Cheshvan 2010: Turning Stumbling into Dancing
A Teaching by Sarah Yehudit Schneider on What Would Have Been His 19th Birthday
We have just stepped into the month of Cheshvan, the month that is the birthday of Avraham David ben Naftali v’ Rivka, one of the eight boys murdered in their innocence while studying Torah at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in 2008. Avraham David would have been 19 years old today. Our Torah study on this night should bring an aliyat haneshama for his pure and holy soul.
I’m going to speak about the month of Cheshvan, and in particular the timely fact (in terms of parshiot) that it was in Cheshvan that the מבול, the famous flood, began. R. Tsadok HaKohen has some inspiring teachings on this subject.
He explains that HaShem was hoping to bring down the Torah in Noach’s generation. All the pieces were there, including the soul of Moshe Rabbenu, which the Talmud (Chulin 139b) proves from a verse in Bereshit, 6:3, which contains the word בשגם (b’shagam) a word whose primary distinction is that it shares the same gematria as משה, both equal 345. The verse describes HaShem’s, quote (unquote), disappointment with the fallen state of humanity and introduces a discussion (a soliloquy, really) that ends with His decision to blot out creation through flood.
And HaShem said, My spirit shall not abide in man forever, for that he is also flesh; therefore his days shall be a hundred and twenty years.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה לֹא יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם בְּשַׁגַּם הוּא בָשָׂר וְהָיוּ יָמָיו מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה:
The pshat of the verse isn’t so relevant to the Talmud, more its context and the appearance of a word with the same gematria as Moshe. And so, teaches R. Tsadok, HaShem wanted to bring the Torah down then, as soon as possible after Adam, and if that generation had been worthy, so it would have been. The Talmud (San. 108b) teaches that HaShem tried several strategies to bring the generation around. First He bribed them with a taste of עה”ב, hoping they would taste the bait and see that it was certainly worth their while to rise to the occasion. When that failed he started the rains gently, showing that the threat of flood was real, but giving them a week’s reprieve and one last opportunity for teshuva.
If only they had seized the moment, turned over a new leaf, and dedicated their lives to truth and good…they would have received the most precious gift in the universe, the holy Torah…which, as we know, is always compared to water. Instead, in stubborn arrogance, they turned their backs on this golden opportunity, persisting in their wayward path. Those same awesome Torah lights now crashed down, no longer expressing themselves as sweet, life-nourishing wisdoms…rather, instead, as מים זדונים, destructive, hurtful flood waters. From the negative we learn the positive. As great as the flood’s power of devastation, so is the Torah’s power of tikun. (עץ חיים היא למחזיקים בה…).
Noach’s generation was offered the highest honor possible in the universe, the opportunity to receive the Torah. They blew it, and those very same lights that contained the sweetest teachings ever, now manifested as raging waters of death and destruction. All this occurred in the month of cheshvan.
R. Tsadok uses this to support an amazing and relevant teaching. He derives a spiritual law from Noach’s story. R. Taodok says that it is always true, that whenever we stumble in our lives, (be it our family lives, spiritual lives, emotional lives, career lives, whatever) there was some blessing that was trying to come through in that moment, and for whatever reason we didn’t rise to the occasion — perhaps we didn’t get the message at all, we didn’t even know that there was an opportunity at hand; perhaps we under-estimated the value of what was being offered so it didn’t seem worth its price tag; perhaps we really did try to seize the moment but couldn’t manage to change a bad habit that was blocking the way—whatever the reason, we blew it. HaShem offered us a gift and it slipped through our hands and the worst part is that it feels like there’s no second chance. The moment is gone it won’t come again.
R. Tsadok says no, in fact the opposite is true. That blessing that was slated to come into our lives is permanently attached to our soul. And even more. It’s not just attached to our soul, it is an actual piece of our soul, a spark of ourselves that got lost out there and needs to be brought back in.
In the shevirat hakelim (the breaking of the vessels), not only did the universe shatter, but every piece within it, including each of our own souls. Consequently when a soul comes into incarnation, only part of it actually dwells inside its body. The rest of it, the shattered pieces of itself, are strewn throughout the universe. So, HaShem guides us step by step, moment by moment, from coordinate A to coordinate B, because in each moment there is a spark, a lost splinter of ourselves, that needs to be rescued and brought back in. Slowly, day by day, as we move through life, we become more whole, for we are constantly absorbing new lights that were really just estranged pieces of ourselves all along. The recovery of a piece of our soul is always (eventually) experienced as a blessing.
Based on this model, according to R. Tsadok, there is always a second chance, and a third, etc…however many chances we need to get it right and earn the blessing…for the spark inside that blessing has nowhere else to go. Its home is our soul, and eventually every scattered spark must find its way home.
So how is this true for the דור המבול (the flood generation). How do we see them recovering their lost blessing of the Torah. Amazingly, the Ari teaches that the דור המבול will reconvene as the souls that comprise the generation that greets Mashiach. According to the Ari, the אנשי סדום (the generation of Sodom) came back as the generation of יציאת מצרים (who exited Egypt); the דור הפלגה (Tower of Babel generation) came back as the עולה גולה (the returnees from Bavel in Ezra’s time), and the דור המבול (the flood generation) will return as the דור המשיח (the generation that greets Mashiach).
