Iyar: The Month of Introspection

Spring blows in with a soothing breeze, easing us out of the harsh winter and into a promise of warmer and gentler days. Flowers blossom, flying creatures fill the air, and clouds disappear from the horizon. New life is breathed into the creation, and it seems that every day brings with it the promise of good things about to happen. From where comes this manifestation of positivity and what are we supposed to do with it?

Did you ever hear the expression "something's in the air"? when we can feel something, but it's just out of our reach, and yet we know it's there, that's when we say "there's something in the air". Judaism tells us that at all times, there is "something in the air". At any particular time, there is a spiritual influence, an ineffable influx, just beyond us, waiting to be tapped into. The minute we tap into it, it becomes a part of us, and we become imbued with it. At only one time of the Jewish calendar year is this more evident then during this sprig month of Iyar (April-May). The other time is during the high holidays (September-October), between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. At that time, the message in the air is, "call out to Him while He is close, work on and improve yourself". In Iyar, the message, is subtly different"

The sages of the Kabala referred to the final holiday of the high holiday season, Simchat Torah, as the time of "conception". Whatever spiritual seeds were meant to grow this year were planted by Simchat Torah. Whatever is meant to happen to each of us, whatever events and changes, were determined by the end of the high holiday season. We can change it through prayer and good deeds, but the seeds have already been planted. Then, follows a long gestation period of cold winter months, in which the seeds dissolve away, in order to become transformed into something completely new later on. This silent growth culminated in birth during the spring. The sages of the Kaballa tell us that pregnancy, birth, and maturation are a good parable for understanding what happened to the Jewish people coming out of Egypt. The slavery was the pregnancy, the exodus was the birth, and the journey through the desert was the period of maturation. We relive this sequence every year from the beginning of the year in the month of Tishrei (usually in September) through the ninth month of Sivan, ( usually June) in a new cycle of gestation, birth, and spiritual maturation, leading to receiving of the Torah.

Judaism is a meditative religion. The bedrock obligation of six hundred and thirteen commandments, is meant to be accompanied by concentration and contemplation on a Higher Authority. And Iyar is the meditative month. Whether in the Mishneh Torah of Maimonedes, or in the Code of Jewish Law, or more than anywhere else in the inner dimensions of Judaism (the Kaballistic and Chassidic traditions), we are told that active meditation on spirituality (combined, of course, with performance of the mitzvot), is the way to grow in Judaism. By thinking of the greatness of G-d and the relative lowliness of man, we arrive at higher and higher levels of spiritual attainment. This is true of all times of the year. But, during the month of Iyar, meditation takes on special meaning, because it's connected with the exodus from Egypt. The exodus required a spectacular burst of spiritual energy in order to spring us out of captivity in Egypt. But, once having achieved the hurried exit from the land of limitations, it was incumbent upon us to start incorporating that sudden burst of spiritual revelation into our lives. The way we do that, during the month of Iyar, is by meditating"

But how do we know upon what to meditate? The answer is: it's in the air. It's been in the air since Pesach, since the exodus, since the onset of spring. "It" is the spectacular burst which sprung us out of Egypt, and into a state of freedom. Our meditation must be on this burst of energy, but in such a way as to integrate it into our own lives. The way we do that is by counting. The commandment of counting the "omer", requires that for every day for forty-nine days, -seven weeks-, we take a facet of that initial spring energy, meditate upon it, and integrate it into our personalities. The word for "counting" in Hebrew is the same as the word for "telling" or "narrating", and it also means to "polish", or make shine. By counting, we are actually accessing this spirituality which is "in the air", and internalizing it in order to make our personalities shine. Counting is the superficial manifestation of what's happening this month. Through meditation and work upon ourselves, we are trying to transform our personalities into shining paragons of spiritual perfection. The meditative work of Iyar, leading to a higher level of spiritual maturity, is what prepares us for the receiving of the Torah in the following month of Sivan.

Wings to fly

It is not well-known that Judaism is a meditative religion. Unaware Jewish people, seeking some form of spirituality in their lives, often travel to the far-east or other corners of the globe in order to learn meditative techniques which they didn't know existed in Judaism. Certainly, the emphasis in Judaism is on the physical performance of the 613 commandments, in which no more than the most general intention (that one is fulfilling a command) is necessary in order to properly fill one's obligations. However, the Zohar, that seminal book of Jewish mysticism, authored by R'Shimon Bar Yohai, tells us that a commandment without proper meditative intention is like a bird without wings; it might be alive and well, but it certainly won't take off and fly.

