Saturday, Jul 24, 2021

Shevat: The Month of Shehecheyanu from Covid

When I first moved to Cleveland close to four decades ago, I inherited the odd situation of being the rov of two shuls. My predecessor, Rabbi Shubert Spero, a Cleveland native, had instituted the minhag, at first to my great chagrin. We both lived in Cleveland Heights, but every other week we had to walk to the much further South Euclid branch, where we gave drashos to a largely European crowd. In the beginning, I gave at least one drasha or shiur in Yiddish, walking long distances in the Cleveland winters, and I made a mental note not to keep doing this for 42 years, as did Rabbi Spero. However, after a while, I began to cherish my elderly congregants at the euphemistically named “Youth Center.” Most of them were Holocaust survivors, who had weathered Churban Europa, along with so many others of life’s challenges. They had many lessons to teach me and my young family about emunah, bitachon, resilience, and always looking forward to the future with hope and faith that things would get better.
I’m not sure if I’m remembering the phrase accurately, let alone spelling it properly, but on a particularly freezing day this time of year, I believe it was Mr. Yosef Margoliyos z”l who said to me, “Shevat nya’brat,” roughly translated as “Shevat is always frigid.” He didn’t say this sadly, angrily, or even matter-of-factly. He related this bit of wisdom with a smile and a shrug. “Yunger rov,” he wagged his finger at me, “don’t complain about our weather. Now we know that the spring is coming.”
I have often repeated this epigram and have derived many leaps of faith and chizuk from its message.
Indeed, Mr. Margoliyos was a cook at Telz Yeshiva, was loved by all the old roshei yeshiva, and even when walking gingerly with two canes could be counted on for a cheerful attitude toward everything in life. Whenever I spoke to him, I thought of the timeless words of the Kuzari that “one who lives with tziduk hadin – acceptance of everything Hashem does as the best possible thing that could happen – will live a life of constant happiness and joy.”
As we approach bentching Rosh Chodesh Shevat, I thought again of Reb Yosel’s sagacity and calming effect. We are all quite frazzled with Covid-19 fatigue, despite the promise of mass vaccinations. However, there is still worry in the air. Will 5781/2021 really be better or have we settled into a “new normal” that will just perpetuate the terrible realities that have become part of our lives? The answer to our worries is Shevat. This is the month when we will soon celebrate the trees and their fruit. We will probably make a Shehecheyanu on a new fruit and perhaps join a
peiros tish. But the weather will not have changed yet. Spring will not arrive for a while, so why are we acting as if the world has changed?
The answer may be found in one of my favorite teachings of the Bnei Yissoschor (Maamorei Shevat 1). He reveals a cryptic fact about the upcoming month. Every chodesh has a mazel, or physical representation, that identifies the essence of the month. The mazel of Shevat is dli, meaning pail or bucket. However, the chiddush is that, far from a minor symbol, the Bnei Yissoschor informs us that dli also represents the mazel of Klal Yisroel itself. This synonymity indicates that the month of Shevat has a basic affinity with Am Yisroel, to the point that this can be a time of aliyah for anyone seeking to attain a higher level in the constant process of coming ever closer to the ideal of perfection in one’s Yiddishkeit.
But first, as the Bnei Yissoschor warns us, a word of caution is in order. All this talk of mazalos would seem to be irrelevant to us, since we know that, in fact, “ain mazel l’Yisroel – Klal Yisroel is unaffected by the spheres or astrological powers” (Shabbos 156a). Nevertheless, as Tosafos and the Dinover here point out, this means that Klal Yisroel is not bound by any extraneous powers. However, we may be affected by some force that needs to be overcome or, conversely, can be tapped or accessed for our own good. That being said, let us see what dli represents and what we can gain from its permeation of the month of Shevat.
First, the Bnei Yissoschor explains that dli is the emblem of Klal Yisroel itself, because the dli is the venue for drawing forth water and “water is the metaphor for Torah” (Bava Kamma 17a). Therefore, since the essence of our nation is the acquisition, drinking and benefitting from Torah, our mazel is dli. The Bnei Yissoschor also references the well-known posuk of “hoy kol tzomei lechu lamayim – Ho, everyone who is thirsty, go to the water” (Yeshayah 55:1). We may add that the halacha is that when it comes to drinking water, one only makes a brocha if one is thirsty. All other beverages require a brocha even if one is only drinking to swallow a pill or upon doctor’s orders. Water alone depends upon one’s need to quench his thirst (Shulchan Aruch 204:14). Torah, too, will only be granted to one who is thirsty for its teachings. As the Bnei Yissoschor continues, the Torah testifies that Moshe Rabbeinu began teaching the Torah afresh to the generation who would enter Eretz Yisroel on Rosh Chodesh Shevat (Devorim 1: 3-5). This is the day when Moshe lowered the dli to a nation thirsty to hear the word of Hashem directly from Moshe Rabbeinu.
