ESSAY: The Psalmist and the General
End to end in the calendar, but worlds apart
Heat and Cold
Theres one thing thats worse than an unholy passionno
passion at all
Move swiftly, and never underestimate the power of the
lowliest of your limbs
Vacation or Holiday?
The secret lies in the word itself
The Psalmist and the General
Av and Elul, the eleventh and twelfth months of the Jewish
year, are end to end in the calendar but worlds apart in character
and temperament. In Av we grapple with the darkest moments
of Jewish history.
Elul is also a somber month, but hers is a solemnity buoyed
by joyous yearning. Elul is the month of divine mercythe
month in which the Almighty draws nearer to the soul of man
and the soul of man is stimulated to teshuvah, return
to her pristine essence and rapprochement with her
The diverse characters of Av and Elul were forged in the
genesis of Jewish history. In the first year following the
Exodus, Moses ascended three times to the summit of Mount
Sinai, each time for forty days. The first ascent (Sivan 7
to Tammuz 17), was to receive the Torah from G-d. Following
Israels worship of the Golden Calf, Moses spent a second
period of forty days (Tammuz 18 to Av 29), pleading with G-d
to forgive His people. This second period is characterized
by our sages as a time of divine anger and judgment. Finally,
Moses spent a third period of forty days (Elul 1 to Tishrei
10) atop the mountain, during which time he secured G-ds
full forgiveness for Israel and received from G-d the second
tablets to replace those which had been broken as a
result of Israels sin. These were forty days of mercy
and goodwill, culminating in Yom Kippur which was then established
by G-d as a day of teshuvah for all time. Thus, the
month of Av, which belongs to the second forty-day period,
is a month of dinharshness and judgmentwhile
Elul, which belongs to the third forty-day period, is the
month of divine mercy (rachamim). 
Gifts of Wood
The different modes of relationship embodied by Av and Elul
are expressed not only in the events and observances of these
months, but also in the lives of those who came to be identified
with them. An example of this concerns two families who played
a role in the re-establishment of Jewish life in the Holy
Land in the fourth century BCE.
When the Jewish people returned to the Land of Israel, after
seventy years of exile in Babylonia, to resettle the land
and rebuild the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), they
faced many obstacles and hardships. The community was small
and poor (most Jews chose to remain in exile) and threatened
by many enemies. In contrast to the gold-gilded glory of the
First Temple (built by King Solomon at the peak of Jewish
power and prosperity), the Temple they built was made of simple
stone and mortar. The Temple treasury could not even afford
to pay for firewood for the altar.
Several families came forth to resolve this crisis. Each
donated a large quantity of firewood; when the supply brought
by one family was exhausted, another family brought its donation.
In this way, eight families supplied wood for the first critical
year of the Beit Hamikdashs existence.
To reward their generosity, the prophets of the time instituted
that the date of each familys donation should be fixed
in the Temple calendar. Each year, when a particular familys
day came along, the family was granted the privilege to again
supply wood for the altar, even if the Temple coffers were
full and its woodroom stocked with firewood. These donations
were accompanied by a special ceremony and the day celebrated
as a festival by the donating family.
Two of the Wood-Offering Days are of special
significance: the 20th of Av, on which a family called Pachat-Moab,
from the tribe of Judah, brought wood to the Beit Hamikdash;
and the 20th of Elul, which was the day of the Adin
family, also from the tribe of Judah. The deadline for wood-cutting
in the land of Israel is the fifteenth of Av, which marks
the height of summer; after this date, the heat of day diminishes
and the wood that is cut is more moist and prone to worming
(it was forbidden to use worm-infested wood for the altar). These two families brought wood to the Temple
at a time when their own wood supply could no longer be replenished
with wood of good quality; hence their gifts were held in
special regard. This is why the Talmud singles out these two
families and engages in a lengthy discussion regarding their
Who were Pachat-Moab and Adin? Our
sages conclude that the Pachat-Moab family were descendants
of Yoab ben Tzeruyah, the general of King Davids armies,
while the Adin family traced its lineage to King David himself.
Thus we can understand the connection between these two families
and the dates they occupy in the Jewish calendar.
The paths that human life follows are many and varied. There
are scholars and businessmen, musicians and farmers, teachers
and laborers. On the most basic level, all vocations and callings
fall into two general categories: those that are spiritual
in nature and those that deal with the material world.
The existence of the man of spirit is a tranquil one. He
deals with reality on the conceptual level, where battles
are waged with ideas, pathways blazed with a prayer and mountains
climbed with a song. He changes the face of society with his
thoughts and yearnings; he rarefies the substance of material
earth by stimulating the spiritual workings of the heavens.