In the pursuit of proper meditative intention, whether during performance of the commandments or prior to prayer in the morning, one encounters different phrases which indicate spiritual attainment. There are the "thirteen strands of the beard", there are the "thirty-two paths of wisdom", there are the "fifty gates of understanding", and there are the "seventy-two bridges of love", among others. Each one represents a way of getting from one place to another, spiritually speaking. The more esoteric the level, the more unique and difficult the path. Thus, the thirteen strands of the beard are virtually inaccessible, the thirty-two paths of wisdom are only for initiates, and it's only upon arrival at the fifty gates of understanding that we ordinary mortals begin to have meditative access. The fifty gates of understanding are rooted in the heart, and yet give us access to the highest spiritual sources in the infinite light of G-d. the emotions of the heart can take us to levels of understanding which transcend intellect. A well-honed, refined feeling can take us places where the intellect alone would never have arrived. But, this is true only if the feeling has been refined, worked upon, and freed of all vestiges of self and ego. Normal emotions, based on our needs, desires and ego, are not the emotions which will lead us to spiritual perfection. Only when our emotional world has been purged of ego and imbued with spiritual meaning does it begin to take us in the right direction, upward.

The Biblical (and now Rabbinic) commandment of counting the "omer" is directly related to this perfection and refining of the emotions. The sages of the Kaballa told ud that the heart is composed of seven basic emotions. They are, roughly translated: kindness, strictness, mercy, pro-activity, reactivity, perseverance, and humility. Each one of these attributes has a superficial side which is a product of our animal, physical souls, and each attribute has as well a spiritual side which is a facet of our G-dly, spiritual souls. We are meant to meditate and struggle within ourselves in order to bring out the spiritual side and subjugate the animal side. The time of year for this meditation is during the spring, during the seven weeks (each week corresponding to an attribute) between Pesach and Shavuot. During this period, we actually count the days and weeks. The counting gives us the opportunity to focus on the emotions, dividing each one into its seven components, (each of the seven is comprised of the other seven, as well), and then to meditate on how each sub-emotion is attached to G-d. after seven weeks, -forty-nine days- of counting and meditation, we will have properly purified and elevated our mundane emotions and molded them into an intuitive understanding of G-d. the Chassidic masters refer to this level -to the extent that each individual attains it on his or her own- as the "understanding of the heart" ("binah libah"), and it is with this that we become prepared to receive the fiftieth gate, -the Torah- every year on Shavuot, fifty days after Pesach.

Mystical Meditations

As with all the months of the year, Iyar carries with it several correspondences, as outlined in the holy books, the Sefer Yetzirah, B'nei Yissachar, and others...

The tribe of the month of Iyar is Yissachar. Yissachar is described in the Bible as being the tribe who "know the understanding of seasons". They has an innate understanding of time which allowed them to fathom the right way of serving G-d at any particular time of the year. They were also those who performed the calculations which enabled the Jewish people to celebrate the holidays on the correct calendar date. They were the Torah learners, whose time was spent poring over the Jewish law and mysticism in order to ascertain the will of G-d in the world. Thus, the sphira, or attribute of the month is "bina", or understanding, which is also the intuitive side of the heart, leading to a direct connection with G-d. the inner dimension of this refined understanding is joy, as the proper understanding gives rise to positive emotions in the pursuit of G-dliness.

The sense of the month is thought, or introspection. It is the sense which corresponds to meditation, and Iyar is the most meditative month of the year, as we have already said. The organ of the month is the right kidney, which performs the job of purification of the body,just as through our meditation on the fifty gates of understanding, and Iyar is the most meditative month of the year, as we have already said. The organ of the month is the right kidney, which performs the job of purification of the body, just as through our meditation on the fifty gates of understanding during Iyar, we purify and elevate our emotions in preparation for receiving the Torah.

Finally, the letter of the month is the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the "vov", literally meaning "hook". Our meditation this month is meant to help us form a "hook" -a direct connection with the One Above. The most direct connectionto G-d is through the Torah, just as the palm branch, (lulav), he species of Succot representing those Jews who learn Torah, is in the shape of a "vov" (a straight line, denoting direct connection). The final form of the letter "nun" is also in this shape, though longer than the "vov", and has the numerical value of fifty, denoting the fiftieth gate of understanding. This was the level which Moses achieved while giving the Torah to the Jewish people. He is the only human being ever to have achieved this level, and he is said to be buried on Mt. "n'bo" -the mountain with "nun" (fifty) in it. Just as we are not capable of fathoming this level, so no human being knows where Moses is buried.

