Coming Full Circle

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Behar/ Parshas Bechukosai
Coming Full Circle

The second of our two portions, Bechukosai, begins, "If you will follow My decrees, then I will provide your rains in their time" (26:3). Rashi cites the Toras Kohanim who explains that "following My decrees" means to be "Ameilim BaTorah" (toiling in the study of Torah). Rashi goes on to say that "rains in their time" refers to rain that falls on Friday night (Shabbos) when most people are typically indoors. This type of rain is considered to be blessed rain because it does not disturb anybody.

There are a few questions to be asked on this. First, how does Rashi know that "following God's decrees" means "toiling" in Torah which is intense? Maybe it refers to the plain "study" of Torah in a more relaxed way?

Secondly, what is the connection between "toiling in Torah" and "rainfall?" Why does the preoccupation in one bring about the other?

Thirdly, how does Rashi know that the blessed rains will fall specifically on Friday night? Although Rashi attempted to answer this by explaining that people are not typically outside on Friday nights, nevertheless, one could argue that people are also not typically found outside on any night of the week in the wee hours of the morning. It could rain on any night of the week, if it's late enough, and it won't disturb anybody. Why then, does Rashi stress that the rains will fall specifically on Friday night?

Speaking of rain, our Sages spoke very highly of rainy days, comparing them to the day that the Torah was given to the Jewish people (Ta'anis, chap. 1, "M'eimasai", pg. 7a, Rav Yehudah).

What is the connection between a rainy day and the day that the Torah was given to the Jewish people? Why is a rainy day considered to be so great?

There is a fascinating story about rain found in the Talmud (Ta'anis, chap. 3, "Seder Ta'aniyos Eilu", pg. 23a). One year there was a terrible drought. A message was dispatched to Choni Hamagal asking him to pray on behalf of the Jews. He drew a circle on the ground, stood in it, and said to God that the Jewish people had turned to him to ask Him for rain because he was like God's "ben Bayis" (a member of Hashem's household). Choni swore by Hashem's great name that he would not budge from the circle until God had compassion on them by bringing the rains.

At first it just began to drizzle. Choni said to God that this was not what he had in mind. He demanded that it rain enough to fill the ditches. Suddenly, it began to pour down so hard that the smallest drop of rain was approximately the size of six eggs. Choni said to Hashem that this was not what he had asked for. He demanded that it rain normally.

And so, it did. But, it continued to rain normally for such a long time that people had to climb to the top of the Temple Mount so as not to drown in the floods below. Although it is not an accepted practice to pray for something good (rain) to stop, Choni made an exception. Choni said to God, "Your people cannot bear too much misfortune and they cannot bear too much abundant good. Please stop the rains and let there be calm in the world."

Suddenly, a wind blew, the clouds dissipated, the sun came out, and, eventually, people went to pick truffles and mushrooms from the fields.

Shimon ben Shatach sent a message to Choni telling him that if Choni was not such a great man, he would place a ban on Choni for speaking with such chutzpa to God. But, Shimon ben Shatach continued, since Choni is likened to a son, just as a son can misbehave to his parent and the parent will still provide for him, similarly, Choni can misbehave before God, and God will still provide for him.

Ever since this story, a nickname was added to Choni, and he was called, "Choni Hamagal" (Choni the Circle) because of the circle that he drew.

This begs us to ask, why did Choni draw a circle in the first place? What was the message behind this circle?

Additionally, what was the "great name of God" that Choni swore by? And whatever name it was, how did that name work in bringing about the rain?

To begin addressing all of this, the Shvilei Pinchas starts by mentioning the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, 1:1) which says that God not only created the world by using the Torah, but the whole purpose of creation was in order that people learn Torah. This can be seen in the Bible's opening word, "Bereishis." The letter beis of this word stands for the word "bishvil" (because of). The rest of the word "reishis" (first) refers to the Torah which is called "Reishis" (Pro. 8:22). When put together, the word "Bereishis" means "bishvil reishis," because of Torah did Hashem create Heaven and Earth.

