On Rosh Chodesh the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and the N’shei (a ladies’ society – totally doesn’t have a website to link to) brought in Rabbi Menachem Nissel from Israel to give a speech. I had heard him before, when I was at Neve, and I knew that we would be in for a treat. He’s deep without being inaccessable, and the ideas he speaks about are applicable to daily life.
Here’s an attempt to give over his lesson (I’m so glad I took good notes this time):
Each month requires something unique from us in our service to G-d. So what does the month of Shevat ask of us?
We learn from Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that there are three wonderful, amazing gifts that G-d gives us: Torah; the land of Israel; and the World to Come. These fantastic presents are intrinsically related to the foundation of the world, in space, time, and with man. Because of these close relationship, it can be understood that Torah, the land of Israel and the World to Come are essentially the goals of the world. They are three reasons the world exists.
However, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai tells us that the only way to get these gifts is through yissurim, which is commonly translated as pain or suffering. Yikes. At this point Rabbi Nissel said that this teaching makes Judaism sound cruel – “here are some amazing gifts, but to get them, you must suffer!!!” He goes on to explain….
Around this time of year we read from the Torah portions Vayeira and Bo, which detail how the Jewish people go from exile to redemption. They receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, are supposed to go directly to the land of Israel and bam! the World to Come and perfection ensues. Well, we know that it didn’t quite work out that way, but that was the plan.
During Shevat the earth is barren. It’s mid-Winter (unless you’re in the Southern hemisphere, I suppose). Not a seed can be found growing. But there are seeds which are in the soil and are perhaps starting the process of growth. Planting seeds takes a long time to develop, and they have to go through yissurim in order to become a plant. The seeds are attacked by enzymes in the soil, which break away the shells, which enables the shoots to grow and breaks through the ground.
Words and imagery of plants or fruit are constantly used in the Torah. The Torah is a “tree of life,” the seven species of the land Israel are all plants, and our good deeds are the “fruits” which we will get in the World to Come. So all three of the great gifts G-d gave us are compared to plants, to fruit, and so also to the idea of yissurim.
Previous generations had yissurim built into their lives. They didn’t have all the creature comforts we do. They didn’t have washing machines, central heating, paved roads, cars, computers, or (gasp) Facebook. Life was difficult. Today, things are, thank G-d, really pretty nice. So when something tragic happens, be it with health, finances or relationships, the contrast is stark. And some people have developed the attitude of “when is G-d going to zap me?” Like, everything is going well, thank G-d, so when is the other shoe going to drop? When is tragedy going to strike, G-d forbid?
Rabbi Nissel says that we should not think this way. At. All. He says an amazing thing, which I hadn’t heard before.
Yissurim doesn’t need to mean tragedy. Think of it instead as “meaningful struggle.” As something to work on ourselves to get to something higher.
Rabbeinu Yonah says that a man who pushes his body for the sake of Torah experiences real pain. So when men say that it’s hard to get up in the morning and pray with a minyan, or to learn that extra page of gemara, they are abolutely right, and for them, that’s their yissurim. Struggling on behalf of Torah is considered yissurim.
Rabbi Nissel went on to say that if a man’s yissurim is in Torah learning and so on, a woman’s yissurim is in taking care of her family, which is basically ALL THE TIME. Hello! That was amazing to me. A person living a Torah life is living yissurim; is constantly enagaged in meaningful struggle.
So what do we do in Shevat? This is the time of year that we plant seeds. Can we push ourselves a little out of our comfort zones? A Jew lives always pushing him- or herself. We are always living on the edge.
Maybe we could be doing more. That’s the burn. That’s yissurim.