Stories for the Heart

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day

In the month of Iyar, we celebrate another more contemporary holiday which impinges on our physical and spiritual welfare as Jews. On the 28th of Iyar in the year 5727 (1967), the Israeli army, at relatively great cost, retook the old city of Jerusalem during the Six-day War. Out of a total of roughly 650 soldiers lost during that short war, about 250, or forty percent, were lost in the battle for the old city alone. It is on account of their holy sacrifice that we are able to celebrate the Jewish holidays in the complete and unified capital of the Jewish state. Since then, we celebrate the twenty-eighth day of Iyar as "yom Yerushalaim"- Jerusalem Day.

The name Jerusalem, or Yerushalaim, in Hebrew, comes from the Bible, and is one of three sites (the other two are Hebron and Shechem) that were bought by our forefathers for posterity, and are therefore irretrievably in the possession of the Jewish people forever. "Yerushalaim" is compounded of two Hebrew words: "yirah" and "shalem", meaning fear and complete, respectively. To be a true resident of Jerusalem, one must achieve a level of complete awe and fear of G-d. Conversely, Jerusalem confers a level of awe and wonder upon all who come to visit her, even if only for a short time.

The following story was told to R'Shlomo Carlebach, (may he rest in peace). Soon after the Six-day war ended, a soldier came to R'Shlomo and told him of a dream which he had dreamt. In the dream, he thought of the city of Jerusalem, seeing it in fog and mist. The soldier then found himself in the midst of Jerusalem, in deserted and empty streets. He thought to himself, how could there be war in a city which is so dedicated to peace. He proceeded on through the gates of the old city, to the Western Wall, and fom there to the Temple Mount. There, in the dream, the soldier saw the third Temple built, with all the Jews of Yerushalaim praying. He then woke up. It was a few days later, the soldier told R' Shlomo, that he was among the first soldiers in the Israeli army to liberate the old city and actually stand by the Western wall and pray there with tears in his eyes. (related by R' Sammy Intrator)

The following account of the end of the liberation of the old city, written by Colin Simpson, is from the book, "The Holy War June '67", compiled by the staff of the London Sunday Times: "In the Mosque square, more and more Israeli troops were pouring in. all wanted to find the wailing wall. Many asked me where it was, and we went together. There was already a crowd there, and an Army Chaplain was playing a sacred instrument, a shofar. Then, General Moshe Dayan arrived to say his prayers and give thanks. As he left, I asked him how he felt. His reply was, "We deserve this city". Other dignitaries showed up, but it was the ordinary soldiers who were the most impressive. Sweating, frequently wounded, they patiently waited their turn at the wall-covering their heads with anything available, even pieces of paper. My handkerchief, and most of my notebooks, went this way. They stood there often weeping with emotion, or bright-eyed and unsmiling, their faces stiff with the day's tension. It was an electric and disturbing experience, and for a minute I began to get a glimmer at the driving, all-consuming love that the Jews have for this city -a city they have been kept from for 896 years. Towards evening, Premier Eshkol, and the Chief Rabbis of Israel and the Army, arrived"(Eshkol) was shaking hands with as many soldiers as he could reach. He shook mine - I explained who I was. "Tell them that all may worship in this city- that this city will be opened to all", he said. I replied I would them how his soldiers had opened it" "Tell them", he said, "Tell them that".

R'Shlomo told another story of the six day war. After the old city was liberated, many residents of the city joined the soldiers by the wall, crying and praying. In the meantime, two soldiers from a kibbutz (which are usually, but not always known for their militantly atheistic attitudes), stood off to the side and watched. Eventually, one of them also began crying. The other turned to him and asked, "what are you crying about?" The first soldier replied, "I'm crying because I don't know what they're crying about" (heard from R'Yitzhak Buxbaum).

The following story was related by R'Sar-El Davidovich and is re-printed from the book "Reb Shlomele", by M.Brandwine: "(After the six day war), Israeli hospitals were packed with wounded soldiers, and those no longer on the danger list were moved to sanatoria throughout the country" One day my mother said to me, "Take these books and cycle over to (the hospital). Our wounded boys can read them and forget their troubles". When I went inside, there was a heated argument going on among the soldiers. "Let him come and sing for us", the religious soldiers urged, "it will make a refreshing change". The non-religious soldiers, however, objected, "we don't like those 'ultra-orthodox': they know better than everyone else and try to convert anyone who thinks differently" Neither side would give away, the differences were unresolved, and since Carlebach had already been invited, he came.

As soon as he entered the building, the non-religious soldiers got together and said: "Let's go to his performance and the moment he starts preaching religion, we'll make it clear that our beliefs are also legitimate and that he needn't pretend to be the world's redeemer=". So everyone went down to the hall, the religious soldiers smiling and the non-religious looking grim, like troops going into battle.