And one thing we know about the messianic time is that all the Torah’s hidden teachings will be revealed. The midrash says that the Torah of Mashiach will be so radiant that all the Torah we’ve learned thus far, all the sweet and holy teachings that fill our libraries; that have rejoiced the hearts and brightened the eyes of generations, are dull husks before the lights that will shine as Torah of mashiach. The דור המבול (flood generation) will get all that they lost, and more.
And the culmination of this process will happen in Cheshvan, for according to Bnei Yisachar, the Third Temple will be built by Mashiach in the month of Cheshvan. In Cheshvan the stumbling occurred, the holy gift of Torah was spurned, so in Cheshvan the tikun will occur.
Now I want to explore another very relevant implication of this teaching. Many of us walk around terrorized by the thought that at some point, HaShem offered us a blessing at a crossroads, and for whatever reason, we chose the wrong path, passed it by, and it seems all too clear that the opportunity will not come again. The terror comes from the sense that we missed the opportunity to accomplish something essential to the purpose of our lives…that we failed on a cosmic scale, that our life mission can no longer happen properly, and that the loss is irreparable.
R. Tsadok says that that is impossible. And he says an even more amazing thing. He says that the whole thing is a setup. He says that the blessing, when it first came down as a missed opportunity, was in a form that we were incapable of absorbing. He says that the blessing itself is what knocked us over…the blessing itself caused the stumbling that resulted in its opportunity being lost.
Why? Why would HaShem set up the world like this? Why would he purposely cause us to fail?
The answer is that our yearning to recover what we’ve tasted and lost is the most powerful driving force in the universe. And, in the course of our efforts to find that elusive promise of pleasure, we transform, sometimes consciously, sometimes by the by, But in the end, when we recapture that lost blessing, which we surely will, we are now a different person. Our experiences along the way have changed us in ways that make us now perfectly configured to receive the blessing that we missed before. And, דווקא, because of these changes, we enjoy the blessing on a higher, fuller level than would have been possible the first time around.
This model applies at all times but it comes up especially, each year, in the month of Cheshvan. Both because of the flood but for other reasons as well. We generated a lot of merit in Tishrey through our many prayers, new-years resolutions and mountains of mitzvot. We are surrounded by a cloud of holy lights that are the sparks we stirred up through our Tishrey avodah. Just as physical clouds hold the blessing of rain, so do these spiritual clouds hold the blessings that will pour down into our lives this coming year.
And just as for physical rains we need cisterns to hold them and absorb them. And if our cisterns are too small, the rains then turn into floods that destroy instead of nurture.
The midrash says that until King Solomon built the first Temple, (which he completed on the first of Cheshvan) there was always a fear of flood every Cheshvan, when the rains began to fall. People were afraid that the rains might just keep pouring, overwhelming their cisterns, and turning into a flood.
Why did this change just because the Beit HaMikdash was built? Because the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple is a structure that is perfectly designed to absorb and transform light into blessing. It is a spiritual cistern of infinite capacity. Its physical structure combined with the avoda happening within, operated similar to an electric power plant that generates huge amounts of electricity but only sends the right amount through the wires to each one of our homes. Similarly the Beit HaMikdash performed a parallel function on the spiritual plane. Consequently, once it was built there was no longer a fear of being drowned by our blessings.
Now thus far, I have focused on Rav Tsadok’s teachings as they pertain to our individual lives. But his model applies equally to our collective journey. The tragedies that befall our people can also be attributed to this flood of holy lights trying to come in (destined to come in), and yet, if our collective vessel is not yet equipped to hold them, they will overwhelm us and (at least, temporarily) wreak havoc . And some of us are chosen—and and burdened—with bearing a disproportionate share of that load for the rest of us.
That’s one understanding of Mashiach ben Yosef (depicted both as the warrior Mashiach and the suffering servant of Isaiah 53), who is sometimes portrayed as the composite of those individuals who have born the brunt (the lion’s share) of our collective hardships—the transpersonal ones—that apply more to the Jewish people as an entity than to the individuals who are bearing them. They are the mysterious price tag connected to our national (and cosmic) mission of shining the Torah’s ethical monotheism out to every corner of our global village until “knowledge of G-d finally fills the world like the waters cover the seas.”
And yet, the second part of R. Tsadok’s teaching also applies, meaning that it is also true that the terrible losses that we endure (as final and as poignant as they appear) will also experience their reversal…whether in this world or the next, we will reunite with all the sparks connected to our soul…all the ones that we have lost and mourned along the way—be they lost objects, lost opportunities, or lost beloveds—because that is the promise and the law, that we can never permanently lose anything that is connected to our soul.
So I want to bless us on this 6th of Cheshvan, the 19th birthday of Avraham David ben Naftali v’Rivka, that HaShem should help us to make the right decisions in our lives (both individually and collectively) enabling us to integrate all of our blessings to the fullest extent possible without having to stumble…or, if stumbling must occur, to learn to stumble in the most spiritually productive way possible. This should be the year that the promise be fulfilled, that we build the third Temple with mashiach at our helm in the month of Cheshvan as our tradition foretells. And we should speak the words that David HaMelekh wrote when he envisioned the Temple, built and glowing, in his mind’s eye
הָפַכְתָּ מִסְפְּדִי לְמָחוֹל לִי פִּתַּחְתָּ שַֹקִּי וַתְּאַזְּרֵנִי שִֹמְחָה
Psalms 30:12. You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with joy.