The Ba'al Haturim (Gn. 1:1) adds that Hashem created the world with two Torahs, Torah Shebichtav (the Written Law), and Torah Sheba'al Peh (the Oral Tradition). This is also hinted to in the word "Bereishis." The letter beis of this word is numerically two. Therefore, "Bereishis" means "beis - reishis" (there are two reishis"es" - there are two Torahs), Torah Shebichtav and Torah Sheba'al Peh.

The Agra D'kallah (Parshas Bereishis) adds that Heaven was created with the Written Law, whereas the Earth was created with the Oral Tradition (the GR"A in Aderes Eliyahu, Parshas Ha'azinu 32:1, and the Pri Tzaddik (Parshas Bamidbar), 6, and the Sfas Emes (Parshas Bereishis), say the same thing).

It is even logical that the Written Law is connected to the Heavens and that the Oral Tradition is connected to the Earth, because Hashem gave the Written Law (The Ten Commandments which were written in stone) from the Heaven. However, Hashem gave the keys of its interpretation (via the Oral Tradition) to the Sages who live on Earth (Shvilei Pinchas).

It follows that the continued existence of Heaven is dependent on the study of Written Law, whereas the continued existence of Earth is dependent on the study of the Oral tradition.

However, the study the Oral Tradition explains the Written Law. Therefore, when we study Torah Sheba'al Peh and explain Torah Shebichtav, we are involved in a process of connecting Heavens and Earth. Once we are already connecting Heaven and Earth with the study of Oral Law, measure for measure, we merit that Hashem continues to connect Heavens and Earth by causing it to rain (Shvilei Pinchas).

This is how our Sages knew that "following My decrees" is in reference to "toiling" in Torah, and not just the plain and simple reading of the Torah. It is because we need a type of Torah study that is going to bring the rains. That study has to be toiling because toiling is what is necessary for Torah Sheba'al Peh. Once we toil in Torah Sheba'al Peh, it explains Torah Shebichtav and connects Heavens and Earth.

Subsequently, we deserve for there to be another connection between Heaven and Earth through rain. This is why our sages compared a rainy day to the day that the Torah was given to the Jewish people. A rainy day connects Heaven and Earth. When God gave us the Torah and we use its Oral Law to interpret the Written Law, we also connect Heavens and Earth.

After sharing two points, we will be able to explain the deeper meaning behind the circle that Choni Hamagal drew. The first point is that Choni was such a great Torah scholar, that he could answer any question that was posed to him by the other Sages (Ta'anis, chap. 3, "Seder Ta'aniyos Eilu", pg. 23a). This means that Choni was an expert in the Oral Law as well as the Written Law.

The second point is that the main body of Oral Law is called Sha"s which consists of sixty tractates (Shir Hashirim Rabba 6:21 on Son. 6:8). Therefore, when Choni requested that Hashem bring the rains which would connect Heaven and Earth, he wisely chose to draw a circle because a circle is in the shape of the Hebrew letter samech. The letter samech is numerically sixty, representing the sixty tractates.

By standing in the middle of the circle, Choni was saying that he invested his entire being in toiling in the sixty tractates of the Oral Law, which connected Heavens and Earth. Therefore, he demanded that Hashem uphold His promise in Parshas Bechukosai to further connect Heavens and Earth with rainfall in the merit of toiling in Torah Sheba'al Peh (Shvilei Pinchas).

Perhaps we could add that this elucidation explains another Talmudic passage (Shabbos, chap. 9, "Amar Rebbi Akiva", pg. 86a, Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa, based on Ex. 19:17) which says that when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He held Mount Sinai over their heads like a barrel, giving them an ultimatum. If they would accept the Torah, the mountain would be returned gently to its place. If not, Hashem would crush them all under the mountain.

The Tosafists ask why it was necessary to threaten them with the mountain? They already said, "We will do and we will listen." You don't have to force volunteers into doing something.

The Tanchumah (Noach 3) answers this question by saying that the Jews only said, "We will do and we will listen (Ex. 24:7) with respect to Torah Shebichtav because they felt that it was relatively easy. However, they did not want Torah Sheba'al Peh because they thought that it was too difficult. Therefore, God held the mountain suspended over their heads to force them into accepting the Oral Tradition.