R'Shlomo greeted them all in a friendly manner, took his guitar out of his case, and had a few words to say before he began: "My brethren and friends, heroic and seasoned warriors! - I'm not a rabbi, not even half a rabbi, I'm just an enthusiastic Hasid. There is, however, one difference between me and other Hasidim. In the normal way, one Rebbe has thousands of Hasidim; but I'm one Hasid with thousands of Rebbes ." Members of the audience stared at him, unable to grasp his meaning, so he explained, "The wounded soldiers of the Israeli Army are my Rebbes, and I am their Hasid. I go around the country, from one army camp to another, from one hospital to the next, and all I want is to find one more of our generation's 'tsaddikim' (holy people) -those who risk their lives in fire and bombardment for this nation's sake"

He then started walking from one soldier to the next, giving each of them a kiss and an embrace. He inquired about every soldier's welfare, asking if his wounds were still painful, how he was progressing, and so forth. Nor would he leave any of them until he, the Hasid, had received that soldier's blessing -to attain the same degree of merit as they, the soldiers had achieved, -through selfless devotion to others. Clean-shaven young men with long hair covering their heads, who were most unacquainted with Torah and mitzvot, now found themselves blessing the Hasid with his bushy beards and long side-locks. He asked them to place their "holy hands" on his head and bless him, just as a Rebbe blessed his Hasidim. By the time R'Shlomo left the hall that night, no one could say who was a non-religious "kibbutznik", and who was from a religious yeshiva. A spirit of exaltation had taken hold of the audience, joining the soldiers together in measureless comradeship and brotherly love".

Concept Corner

In a concept as vast and complicated as Jewish meditation, it is difficult to say anything significant in a few words alone. But, we will try to bring a few sources in order to indicate how basic meditation is to the Jewish practice of Torah and mitzvot, as well as to indicate what Jewish meditation is. Maimonides, the first codifier of the Jewish law, says that the way to achieve love and fear of G-dliness is through meditating on the creation and the amazing wisdom that goes into it. First, he says, one will be overcome with love, and then upon further contemplation, will be overwhelmed with fear and awe. He then proceeds to describe succinctly the nature of the spiritual and physical realms of the universe. (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, chpt two, halacha two and onwards). It is clear that he intends the meditation to cover the abstract and spiritual as well as the physical creation. R' Yosef Karo, who followed up Maimonides with the Code of Jewish law which is uniformly accepted by all Jews today (with emendations for the Ashkenazi community), says, "the early chassidim and men of action would go off on their own and work on their intentions to the point of abstraction from the physical word and cleaving to the spiritual on a level which was close to prophecy." To which the amah emended "and one should think of the greatness of G-d and lowliness of man" (Shulhan Aruch, Ohr HaChaim, chpt 98, halacha 1).

It is in the works of the Chassidic masters, though, that one finds the most detailed instructions on how to meditate. The most basic meditation leads to a "lower fear", based upon His immediate presence and knowledge of our every action, speech and thought.

Similarly, there is a lower level of love, resulting from meditation upon His imminent creative power. Then, there is a higher level of love based on meditation upon His transcendent qualities, ultimately leading to a higher level of fear and awe, based on awareness of our own insignificance in the scheme of thimgs. (Tanya, Likutei Amarim, ch.43). These four meditations correspond to the four letters of His ineffable name, as well as to the four worlds of Emanation, Creation, Formation, and Action. Thus the various meditations themselves form a spiritual ladder which we are supposed to climb every day, usually during the morning prayers.

Ironically, one does not find a lot of emphasis in either the Zohar or Chassidic literature on attainment of spiritual levels. Instead, the Zohar and Chassidut speak of something called "re'utah d'libah"; the desire of the heart to cleave to G-d. While any particular meditation can take a person to new "highs" and levels of spiritual attainment, it is not for this that the Jew meditates. Instead, the Zohar and the Chassidic literature tell us that the goal is to reveal that point of the heart which wants to cling to G-d without any reason, but simply because the Jewish soul itself is a spark of G-dliness. This is the inner point of the soul, which is revealed by meditattion on the inner dimension of the Torah. This clinging and cleaving to G-d is called "devekut" or "re'utah d'libah", and it is the true goal of Jewish meditation. It may be for that reason that we have a custom on the thirty-third day of the omer ("lag b'omer"), the yahrtzeit, or memorial day, of the Rashbi, (R'Shimon, the author of the Zohar), to build bonfires. The bonfire represents the inner yearning and desire of the soul to cleave to G-d, like a flame thrusting upward. This result of meditation is so powerful, the sages of the Talmud tell us, that the early "chassidim" used to spend nine hours a day in meditation and prayer: one hour in preparation for prayer, one hour in prayer itself, and an hour afterwards, repeating the cycle three times a day. (Berachot 32)