He has no obstacles, only aspirations; no enemies, only goals.
In contrast, the practitioner of material life must struggle
against a resisting environment. He must fight the falsehood,
greed and outright evil in his world; he must battle the corporeality
in his own nature and the obstinacy of a physical reality
that obscures its spiritual essence and divine purpose.
These two prototypes of human life were personified by King
David, whose life was devoted to studying Torah and composing
psalms of praise to G-d,
and Yoab ben Tzeruyah, who led Israels armies in battle
against their enemies. Thus, Yoabs descendants affirmed
their relationship with the Beit Hamikdashthe
vector of mans service of G-don the twentieth
day of the harsh, trial-rife month of Av, while the descendants
of David did so on the twentieth day of the merciful month
The soldier in the battlefield of material life and the navigator
of the tranquil realm of the spirit are equally crucial to
the fulfillment of the divine purpose in creation. They are
also interdependent: the soldier requires the guidance of
the scholar, and the spiritualists work is ultimately
realized only in the lives of those who take up the challenge
of implementing it on the physical level. As the Talmud states:
Were it not for David, Yoab could not wage war. And
were it not for Yoab, David could not devote himself to Torah.
Based on talks delivered by the Rebbe on the 20th of Av
in the years 5711 and 5729 (August 22, 1951 and August 4,
The most solemn and sacred part of our daily prayers is the
amidah (standing prayer), where the soul
achieves the height of intimacy in its communion with its
Creator. So sacrosanct is this prayer that the Talmud instructs:
Even if a king greets him, he should not respond; even
if a snake is coiled around his heel, he should not interrupt.
However, the Talmud goes on to qualify this law by explaining
that the snake in question is one whose venom
is not life-threatening. Thus, if a scorpion, whose sting
can be fatal, threatens a person while he is praying, he should
interrupt his prayers.
Like the human being it comes to instruct, the Torah consists
of a bodya code of law that governs the
physical life of manas well as a soulan
inner dimension that addresses our spiritual selves. And every
part of the Torahs body has its counterpart in the Torahs
soul. Every law in the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch encapsulates
within it a deeper significance, instructing the inner life
of man in addition to his external behavior.
The same is true of the legal distinction between a snake
and a scorpion as regards the interruption of
prayer. Our sages tell us that a snake injects a person with
a burning poison, while a scorpions poison
Translated into the terms of the service of the heart
that is the inner essence of prayer, there are two types of spiritual maladies that
threaten the soul in its quest to come close to G-d. The first
is a burning poisonthe heat and passion
of earthly desires. A second spiritual threat is the poison
of coldnessthe apathy which leaves a person
indifferent to everything and anything, material and spiritual
In Maimonides description of Abrahams quest for
truth and his recognition of the One G-d, we read that, initially,
Abraham was immersed amongst the foolish idol-worshippers
of Ur Kasdim; his father, mother and the entire populationhe
amongst themall worshipped idols.
Asks Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: why is it important that
we know that the first Jew once worshipped idols? But it is
precisely because Abraham worshipped idols, answers Rabbi
Schneur Zalman, that he came to recognize the divine truth.
Because he cared, because he passionately and devotedly served
what he had been misleadingly taught to regard as worthy of
worship, his sincere desire matured into a desire for G-d.
Had he been indifferent to the idols of his native land, he
would never have searched for and discovered the true G-d.
Thus the Talmud says: Even if a snake is coiled around
his heel, he should not interrupt. Even if you feel
threatened by a poisonous heat, keep on praying. Place yourself
in G-ds hands and beseech Him to guide you to the truth.
If your intentions are pure, your profane heat will be transformed
into a holy fire.
On the other hand, if a person is threatened by the frigid
poison of a scorpion, he must interrupt his prayers. When
a person is faced with the icy sting of indifferenceeven
if it is only his heel (i.e., a lowly and marginal
part of the self) that is threatenedhe must conduct
a full re-assessment and re-orientation of his spiritual life.
Nothing positive and holy can ever spring forth from coldness.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Eikev 5716 (July
From everything that one sees or hears about,
taught Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, one should derive
a lesson in the service of the Creator.
Perhaps the most popular sport on earth today is the game
of soccer, or football (as it is called outside
of the United States). As is the case with every phenomenon
in G-ds world, this game can serve as a model and metaphor
for our mission in life.
The objective of the game is to move a ball into a goal
or gate. This would be fairly easy to achieve
were it not for the fact that facing the players is an opposing
team which will do everything in its power to prevent them
from scoring a goal. But then again, if there
were no opposing team, the full extent of the players
skill and power would never be actualized. For such is the
nature of man: our most potent potentials are awakened only
by challenge and adversity.
