1. The month of Shevat carries a special theme which is spelled out in Scripture:

On the first day of the eleventh month (Rosh Chodesh Shevat).... Moshe began to explain this Torah.... (Devarim 1:3,5)

The review of all that had been taught in the first four books of the Chumash plus the study of the new mitzvos taught in the fifth book — this process, called Mishneh Torah, began on Rosh Chodesh Shevat. The review included a thorough commentary and explanation by Moshe, as well as translations into other languages. Every year we relive these occurrences and the first day of Shevat perennially brings with it a special power to expound Torah. Although no one can compare to Moshe, nevertheless, a spark of Moshe exists in all generations and in all Jews (Tanya ch. 42), so that the process of review takes on its original flavor.

This power to transmit and explain Torah to others should be utilized in this period of Shevat to reach out and to teach all Jews, even those who must be taught in the “seventy languages” of the gentile world. We cannot wait for them to learn the Holy Tongue but must translate Torah into their languages.

The esoteric teachings of Torah may also be brought to intellectual comprehension through the philosophy of Chabad Chassidus, first developed by the Alter Rebbe and greatly expounded by the Previous Rebbe, whose yahrzeit we observe on the Tenth of Shevat. The Previous Rebbe oversaw the work of translating even the most profound concepts of Chassidus into the “seventy languages,” on a level that everyone could understand. This provided the tools to help bring even the estranged Jew closer to tradition through studying and understanding — truly comprehending — the esoteric teachings, to the point that he finds delight in his newfound wisdom.

In this week’s Torah portion we find:

I revealed Myself to Avraham...and did not allow them to know Me by My Name Havayah.... Therefore say to the Israelites, “I am G‑d...you will know that I am G‑d your L‑rd....” (Shemos 6:3-7)

On this verse, “you will know,” we find a commentary in Raya Mehemna:

“You will know that I am G‑d your L‑rd, etc....” This commandment precedes all commandments; to know the Holy One, Blessed be He, is the first and foremost commandment. (Zohar II 25a)

This same principle is expressed by the Rambam at the beginning of Mishneh Torah:

The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to realize (know) that there is a First Being.... (Basic Principles of the Torah 1:1)

This realization must develop through the state of wisdom and understanding, and subsequently it must crystallize on the level of knowledge (daas) which:

..implies attachment and union. That is, one binds his mind with a very firm and strong bond to, and firmly fixes his mind on, the greatness of the blessed Ein Sof.... the basis of the middos and the source of their vitality...love with its offshoots and fear with its offshoots. (Tanya ch. 3)

When will this level of wisdom and knowledge be attained? When the study of the esoteric wisdom of Torah is pursued in an inquisitive, investigative manner in the progressive intellectual levels of wisdom, understanding and knowledge — as expressly developed in Chabad Chassidic philosophy.

In this week’s portion G‑d directs Moshe to:

Say to the Israelites, I am G‑d, I will take you away...free you...liberate you...I will take you...I will bring you to the land. (Shemos 6:6-7)

And it is in this context that G‑d said: “You will know that I am G‑d your L‑rd.” Now, the fifth term, “I will bring you” refers to the entry of the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael under the leadership of Yehoshua at the completion of the 40 years of wandering in the desert, as well as the ultimate ascent of the Jewish nation into the Holy Land at the heels of Mashiach.

Our present discussion of the first day of Shevat as the day on which Moshe began his last concerted effort to teach the Jewish people before his passing — is clearly connected to the subsequent entry of the Jews into Eretz Yisrael.

Moshe began his “teach-in” on Rosh Chodesh Shevat, and continued on a very intense level until the seventh of Adar, the day he passed away. This was just as he had planned it, that his profound and penetrating analysis, and broad and detailed explanation of Torah into many languages should take him about five weeks of teaching.

This final “teach-in” to the Jewish people clearly served as the appropriate, climactical preparation for their dramatic entrance into Eretz Yisrael. Then after the 30 days of mourning for Moshe and an additional three days of special preparation — on the tenth of Nissan — the epoch of Moshe came to a close, and on the 11th of Nissan the era of Yehoshua, the conqueror, began.

