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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Pinchas

It’s always special to celebrate a holiday.  Time off work and school, special food, family gatherings and community events are all wonderful.  Spiritually each holiday has special prayers and observances that uplift us, and give us the inspiration to carry the message of the holiday forward throughout the year.  Yet with all of that there is something missing. 

Last week, I wrote about the great loss of the Holy Temple that we mourn at this time of year.  This loss is especially felt on holidays. In ancient Israel, the holidays were accompanied by many special offerings in the Temple. Each holiday had its unique offerings, besides the personal offerings that each family would bring when traveling to Jerusalem three times a year.  There were also special offerings on Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh. These offerings are called “Musafim” – additional sacrifices, and are the subject of the latter part of this week’s Parsha, Pinchas.  

Today when we don’t have the Holy Temple and can’t offer the sacrifices, the “Mussaf” prayer has taken the place of the offerings.  

All of the above offerings were in addition to the daily communal offering of a sheep every morning and afternoon.  These sheep were offered regularly 365 days a year, on weekdays, Shabbat, and on all holidays including Yom Kippur. Today, the prayers of Shacharit (morning prayer) and Mincha (afternoon prayer) are in their place.  Ma’ariv, the evening prayer, was established in place of the burning of the sacrifices on the altar, which often happened at night. The verse says (Bamidbar 28:2-4): “Command the Jewish people …. they shall observe my offering in its time …. two sheep every day constantly …. one sheep you shall make in the morning, and a second sheep you shall make in the afternoon.“ 

There is a fascinating Midrash quoted in the great book “Ein Yaakov” which contains all the stories and Aggada of the Talmud.  The Midrash says that there was a discussion among the sages as to which verse is the most significant in the Torah.  

One sage said it is the verse that tells us that Hashem created humankind.  Another said it is: “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”  Another said is: “Hear o Israel, the L-rd your G-d, the L-rd is one.”  A fourth sage said it is the verse: “One sheep you shall make in the morning and another sheep you shall make in the afternoon.”  All the sages agreed that this is indeed the most significant verse in the Torah.  

What is the meaning of the midrash?  How can the offering of a sheep twice a day carry more significance than G-d’s creation of humankind or the great principle of loving one another or the unity of G-d?  The great sage and mystic known as the Maharal of Prague explained as follows. While the great ideas of G-d’s unity, the fact that He is the Creator of all beings and the need for human dignity and respect are all vital, what has kept Judaism alive through all the generations is the consistency of the daily offerings to Hashem.  Chassidus explains at great length that the purpose of an animal sacrifice is to connect us to Hashem, to bring us close and bond us to our Creator. (I can’t go into this concept at length here, but it is explained very well in many places.) When a holiday comes along we feel inspired. When a friend needs something we step up and help.  But the idea of bringing an offering equally every day, twice a day, no matter the day – weekday, Shabbat, holiday – and no matter the mood we may be in, it is this consistency that keeps our deep bond with Hashem.  

If a couple in a marriage goes out of their way to celebrate their anniversaries and birthdays, and to be there for each other when they need something from each other, that is nice and important.  But it is the day to day little actions that we do for each other, especially at times when we really don’t feel like it, that truly connects us and builds a deep and lasting love.

Nowadays, as I said above, we don’t have the animal sacrifices, and we try to create that bond through prayer.  Prayer is a time for us to realize that we are here because Hashem put us here with a mission, a time to focus on this mission and to reach up to Hashem and bond with Him.  When we do that a few times a year, it is a wonderful expression of our connection to our Jewish roots. When we do it daily, morning, afternoon and night, even at times when we are really not in the mood to pray and not necessarily thinking about Hashem at that moment, our bond with Hashem permeates every part our life.  This bond then translates into action, because every day we are thinking about our mission and purpose.


