ayin and especially in my garden (I am biased). It was so special having my students bless together with me on the flowering fruit trees surrounded by spring flowers, butterflies and flower buds.

Awaken with the Spring that’s in the Air
Nissan, it sounds like the Hebrew word Nitzan‑Bud. The two words are connected, for this month is referred to as “month of the spring,”[1] always occurring near April when we enjoy the magnificent beauty of nature budding around us. Hibernating animals awaken, flowers bloom, fruit trees blossom and vegetation emerges everywhere. New growth of green grass is pop up as the world experiences a bursting forth of life. We, too, tap into the energy of renewal predominant in the air. Take a moment to stop, enjoy, and appreciate the world. Make a blessing on a flowering fruit tree. Listen to the birds chirp. Watch a stream of water flow. Breathe the air. Smell the Flowers. Give thanks for all the beauty that surrounds you.

Be Highly Connected
Nissan is a time when we are capable of achieving dramatic change by way of miracles. In this month there exists a special ability to engage the assistance of the One Above. It’s as if G-d bends down and sweeps you off your feet to take you wherever you need to go. And by connecting with G-d, you too become sanctified. Thus, we have a certain strength during this month to exude an additional degree of holiness. This parallels the renewal taking place in the month of Nissan.

The Royal Gift
Nissan is the first of the twelve months of the Jewish calendar. The first mitzvah (commandment) of the total 613 assigned to Israel as a nation was to recognize and sanctify the months beginning with Nissan, as it states, “This month [the month of Nissan] is for you the first of the months of the year.”[2] Nissan is the king of all the months. Nissan is the head – the beginning of the relationship between G‑d and Israel His first born. The word ‘month’ in Hebrew is חֹדֶשׁ/chodesh containing the same root as חִידוּשׁ/chidush which means a ‘new insight.’ If one walks in the ways of Hashem and follows His commandments, the mitzvoth become a gift, not a burden. The rules that emanate from the Torah, actually act as a set of instructions for us to refine ourselves. Rather than burdensome rules that tie us down, they end up freeing us to reach our fullest potential without stumbling. “This month is for you.”[3] The Hebrew letters in the word לָכֶם/lachem –for you, when rearranged spell מֶלֶךְ/melech –King, a hint to the royalty associated with this month. Nissan was given as a gift to the Jewish people. Through this gift, we can achieve royalty. It’s possible to receive a gift and never open it. Think about how you approach spirituality in your life. Do you access the secrets of your religion? Are you imprisoned by the rules of society, the constraints of your social circle? Or freed by the rules of your spirit? It all depends on you, what you will do with this month.

Month of Kings, King of Months
Nissan is the New Year for the Kings, the reign of each Jewish king is counted from this month. Malchut – Kingship is the attribute associated with Nissan also because this is the month the nation of Israel was born. Not only did we emerge as a people, but a people connected to a Hashem, for G-d Himself came to take us out of bondage. So go ahead! Be regal! Walk with your head up! Express the royalty from which you descend, and exhibit the class and dignity befitting the daughter of a King, for you are G-d’s child. And this month you know it!

The tribe of the month of Nissan is יהודה/Yehuda. Powerful and victorious, his name means “praise” appropriate for the month in which the Jews praise the One who liberated us. He is the emblem of all rulers and the forefather of the ultimate king, Mashiach, son of King David, who descends from this tribal line. Moreover, the entire nation takes its name from Yehuda – Jew. So it is particularly appropriate that he should be associated with the month the Jews became a nation. Nissan, the first of the months, serves as the New Year for kings. On Pesach, it is customary to sit with pillows and cushions like royalty commemorating the Hebrews’ transformation from slaves to a nation of free people, Hashem’s people. A king cannot rule without a people to rule over. By establishing Israel as a nation, G-d began His reign. View this as a second New Year celebration, resolutions and all. To whom do you bow? Which kings do you serve rather than serving the One and only King?

Month of Miracles
Nissan is a month of miracles נִסִים/nissim. The fact that the name Nissan possesses two nuns implies, according to our sages, nissei nissim – miracles of miracles,[4] alluding to the redemption of the future. In Nissan the miskan (tabernacle) was erected.[5] This is the month when Israel was redeemed from Egypt, and in this same month we will be redeemed in the future. In this month G‑d changed the nature with His miracles, and made a new beginning in the month of Nissan. The miracles in the month of Nissan testify to the fact that G‑d is the Creator of the world. The Hebrew word חֹדֶשׁ/chodesh means both month and renewal, whereas the Hebrew word שָׁנָה/shana means both year and repetition. Nissan marks a break with the old way of the world (shana) through the renewal (chodesh) of nature. In Nissan our fathers who were the beginning of the Jewish people were born and died. Nissan is also referred to as “the month of the redemption.”[6]