In the Chassidic realm the broad interpretation of Chassidus started with the Alter Rebbe, who initiated the teachings which will lead to the fulfillment of the promise: “I will bring you” — with the true redemption through our righteous Mashiach.

When will Mashiach come? after the wellsprings of Chassidus are spread to the “outside.”

This process started after the liberation of the Alter Rebbe from incarceration on Yud-Tes Kislev, at which time the Alter Rebbe began “disseminating the wellsprings to the outside.” This process reached its climax and conclusive perfection in the activities of the Previous Rebbe, the Nasi of our generation. As the Previous Rebbe clearly testified, all the required aspects of Divine service have been satisfied and concluded, all that is left to do is to “polish the buttons” and then to “stand ready, all together” to greet Mashiach.

In today’s section of Tehillim we find a theme which unites all of these ideas. The first Psalm begins: “Happy is the man....” There is a connection between the first psalm of Tehillim and the day of Rosh Chodesh Shevat, as expressed in the Midrash:

Wherewith did Moshe conclude? with “...happy are you, O Israel” (Devarim 33:29). And Dovid, so too, when he came to utter praise began where Moshe left off (Tehillim 1:1): “Happy is the man.” (Bereishis Rabbah 100:2)

Now, “Happy is the man” of Dovid’s Tehillim is connected to the “Happy are you O Israel” of Chumash, which was said at the close of Mishneh Torah, Moshe’s final teaching period, that began on the first day of Shevat.

This term Ashrei (Happy) connotes the concept of delight, and Chassidic philosophy explains that it represents the innermost desire and pleasure. Since the true pleasure of Torah is also revealed in the innermost esoteric teachings of Torah — namely Chassidus — it follows that “Happy is the man” is also associated with the teachings of Chassidus.

The subject of the future redemption alluded to by the term, “I will bring you,” is also related to “Happy is the man” and “Happy are you O Israel” spoken by Moshe and Dovid, for Moshe is the first redeemer and Dovid (Mashiach) is the last redeemer, and “The first redeemer is also the last redeemer.” (Shemos Rabbah 2:4) There is a Midrash which states that at the time of the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the sea the Jews were on a wave of redemption which could have effected the perfect, final and complete salvation. This was not to be only because of the infiltration of sinfulness. Under the circumstances, however, we still see Dovid’s future redemption as the continuation of Moshe’s original Exodus.

This continuity is affected and influenced by Ashrei — “Happy is” — which comes about through spreading Torah in a delightful way: 1) spreading the inner aspects of Torah which embody the delight of Torah; 2) the act of spreading Torah is done with alacrity and joy, which also brings greater success.

While all these aspects of Rosh Chodesh Shevat apply even when Rosh Chodesh occurs in the middle of the week — there are additional aspects which emerge only when it occurs on a Shabbos — and even more so when the year is a Shemitah year which begins on Shabbos.

The Shemitah year is dedicated to G‑d:

The entire year one must refrain from work and be ready for the service of G‑d...even agricultural workers who are laid off from work during the year will be motivated to seek G‑d. (Seforno, Vayikra 25:2)

When the first day of the year is Shabbos, which introduces the idea of “all your work is done,” then clearly all efforts during the year will be directed to G‑dly pursuits, Torah and prayer.

Shabbos also introduces the theme of delight and joy.

On Rosh Chodesh Shevat, in the Shemitah year which began on a Shabbos, we must recognize a greater emphasis in the theme of, “Moshe began to explain the whole Torah,” because this year more Torah is studied, and because it has the delight of Shabbos which increases the dissemination of the esoteric teachings (the Yechidah — innermost delight in Torah). The approach is also along a path of happiness. Shabbos and Shemitah also have a special connection with the theme of redemption, as our sages say:

If the Jewish people keep (observe) one Shabbos properly the son of Dovid would come forthwith. (Yerushalmi, Taanis 1:1)

Practice is the essential thing. (Avos 1:17) Just as Moshe began his final push to explain the Torah on Rosh Chodesh Shevat, everyone is expected likewise to “explain the Torah,” and to increase the dissemination of Torah and the wellsprings of Chassidus to the outside. It should be emphasized that Moshe “began”!