Balak

 This weekend, a period known as ”The Three Weeks” begins.  It is a three-week period of mourning, bookended by the fast of the 17th of Tamuz and the fast of the ninth of Av.  On the 17th of Tamuz in the year 69 CE, the Romans, who had laid siege to the City of Jerusalem, broke through the wall and entered the city, and three weeks later on the ninth of Av destroyed the second Temple. The first Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians on the ninth of Av in the year 423 BCE.  (The Jerusalem Talmud says that the Babylonians also breached the wall of the city on the 17th of Tamuz.)  So the primary reason for mourning at this time is because of the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, but the sad significance of those two days dates back much earlier.  You will recall that when Moshe went up to heaven (by way of Mt. Sinai) to receive the Torah, he came back after 40 days carrying the two Tablets made by Hashem that contained the Ten Commandments.  When he saw the Golden Calf that the Jews were worshipping, he smashed those tablets, and a difficult period ensued.  Many Jews were executed and Moshe spent another 40 days praying and achieving atonement for the people.  The day he broke the Tablets was the 17th of Tamuz.  There were three other major calamities that happened on that day relating to the Temple and its service.  The daily offerings of two lambs, which brought many blessings to the people and the world, ended.  Apostemus (some say he was a Roman general, others say he was a Greek) publicly burned the Torah, and an idol was placed inside the Temple.  (There are differences of opinion about when exactly in history this happened.  Some say during the Roman period and others say by King Menashe.)

The Ninth of Av also has a sad history going back centuries.  The Jews had recently left Egypt and received the Torah, and were ready to enter the Holy Land promised to them by Hashem.  They sent spies to scout out the land, and the spies came back with a bad report about the land, frightening the  Jews.  The nation cried that night, losing their faith and giving up hope on Hashem’s promise.  Hashem declared that that night, the ninth of Av, would be a night of “crying for generations.”  A few of the historic tragic events that happened on this night include the defeat of the city of Betar during the Bar Kochba revolt and the brutal killing of its Jewish inhabitants in the year 133 CE, and the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492.

The first and last days of the Three Weeks are fast days.  The 17th of Tamuz is a fast from dawn until nightfall, and the Ninth of Av is a 25 hour fast, from sunset the evening before until nightfall.  This year, since both days, the 17th of Tamuz and the ninth of Av fall on Shabbat, a day when we are not allowed to fast unless it is Yom Kippur, both fasts are postponed to the next day, effectively postponing the mourning period for a day.

A few of the observances of this period include not marrying during this time, refraining from haircuts, purchasing new clothes, listening to music or arranging or attending major celebratory events.  The mourning intensifies for the last nine days, beginning on the first day of Av, when we do not eat meat or drink wine (except for on Shabbat).  We also do not say the Shehecheyanu blessing during this time, meaning that we refrain from things that require this blessings, such as eating a fruit for the first time during the new season.

It is important to note that mourning does not mean that we should be depressed or in any way diminish our inner joy in observance of Mitzvot.  Since it is a Mitzvah to “serve Hashem with joy,” this must mean that we can have both at the same time.  We cut back on external expressions of joy, but at the same time we recognize the value of even these Mitzvot of mourning and they bring us inner joy in the knowledge that all Mitzvot connect us to Hashem and fulfill our mission on earth.  I know it sounds like a paradox, but it really is not.  Our purpose in mourning is to remind us what we are missing.  We tend to go about our lives comfortably enjoying our freedoms and our relative affluence, for some not so relative, and we don’t feel any real lack of exile.  When we spend three weeks focusing on the meaning of the Holy Temple and on the contrast?? between life as it should be in the Holy Land of Israel with the many daily revelations of Hashem’s light to how it is today when Hashem is hidden and the Shechina (presence of Hashem) itself is in exile; when we learn the laws of the building of the Temple and imagine how glorious life will be like when Moshiach comes and the third Temple is built, we are motivated to do all we can to bring the redemption a moment sooner.

Soldiers know that the only way to win a war is with faith and enthusiasm and a song on their lips.  We realize how much we are missing, but rather than wallowing in the sorrow, we move forward with joy and enthusiasm to turn the world into a holier and better place, because we are assured that we are moving ever closer to that time when the exile will be history.  At that time, these two days will be turned into holidays, because we will recognize that our work in exile, brought about on those two days, is what brought about the new, much greater stage of a holy world “filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the seabed.” (Isaiah 12:9.)  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a barbecue in the Holy Temple this Tisha B’Av?