I was thinking that maybe this is why the Gemara says that the mountain was held over their heads "like a barrel." Why like a barrel? Why not say, "Like a mountain?" Perhaps that answer is that the opening of a barrel is circular, like the shape of a letter samech which is numerically sixty. Hashem hinted to them that it was not enough to only accept the Written Law, but they must also accept the sixty tractates of the Oral Tradition.

Getting back to Choni, the Shvilei Pinchas suggests that when Choni told Hashem that he was like a "ben Bayis" of God, he meant something deeper. The vowels of the words "ben Bayis" can be rearranged to be read as "ben Bais" which means the "son of two." He meant to say that he was not just a "Ben Torah" (a son or student of Torah), but that he was a "ben Bais Torahs" (a son or student of two Torahs), Torah Shebichtav and Torah Sheba'al Peh. Since he joined Heaven and Earth through the study of both Torahs, Hashem should further connect Heaven and Earth with rainfall.

It's interesting to note that Shimon ben Shatach described Choni's relationship to God like that of a son to a father. By contrast, in a different Talmudic story (Berachos, chap. 5, "Ein Omdin", pg. 34b), Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakai described Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa's relationship to God like that of a servant to a king. Why was one compared to a son whereas the other was compared to a servant?

The Pri Tzaddik (Parshas Ki Savo, 6) explains that there are two ways how to bring about salvation: 1) through the power of prayer and 2) through the power of Torah. The verse (Psa. 123:2) describes one who prays as a servant of God. However, another verse (Isa. 54:13) describes one who learns Torah as a child of Hashem.

Since Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa saved Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakai's deathly sick son through prayer, he was described as a servant of God. However, since Choni Hamagal brought the rains in the merit of his Torah study, he was described as a son of God.

The Shvilei Pinchas says the great name of God that Choni swore by was the name Havaya (spelled yud, hey, vov, hey). The reason why he swore specifically by the name Havaya is because that name also serves as the acronym for the verse, "Yismichu Hashamayim Visagel Ha'aretz" (The heavens will be glad and the Earth will rejoice; Psa. 96:11; Tikkunei Zohar, preface, pg. 9b).

The first two letters of this name are yud hey. They stand for "Yismichu Hashamayim" referring to the Heavens. Therefore, those two letters must also refer to Torah Shebichtav which is connected to Heaven.

The last two letters, vov hey, stand for "Visagel Ha'aretz" referring to the Earth. Therefore, those two letters must also refer to Torah Sheba'al Peh which is connected to the earth.

This is why Choni swore specifically by this name. Because this name represents the connection between Heaven and Earth. Choni meant to say that he too connected Heaven and Earth his entire life by engaging in the study of Oral tradition which elucidates the Written Law. Therefore, he hoped that Hashem would continue connecting Heaven and Earth by bringing the rains.

There is a further hint in the name Havaya which shows its connection to the Written and Oral Laws. Two examples of Written Law are the Ten Commandments which were written onto the tablets, and the Five Books of Moshe which was written down on a Torah Scroll. Therefore, it is apropos that the yud hey part of Havaya represents the Written Law because the letter yud is numerically ten hinting at the Ten Commandments, and the letter hey is numerically five hinting at the Five Books of Moshe.

However, the last letters of the name Havaya are vov hey. One example of the Oral Law is the six orders of Mishneh. This is hinted to with the letter vov which is numerically six. Since the six orders of Mishneh explain the Five Books of Moshe, there is a letter hey which follows the vov, because the letter hey is numerically five (Shvilei Pinchas).

Every Mitzvah we do has two components to it. The first component is the way the mitzvah is mentioned in Torah Shebichtav, and the second component is the way that mitzvah is described in Torah Sheba'al Peh.

This explains why some people have the custom of saying, "I am prepared and ready to fulfil this mitzvah in order to unify yud hey with vov hey," prior to doing mitzvos. This declaration reveals the person's intent. We are trying to say that our desire is to perform this mitzvah the way it has been mentioned in the Written Law (yud hey), and by the way its details have been elaborated on in the Oral Law (vov hey).

In this way, each mitzvah we do can unify the world by joining the Heavens (yud hey) together with the Earth (vov hey).