We must also return to Rav Chaim Meir Hager, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe (Imrei Chaim, page 271), who takes the analogy a step further. The word dli, he points out, also spells yeled, which means child. Shevat is the month when the fruits begin to form, although they remain as yet unseen, just as the unborn child is not yet fully formed or ready for the world. However, continues the rebbe, Shevat also stands for the acronym “somachta bechol tov – you will rejoice with all that is good.” Fruits represent our children, and the joy upon their growth depends upon their being raised in the spirit of Torah and mitzvos. The generation that was now introduced to the Torah was indeed the one destined to enter the land. These fruits of Klal Yisroel indeed benefitted profoundly from Moshe Rabbeinu teaching the Torah personally to the generation who had not heard the entire Torah taught directly by him.
The Vizhnitzer Rebbe also clears up another mystery for us. As is well known, every month is also represented by a posuk that spells out the four-letter name of Hashem. The posuk for the month of Shevat is Hamer Yemirenu Vehaya Hu (Vayikra 27:10). Now, this posuk refers to the improper exchanging of one consecrated animal for another as a korban. What does that have to do with Shevat?
The rebbe answers, quoting a Gemara in Brachos (5a), that one should always activate his yeitzer tov against his yeitzer hara. This is a reference to the Torah’s exhortation that one should be vigilant never to fall prey to the yeitzer hara, but to always make sure that we are in the camp of the yeitzer tov. This connects to the avodah of the month of Shevat, when we lower the bucket deep into the well of the Torah so that we are armed with its beauty, wisdom and deliciousness in our constant battle against the evil inclination.
Another beautiful explanation of the temurah connection to Shevat has been offered by Rav Avrohom Simcha Horowitz (Chamra Tava, page 138). He quotes the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 66:4) which says that the reshoim (wicked) begin with lives of seeming tranquility, but in the end they suffer, whereas tzaddikim (the righteous) begin with lives of suffering, but in the end they achieve tranquility. Each of these groups exchanges one type of life for another, but in the end, the wicked are suffering for eternity, but the righteous have earned an eternity of serenity. As the Chamra Tava points out, the word Shevat also can be read as shevet, which means a punishing rod (see Bereishis 49:10). Shevat is the month that makes the grand differentiation, the ultimate havdalah (see Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Pesach, Maamar 99), between those who live the wicked life and those who dig deeply into their inner well and live lives dedicated to Torah. This is also reminiscent of the famous interpretation of the posuk in Tehillim (23:4) which states, “Though I walk in the shadow of the valley overshadowed by death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Shivtecha umishantecha – Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now we understand why the walking stick is a comfort, but why the rod, which punishes? The answer, given by many, is that indeed, although at the time the chastisement hurts, in the end it is a comfort, for it has helped us stay out of the clutches of the yeitzer hara and therefore out of trouble.
This is the real Shevat. It is still winter and the trees are yet bare and forbidding, but down deep, the sap begins to run, just as the pail goes deep to bring up Torah and Divine wisdom. As the rebbes of Rizhin, known for their dedication to the celebration of Tu B’Shevat, used to add, “The pail indeed goes deep, but it is not meant to stay down there. It is meant to ascend with the precious and life-giving water. Klal Yisroel also sometimes lowers itself to bring up the sparks of holiness that have been lost and must be retrieved” (Yalkut Ilana D’chaya, Rabboseinu L’bais Rizhin, page 20). This is perhaps one reason why Moshe Rabbeinu began teaching Torah to the new generation on Rosh Chodesh Shevat. As the nation looked toward exciting but difficult times, even a long winter of golus, Moshe Rabbeinu taught them the great lesson of Shevat. You must lower the pail and dig deep inside your personal well of emunah and bitachon, of kedusha and taharah, no matter what the trees look like.
Spring is coming and the geulah is not far behind. It is not even dependent upon vaccines and politicians. It is our Creator recreating His world for the better, im yirtzeh Hashem.

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