1) A beginning means that there is a follow up. One time is not enough it must continue for an appreciable period — more than a day or week, but 40 days — from Rosh Chodesh Shevat until the seventh of Adar, when we will further increase and add.

2) It must be explained. Recitation alone is not sufficient. It needs clear, concise and full commentary with keen intelligence; in a meaningful and knowledgeable way. This should also lead to translation into the “70 languages,” for those Jews who are not yet fluent in the Holy Tongue.

This directive applies to every Jew, young and old: “our youth and elders, sons and daughters.” (Shemos 10:9) Explain the Torah for all Jews, and all Jews must likewise be involved in explaining the Torah. Even a Jew living in the farthest corner of the globe must be reached, and even a Jew on the spiritual periphery, outside of the Holy Land, in a forsaken corner of the diaspora, should be motivated.

The rule that saving a life supersedes all other rules of Torah is universal, it applies to all Jews alike, from the greatest to the smallest. A one-day-old baby who is in mortal danger would require the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur to suspend the ritual of the Temple and go out to save the child’s life, if he could. The analogy to spiritual life-support is obvious.

The involvement of every Jew in the exposition of Torah means that each person has something to contribute to another, and when a Jew studies and knows a section of Torah it behooves him to teach it to another Jew. A small child who studies Chumash, or one who learns to read, or just hears Torah stories should transmit this knowledge to other children his own age, in a comprehensible way and in their common language.

These actions will lend enthusiasm to the recent requests for the establishment of houses of Torah, houses of prayer and good deeds infused with the esoteric light of Torah — Chabad Chassidic philosophy — to make Chabad Houses.

We find a clear hint to Chabad Houses in the Haftorah of this Shabbos:

The heaven is My throne, and the earth, My footstool; what manner of house would you build for Me, etc. (Yeshayahu 66:1)

The meaning of this pronouncement by G‑d is that although the whole universe is G‑d’s “house,” for the heaven is the “throne” and the earth the “footstool;” we must still create a house for G‑d in the world. And despite the ponderation, “What manner of house” could we possibly build for the Holy One, Blessed be He, we can build a house in which the Shechinah will dwell. That house is of course the Beis HaMikdash. The verse which informs us of G‑d’s desire to dwell in the Sanctuary does not say that He will dwell “in it,” but “among them,” meaning in every Jew.

This means that every Jew has a spiritual Beis HaMikdash in his/her soul, and Chassidus explains the symbolism of a house and its furniture in the Divine service of a Jew. The “heaven is My chair” refers to Torah, and “the earth My footstool” refers to mitzvos, starting with the precept of charity. So, here we have a house of Torah and acts of loving kindness. “What manner of house will you build?” The throne and footstool must be placed inside a house, which symbolizes the transcendental powers — the house of prayer.

May G‑d grant that when we create more Houses of Torah, prayer and good deeds, we will merit to see the House which will be “the place of G‑d’s rest,” the Beis HaMikdash, and the promise will be fulfilled:

And they shall bring all your brethren of all the nations for an offering to the L‑rd.... To My holy mountain Yerushalayim...as the children of Yisrael bring an offering in a clean vessel to the house of the L‑rd. (Yeshayahu 66:22)

This refers to the true revelation of esoteric Torah in the future — so may it be — the true and complete redemption through our righteous Mashiach and “with our youth and elders, sons and daughters,” “a great company,” immediately and instantly in our time.

