This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
The latest article is posted here once a week. You can search the archive for past articles.
Parshat Emor (5760)
The story is told about the first Rebbe of Chabad, ‘the Alter Rebbe’ (author of the Tanya and Shulcha Auruch HaRav), Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’, who, himself a Talmudic genius, was so impressed with the personality and Chassidic teachings of the Magid of Mezeritch, (successor of the Baal Shem Tov) that he remained to learn by him for several years, although the Chassidim were not popular in those days and even falsely suspected of heresy.
When he returned home after his first year, he was greeted by his irate father in law:
“What have you been doing for the last year? What have you accomplished wasting your time by those wildmen?”
“I learned that G-d creates the world” answered the Rebbe calmly.
“That’s what you learned?!” He screamed, “THAT IS WHAT YOU LEARNED!?! Why, even our washing lady knows that and she never learned Torah in her life!… Zelda! come here!”
The washing lady appeared from the next room drying her hands saying, “Yes sir, what do you want, sir.”
“Tell us, please, Zelda” he was trying to be as calm as possible, “Who creates the world?”
“Why…the Aibershter sir! (Yiddish for G-d)”
“You see!!?” He turned to his son in law and shouted with rage, “Even she says so!”
Rav Shneur Zalman calmly replied, “She says it, but I know it”
We can understand this story better by looking at one of the sixty-three commandments in this week’s section, ‘Counting the Omer’.
The mitzvah of ‘Counting of the Omer’ means that each Jew must count aloud at the beginning of each of the 49 days between Pesach and Shavous, “Today is the first day of the Omer” etc.
The term ‘Omer’ refers to a certain measure (omer) of Barley that was offered in the Holy Temple the day after Pesach.
One of the deeper meanings for this is that barley, unlike wheat, is usually used for animal food.
Similarly each person has (or rather is composed of) natural drives and tendencies, called, in Judaism, “the animal soul” (because, like an animal, it has no sense of the Creator, only of creation.
The mitzvah of ‘Counting the Omer’ gives us power to tame and even train this natural soul (i.e. ourselves) to serve G-d with all our abilities, especially our emotions, somewhat as the Jews did in the seven weeks after leaving Egypt in order to prepare themselves to receive the Holy Torah.
That is the reason that nowadays we learn the “Ethics of the Fathers” (Pirke Avot) in these seven weeks, because these teachings are designed to refine one’s personality (animal soul) to be more sensitive to the Will of HaShem.
But there is something even deeper going on here.
In most ordinary prayer books the names of two mystical ‘Spherot’ are printed next to each of the 49 days.
This is based on the mystical idea that G-d’s ‘personality’, is mirrored in man’s soul, and that both can be ‘divided’ into seven aspects or ‘Spherot’. [There are really ten spherot, but this commandment only deals with the lower seven]
Loosely translated these seven Spherot are: (in descending order): Kindness (or Love), Severity (or fear), balance (or purpose), Victory (certainty), Surrender (praise), connection (interest), and finalization (rulership).
What it entails is; each day thinking about the appropriate attribute of HaShem (G-d’s kindness, severity etc., or more exactly; seven ways G-d expresses each emotion, for instance kindness in a kind way or in a severe way etc.) and how that same aspect appears in our soul.
Then we begin to feel that the only real Love, victory etc. is HaShem’s i.e. according to His Torah, and act accordingly.
This is even a more thorough way to fix up our animal soul; from the inside out.
Even deeper: Let’s understand the idea of counting time.
What is time? The second Rebbe of Chabad (Son of Rebbe Shneur Zalman) explained one of his masterpieces called ‘Aterit Rosh’ that time is the result of how the spiritual enlivening the physical, namely the entire physical universe in all its details.
The spiritual ‘hits’ (so to speak) the physical, gives it a bit of life, and instantly ‘returns’ to its source.
This pulsation is what we call time.
But this is a natural process; spiritual doesn’t mean G-dly.
The COMMANDMENT of counting time implies that we try to feel that it is HaShem that is creating and controlling all this life pulsation every instant in every way.
When one feels that all life and all time comes only from the Living G-d it inspires a great love and fear in our hearts for the Creator, and complete negation of one’s animal soul [something like the angels (who are also called ‘Chaios’ lit. animals) that we read about in the first blessing of Shma who burning to HaShem because they sense that He and only He is the source of all life].
It also, of course, reminds us how precious time is. Each minute, each day is a gift of G-d not to be treated lightly, as well as an infinite opportunity to change oneself and the world for better.
But all this is still not the main message of Sferat ha Omer.
The Talmud tells us that in these seven weeks of Spherat ha Omer, almost 2000 years ago, occurred a terrible catastrophe; 24,000 pupils of Rabbi Akiva died from a plague because they did not properly respect one another!
Now, these pupils of Rabbi Akiva were at the highest levels of personal perfection. They all were Torah geniuses, they certainly knew the lessons of the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’, all the Kabbalistic secrets (R’ Akiva was a master of Kabbala and according to some he wrote Sefer Yetzira), the true meaning of time and, even more, they were pupils of Rabbi Akiva who proclaimed, “Loving your neighbor is the essence of the Torah”.
What went wrong?
And how can we be expected to be better than they?
The Lubavitch Rebbe explains that the pupils of Rabbi Akiva were so perfect and complete through learning Torah that each could not bear, and certainly not respect, anyone who was different or did not agree with his way of serving HaShem.
G-d was very exact with them (in fact today we don’t even know who they were) precisely because they were such great Torah Scholars, and instead of using the Torah to make peace, which is the reason it was given, they used it to strengthen and justify their inflexibility.
But five of Rabbi Akiva’s pupils were different and they did not die. The foremost of them was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (author of the Zohar) and he learned this lesson the hard way.
For twelve years he and his son hid in a cave from the cruel Romans, learning Torah non-stop. The Talmud tells us that they reached such levels of holiness that when they left the cave they became infuriated at the sight of Jews working in their fields and not learning Torah. Their fury actually caused fires to break out until a voice came from heaven and announced, “Get back into the Cave for another year and learn how to live in the world”! In other words, learn to accept others that differ from you.
That is what the Alter Rebbe meant by “I know that G-d creates the world,” Namely: I learned that the main thing is that G-d creates and really desires THE WORLD with all its variations and complications, and it is my job to perfect it.
(This is supported by the story that once Rebbe Shneur Zalman was speaking together with two other Tzadikim one of them Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Bradichev, who said that if they were G-d they would create the world differently so that the Jews would have no problems.
But the Alter Rebbe answered, “If I were G-d I would create the world exactly like G-d is creating it.”
I want to finish with a very beautiful and relevant story that I heard from my teacher Rabbi Mendel Futerfas o.b.m.
When he was age five learning Torah in Russia there were no ball point pens, rather each boy had his own little ink bottle to dip his pen into. It so happened that one of the boys forgot to bring ink and asked the boy at his side for some of his. “No” replied the latter “I haven’t enough, you should have brought from home”. So the first boy had to ask someone else.
The teacher noticed this and said nothing, but a half an hour later he asked the second boy if he could tell the class what an Alef, a Bet and a Gimmel are (the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet). “Of course” answered the child as he pointed in one of his books, “This is an Alef, and this a Bet and this a Gimmel”
“No” answered the teacher “You are wrong!”
The boy was confused, “But teacher” he said, “this is what you taught us…this is what we have been reading for the last two years!”
“No!” the teacher continued, “You are wrong!”
“Alef is: when your friend asks you for ink you give it to him.
Bet is: when your friend asks for ink you give it to him.
Gimmel is: when your friend asks for ink you give it to him.”
Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.