Now we can understand why the blessed rains fall specifically on Friday nights. The Zohar (Parshas Bereishis, pg. 47b) says that Shabbos is Torah Sheba'al Peh. One interpretation of this Zohar is based on the Midrash (Tanchuma Vayakheil, cited in Tur Orach Chaim, chap. 290) which says that the Torah once complained to God that when the Jews enter the Land of Israel, each person will run to his property and get so involved in maintaining it that he will not have time for Torah study. As a result, Torah study will become obsolete. Hashem responded that He gave Shabbos to the Torah to be its mate. On Shabbos people will not be able to tend to their vineyards and fields and as such they will be able to toil in Torah.

When Hashem said that they will be able to toil in Torah on Shabbos, He meant the Study of Torah Sheba'al Peh which requires toiling. It is only on Shabbos that most people will have time to toil in the Oral Law, because during the week they are too busy to delve so deeply into it. During the rushed week, many people can only learn on a more superficial level. This is why the Zohar said that Shabbos is the Oral Law. It means that on Shabbos people have time to toil in the Oral Law.

Since it is on Shabbos that most people are freed up to toil in the Oral Law which explains the Written Law, it is on that very day that Heavens and Earth are being connected. Therefore, blessed rain specifically falls on Friday nights to show that it is because of the learning that is done on Shabbos which brings an added connection between Heaven and Earth (Shvilei Pinchas).

This is one reason why we traditionally have specifically two loaves of challah at every Shabbos meal (Shabbos, chap. 16, "Kol Kisvei", pg. 117b; Ex. 16:22, Rebbi Aba, Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 274:1). The Zohar (Vayechi, pg. 246a, Mikdash Melech) says that the two loaves correspond to the bread from Heaven - the Written Law, and to the bread from Earth - the Oral Law. Therefore, at the onset of Shabbos we are being told by the two loaves, in a hinted fashion, that this is the day to learn both Oral and Written Law.

The Rema (Orach Chaim 271:10) points out that the first four words said out loud in Kiddush Friday night are, "Yom Hashishi, Vayechulu Hashamayim" (It was day six, and the heavens were completed, Gn. 1:31-2:1). The acronym of these four words are: yud, hey, vov, hey. The name Havaya. One reason why this name is coded into the Kiddush is because these four letters also serve as a reminder of their other acronym, "Yismichu Hashamayim Visagel Ha'aretz." This reminds us that on Shabbos we must connect Heaven and Earth by engaging in Torah Sheba'al Peh which explains Torah Shebichtav.

Practically speaking, there are four ways of implementing this teaching into our lives.

1) Prior to Kiddush Friday night, make an announcement saying, "Please pay attention to the acronym of the first four words said out loud. It is the name Havaya which also serves as the acronym for the verse, "Yismichu Hashamayim Visagel Ha'aretz," which reminds us to connect Heaven and Earth through the study of Torah Sheba'al Peh which explains Torah Shebichtav."

2) Right before washing, make another announcement saying, "We are about to say Hamotzi on two loaves of bread which represent the two Torahs, Written and Oral, reminding us that today is the day to engage in Toah Sheba'al Peh which explains Torah Shebichtav.

3) Let us make a learning session on Shabbos which connects the Written Law with the Oral tradition. One suggestion would be to learn Na"ch (Neviim and Kesuvim; the Prophets and Writings) with Rashi's commentary for just five minutes every Shabbos. The verses of Na"ch belong to the Written Law, and Rashi is part of the Oral Tradition.

4) Choose at least one mitzvah that, prior to fulfilling it, we are going to say, "I am prepared and ready to do this mitzvah in order to unify the name yud hey with vov hey." Think about the meaning behind this declaration, which is that we want to do this mitzvah the way it is mentioned in Torah Shebichtav and in the way it is modified in Torah Sheba'al Peh. In this way, each mitzvah can be part of connecting Heaven and Earth.

So, may we - the "B'nei Beis" - I mean the "B'nei Bayis" of Hashem, or shall I say, may we the children of God be blessed that our inner CIRCLE of friends be with people like Choni Hamagal who will inspire us to learn Torah Shebichtav and toil in the sixty tractates of Torah Sheba'al Peh, joining Heaven and Earth together, and thus benefit having the rains and all blessings descend from Heaven to Earth, and subsequently live to witness the Yom Shekulo Shabbos.