The ball can be maneuvered with various parts of the players
body, but the game is played primarily with the feet. The
game requires much skill, but no less important is the players
speedmuch depends on whether a player can outrun his
opponent and move more quickly than he.
The earth is a spherea fact noted nearly two thousand
years ago by the Jerusalem Talmud. The objective of life is to move this ball
into the shaar haMelechthe gate of the
King. By fulfilling the mitzvot of the Torah, we
move the world toward the goal of its creation.
At our every step, we are challenged by a formidable opposing
team, composed of our own negative traits and habits
and a host of external foes, who obstruct our advance toward
the goal and seek to move the ball in the opposite direction.
But it is the perpetual presence of this opposition that provokes
our deepest potentials and maximizes our achievements.
The two key factors in achieving victory are speed and use
of the feet. The most skillful player will be quite ineffective
if his movements are slow, plodding, and unenthusiastic. Similarly,
a persons life must be animated with alacrity and joy
in order that his deeds should translate into scored goals
and a true impact upon his world.
The other important lesson is never to underestimate the
power of the feet. To advance the ball towards its goal, we
make use of the full array of our faculties, from head
to footour minds, our capacity for feeling,
our talents and our physical energy. But our most important
faculty is the feet, which represents our capacity
for action and mindless obedience. Although it
constitutes the lowest and least sophisticated
of our faculties, it is our unequivocal commitment to the
divine will and the physical action of the mitzvot that has
the greatest impact upon our world and is the most powerful
force for its advancement and ultimate realization.
Based on an address by the Rebbe, Nissan 26, 5740 (April
by Yosef Rubin
The Rebbe once commented that in America we go on vacation,
however in England and the Commonwealth it is called a holiday
The etymological roots of the word vacation are
from the Middle English vacacioun, and from Latin
vactivactin meaning freedom from occupation.
The word vacation also relates to vactus meaning
to be empty or at leisure, escaping life's responsibilities.
After one gets burnt-out from the hectic work-week one goes
away to an isle of paradise removed entirely from regular
life. Being disconnected from reality while on vacation can
get so tiresome and empty that one needs a vacation from vacation!
By contrast, holiday means making each day
holy. You can take vacation all right and have lots of fun,
but the focus and intention is to refreshing yourself so that
when you come back you are filled with new vigor and stamina.
Then even the mundane regular activities will be filled with
spirit and joy.
Lets go on a holiday!
The Week in Review is adapted from the teachings of the
Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Including the tragedy of the Spies (Numbers 13-14),
the destruction of both the First and Second Temples and
the respective expulsions of Israel from their land, and
the defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt. More recently, the
month of Av has been the scene of the expulsion from Spain
in 1492 and the onset of the Holocaust in 1939.
. See Rashi on Deuteronomy 9:18.
. Talmud, Taanit 12a (see Rashi), 26a and 28a.
. Ibid., 31a; Middot 2:5.
. Talmud, Taanit 28a and commentaries (see notes
on pp. 87 and 88 of Likkutei Sichot, vol. IX).
. The Talmud cites several opinions on the matter,
but the above conclusion is the one that best coincides
with biblical and midrashic accounts (see Nehemiah 7:11
and Rashi on II Samuel 23:8).
. See The Father of the Bride, WIR, vol. VII,
. In recent centuries, many artists, historical novelists
and filmmakers have created an image of David as a warrior
king. But the accounts of his life and deeds given by the
Torah, Midrash, Talmud and their commentaries yields an
entirely different picture. King David was the leading Torah
scholar of his generation and a link in the chain
of tradition that transmitted the entire body of Torah
law from Moses onward; he headed the sanhedrin and
thus was the highest judicial authority in Israel; he was
the sweet singer of Israel, the composer of
the book of Psalms who rose nightly at the stroke of midnight
to sing G-ds praises until dawn. Though he participated
in several wars against Israels enemies (indeed, one
of the reasons that David could not build the Beit Hamikdash
was because, as G-d said to David, You are a man of
war and have spilled bloodI Chronicles 28:3),
in most cases, it was Yoab who led the troops in battle
while David remained with his scrolls and harp.
. Talmud, Sanhedrin 49b.
. The 20th of Av is the yahrzeit of the
Rebbes father, the gaon and kabbalist Rabbi
Levi Yitzchak Schneerson (1878-1944).
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IV, pp. 1103-1107; ibid.,
vol. IX, pp. 86-90.
. Talmud, Berachot 30b.
. Erkei HaKinuyim, s.v. nachash.
. Mishneh Torah, Laws Regarding Idol Worship,
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. II, p. 375.