Chukat

 The greatest spiritual height, we are taught, that a person can attain, is to offer his or her life for Torah.  (We used to use the term “martyr,” but since that term has been abused and coined for terrorists who kill people, the ultimate evil, the opposite of those who refuse to submit to evil, I don’t like to use it.)  For a saintly Tzaddik whose entire life was dedicated to holiness, one would imagine that the concept of Mesirut Nefesh, self-sacrifice in which the soul rises to the greatest possible spiritual levels, would be something that he or she would relish.  Of course we would never bring it upon ourselves, this would be a violation of the Torah’s laws of self-preservation, but if one was faced with this challenge, one who has Mesirut Nefesh is considered “Kadosh” – holy.

 Next Monday we celebrate the12th of Tammuz, the anniversary of the day that the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, father in law and predecessor of our Rebbe, was released from Soviet prison, where he had originally been sentenced to death for his activities of spreading Judaism.  The story of his arrest and liberation is fascinating, how he refused to submit to the Soviet authorities and how he managed to make it through the horrific ordeal in the clutches of the murderous communist “servants of the people.”  You can read about it here. 

 What I want to focus on is the previous Rebbe’s attitude toward the ordeal.  During the High Holidays of the year 1927, the previous Rebbe spoke at length about the Ba’al Shemtov’s teachings that every part of creation is controlled by Divine Providence.  Not only is it all created by Hashem, but every single aspect of creation is part of Hashem’s great plan for the universe.  If a single blade of grass blows in the wind, taught the Ba’al Shemtov, it is by design and part of Hashem’s plan for the world.  (Science has recently discovered the fact that every aspect of the planet is interconnected to the ecology of the whole planet, catching up to what has been written in the Torah for thousands of years.)  It was in the summer of 1927 that the previous Rebbe was arrested and almost murdered.  He himself later expressed that it was those teachings that helped him live through the terrible ordeal of his arrest.

 Our Rebbe was not only the previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, but also his closest student, chassid and confidant.  He commented on this sentiment of the previous Rebbe, based on what I wrote in the first paragraph.  With his intimate understanding of the previous Rebbe’s approach to life, he said, the previous Rebbe had no personal problem with any of the suffering or challenges that he went through.  In fact, on one level, this was the greatest level of holiness he had attained, as I wrote above.  What bothered him was the fact that he was not able to continue his work of spreading Judaism.  As a quintessential Jewish leader in the mold of Moshe (as I wrote last week), his only concern was the people.  Although the restrictions placed on him were not of his doing and beyond his control, he nevertheless felt the pain of the lack of spiritual inspiration that would negatively affect the community.  In that oppressive time, when it was a capital crime to study Torah and especially to teach it, the only way Torah continued was because of the previous Rebbe’s guidance and inspiration, and now that was lacking. 

 It was only by remembering the Ba’al shem Tov’s teaching that everything that happens is by Divine design that he was able to endure the pain.  He realized that since Hashem created and runs the world as part of His plan, this event was also part of that plan.  Indeed, while he was in prison, Chassidim intensified their work following his directives and strengthened the underground Torah activities.  More so after he was miraculously released, the chassidim received a great boost in these activities and their courage was strengthened to continue to risk their lives in order to perpetuate Judaism.

 We have seen the effects of the evil Soviet system on our people.  There are many who grew up in those countries who were afraid to admit they were Jews, and to whom, through no fault of their own, Torah observance is considered a negative and even frightening thing.  But at the same time, there was a powerful underground movement that flourished throughout the Soviet Union under the noses of the Soviet butchers that kept Judaism alive.  The moment the Soviet system collapsed, these Chabad institutions came out of hiding and today are flourishing, bringing faith back to so many from whom it was hidden.

 So the 12th of Tammuz is a celebration of not just one leader, but of the very survival of Judaism in the face of another horrible regime.  It is a day to think about how we can take this inspiration and internalize it, to help us overcome the relatively minor challenges that we face in our Torah observance. 

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