Count to Fifty
Collectively, the Israelites were told to count the months beginning with Nissan…in essence, to track the passage of the year. Compartmentalizing time… counting months, counting weeks, counting days… an element of order ‘seder’ emanates from this aspect of Nissan. Appropriately, the meal on the first night of Pesach is called the Seder. Mid-month we begin to Count the Omer, seven weeks from the Exodus (Pesach) to the receiving of the Torah Commandments (Shavuot), the following holiday. Each week is devoted to a different energy. Each week, we work on a distinct characteristic trait associated with that energy, systematically addressing all aspects of our being, until we have refined ourselves enough to be worthy of receiving the holy Torah. On the 15th of Nissan, the Jews become a nation by way of miracles, from-above-to-below, Hashem reached down and took us out of slavery; in the 49 days to follow we work on ourselves to become a nation also by natural means from-below-to-above, taking the slavery out of ourselves until we reach the fiftieth level of refinement. Thus, this month is for you -“lachem”…someone can help you from the outside, but ultimately, it depends on you to help yourself, from the inside. And then, you can reach the level of king, “melech.”

Go With The Flow
There is a debate among the sages as to whether the world was created in the Hebrew month of Tishrei or Nissan. Which is the real New Year? The answer is both. The two are exactly six months apart, and each acts as a counterpart to the other. So if the six days of Creation occurred in Tishrei, there must be a counterpart in Nissan. Half the year there is an energy flowing from the Heavens down to us and the other half the year, the energy flows in reverse, from us up to the Heavens. Half the year, G-d pours down his blessing regardless of our action, whether we deserve it or not, while the other half the year the amount of blessing received is dependent on our effort, how much we work for it. And the whole world operates by this flow. What can you do this month to make yourself a vessel for blessing? Remember, nothing can be added to a vessel that is full. (If you know it all, there’s nothing to learn.) So, be humble, remove some ego and get ready to receive! Look for miracles taking place every day of your life!

The Spiritual Attributes of Nissan

המליך אות ה' בשיחה וקשר לו כתר וצר בו טלה בעולם, ניסן בשנה, ורגל ימין בנפש זכר ונקבה
(ספר יצירה פרק ה משנה ז)
“He made the letter heh king over conversation, and He tied a crown to it and He combined one with another and with them He formed lamb in the Universe, Nissan in the Year, and the right leg in the soul, male and female” (Sefer Yetzirah 5:7).

Speak Up!
The sense of speech is associated with Nissan. According to Rabbi Yehoshua the world was created in Nissan[7] through words – G-d spoke and it came into being.[8] Whereas the physical birthday of the world is in Tishrei, the Head of the Year, the spiritual birthday of the world is in Nissan, Head of the Months. Nissan is in the gematria (numerical value of two times mouth. [9] This corresponds to the process of sanctifying and declaring the new month. The beit din declared, “Sanctified,” and the entire people answered afterwards, “Sanctified sanctified. There is a strong connection between the king and speech. A king rules by his word… ”for the word of the king is his rule.”[10] The very root for "speech" means as well "to lead." Thus the sense of speech is in essence the sense of leadership. Personifying the sefirah of malchut (kingdom), it is often referred to as “the world of speech.”[11]

Conversation cannot occur without both speaker and listener in the same way a ruler requires a kingdom. Each demands a recipient, and similarly, the Lord yearns for His people and they for him. Conversation forms the basis to any relationship including that between G-d and us.

In Nissan speech came out of its exile and the shell of being of uncircumcised lips is removed, speech itself is redeemed. Egypt represents the existential state of confinement, the inability to truly express oneself. The Israelites had no voice as slaves, but once outside of Egypt, they received a voice - the voice of a unified nation, the voice of freedom, the voice of joyous song. Like a bride singing to her lover, upon crossing the Reed Sea they burst into song, a reaction to all the miracles they had experienced and a vocalization of their relationship to the Holy One. By the Exodus, their mouths were opened in amazement and awe, and also in the future in this month there will be an opening of the mouth and “I will pour my spirit on all flesh and all your sons and daughters will prophesize,”[12] representing the pinnacle of the relationship with G-d. The crowning point, this represents the true essence of the month of Nissan – the redemption of our “freedom of speech.”

The Haggadah means To Tell
Telling of the story of the Exodus on the Seder night is the central mitzvah of the month of Nissan. “The more one tells of the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy.”[13] Of the fifteen stages of the seder, magid – the telling of the story of the Exodus – is the fifth stage which corresponds to the fifth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the ה/heh. It is with the breath of ה/heh preceding speech that Hashem created the world.[14] The stage of magid also begins with the letter “heh,”עַנְיָא הָא לַחְמָא/ha lachma anya – This is the bread of poverty… It’s no wonder that the letter of the month of Nissan is the letter heh.[15]

So this month, strengthen your relationships with everyone you touch by increasing in all forms of expression. Sing songs of love and praise; voice thanks for what you have; convey your deepest feelings and insights to the One Above and to one another. Change your speech patterns. Go 24 hours without uttering anything but good. If you can’t make it through the day, do it for just an hour a day: no gossip, no negativity, and no judgments. We create with our talk the same way G-d created through His words. So lead your speech, don’t let it lead you. Verbalize only good, it will bring you to see only good…resulting in a positive aura around you that draws others to do the same.

The Constellation of Aries Associated with Nissan
In the month of Nissan the life force of nature is awakening. The trees are budding, the floral plant life blooming, calves are born and the ducks lay eggs. People put on their shorts, go out in the park and flirt. The summer is ahead. We feel excited and full of life. Our animal soul is also awakened. It is this part of our soul, the worldly desires, which drive people forth in life. If it weren't for the animal instincts, very few people would ever do anything. But just as you tame a wild horse, we must control our animal self. This is how we attain holiness.

The astrological sign of this month is Aries the world over, but the Kabbalistic equivalent is a טָלֶה/taleh – lamb instead of a ram. The constellation of the lamb symbolizes the unity of the people, for sheep group together and identify one with the other. Of all of G-d’s creations, the lamb alone possesses the innate ability to arouse mercy by its voice. Lambs are calm, gentle creatures. Just like the sheep following the sheepherder, thus the Jewish people accepted the authority of Moshe our leader. The Jewish people themselves are symbolized as a lamb among seventy wolves.[16]

Tame the Ram to Turn it into a Lamb

The Egyptian people worshiped the ram. Its strength was idolized. The Egyptian lifestyle was wild and uninhibited; they let the ram wild in themselves. They gave in to their very instincts. It was the evil inclination within themselves which they worshiped. It is this same ram, people worship today, at the discotheques, beaches, streets, music halls, T.V. etc. The Jewish people represent the exact opposite of this kind of “civilization.” We never idolized the ram; on the contrary we sacrificed it to G‑d. When we realize that our life‑force is only a means to worship the Higher Power, we are able to control the ram within us and make it into a lamb. The lamb symbolizes the fact that we strive towards subduing the animal instinct within us. This is why we were commanded to sacrifice the Pascal lamb to G‑d before being able to leave Egypt.

In the month of Nissan we celebrate פֶּסָח/Pesach, which even sounds like the cry of a lamb…”peeeeehhhh sach.” The holiday incorporates all the mystical attributes and energies associated with Nissan. Celebrated on the 15th of Nissan, it falls smack in the middle of the month when the moon is full and Nissan is at its peak thus exuding these qualities to the fullest and most brightly. “Pesach” means to skip and jump, pass over, for the angel of death passed over the homes of the Jewish families. Hinted at is a further meaning that the Almighty skipped over the mountains to redeem his children. The same word can be broken into פֶּה שָׁח/peh sach – the mouth speaks. The sense of speech is in essence the sense of leadership…use the month of Nissan to bring this element out into your personal life without hesitation, turn your speech and your intentions into actions.

“This month is for you” – This month depends on you, what you do with this month makes all the difference. Let us sanctify our speech to become the holy speech of songs and praise, a song that reaches way beyond the boundaries of the nature of the world. A song that arouses and brings the good tidings of the coming of Mashiach!

[1] Devarim 16:1.
[2] Shemot 12:2.
[3] Shemot 12:2.
[4] Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 57a, with Rashi.
[5] Shemot 40:17.
[6] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 11a.
[7] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 11a.
[8] Tehillim 33:9.
[9] (פה = 170 (80+5+80+5), ניסן = 170 (50+10+60+50=170.
[10] Kohelet 8:4.
[11] Sefat Emet, Likutim, Parashat Nasa.
[12] Yoel 3:1.
[13]Pesach Haggadah.
[14] See Bereishit 2:4, “These are the generation of heaven and earth when they were created/ בהבראם, the heh is smaller, and therefore stands out to give the possibility of reading the word as: b’heh baram – with “heh He created them.” Rashi explains that the physical world is created with the letter heh.
[15] Sefer Yetzirah 5:7.
[16] Pesikta Rabatai, Parasha 9.