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2. In Rashi this week we find two verses where Rashi’s commentary will fall under the same general query. First, on the verse:

G‑d [then] spoke to Moshe and Aharon. He gave them instructions regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh, king of Egypt, so that they would be able to get the Israelites out of Egypt. (Shemos 6:13)

Rashi explains:

He gave them instructions regarding the Israelites: [signifies that] He gave them a charge regarding them; viz, to deal with them [the Israelites] in a gentle manner and to be patient with them. And Pharaoh, king of Egypt: signifies that He charged them with regard to Pharaoh king of Egypt, viz, that they should show respect to him in all that they spoke. This is the Midrashic explanation, but the plain meaning is: He gave them a command with regard to Israel and with regard to His mission on which He had sent them to Pharaoh. (Rashi, loc. cit.)

The question!

It is Rashi’s role to explain the plain meaning of Scripture. When however, some problem arises with the plain meaning then Rashi will introduce a homiletic interpretation which justifies or sets right the verse in question. In the case at hand, we see there is a plain meaning for the words. If so, what motivates Rashi to teach us the homiletic interpretation, and why does Rashi bring the Midrashic interpretation before the plain meaning?

Second verse:

And the frog came up: really there was only one frog, but when they struck at it, it was split into many swarms. This is the Midrashic explanation [of the usage of the singular noun here]. But as a literal translation one must say that the swarm of the frogs is denoted by the singular form, similar is (verse 14) “and there was the swarm of insect(s).” (Rashi, Shemos 8:2)

Here, too, the same question puzzles us. Why must Rashi teach the Midrashic interpretation and why does he put the Midrashic explanation before the literal meaning.

The explanation is as follows. When we take a close look at these two Rashis we will discern that in both cases the Midrashic interpretation deals with the whole subject at hand while the literal explanation limits itself to some specific detail. Rashi senses that in these cases it will be necessary to explain the total picture and therefore opts for the Midrashic approach. Having made that choice, it follows that he first presents the general Midrashic commentary to be followed by the more specific, if limited, plain meaning.

What was the general purpose of Moshe’s encounters with Pharaoh? To redeem the Jews from Egypt. In this context Rashi wants us to understand how all the words of this verse — even those which seem to have no connection — are all related to the main mission, to lead the Jews out of Egypt.

Thus, Rashi begins by explaining Aharon’s role:

G‑d [then] spoke to [both] Moshe and Aharon — because Moshe had said, “I have a speech defect,” the Holy One, Blessed be He, associated Aharon with him to serve as his mouthpiece and spokesman. (Rashis 6:13)

In this sense Aharon was involved in the mission to redeem the Jews — and Moshe’s argument that he had difficulty communicating was negated.

Then the verse continues that Moshe should deal with the Jewish people in a gentle manner and be patient with them, and to show respect to Pharaoh in his dialogues with him.

Thus, the total interpretation deals with the general meaning and flow of the story. To find out the meaning of the individual words in the verse — for that we must go over to the Midrashic interpretation, which Rashi does. He first brings the Midrashic explanation, which helps present the general outline more clearly.

In the second verse mentioned above Rashi also follows this pattern. The purpose of the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians was to bring them to the realization that they must heed the Omnipotent One who sent Moshe. To this end each plague had to project the Hand of G‑d, something beyond the magic of the Egyptian magicians.

For example, when the magicians could not create the lice they admitted to Pharaoh that it was the “finger of G‑d.”

In the case of frogs, initially the Egyptian conjurers were also able to call up additional frogs onto the land. But, being that this was one of the plagues, Rashi reasons that there had to be more aspects which went beyond the magicians’ power and represented G‑d’s power. For this reason Rashi feels that the Midrashic commentary, that there was one frog from which many streams of frogs emerged, was closest to the plain meaning of the verse and embodied the true impact of the “miraculous” plague, which human conjurers could not copy.

Regarding the word-by-word translation however — Rashi reverts to a plain explanation that the singular form is often used for plural cases for living creatures.

Now a question comes to mind. If every plague had to convey the Divine source of the catastrophe, why do we not find some Supernatural aspect in the plague of blood which the magicians could not copy?

The answer to this question will emerge from a reference in Rashi which explains the reason for the plague of blood: “The Egyptians worshiped the Nile, therefore G‑d first smote their deity.” (Shemos 7:17)

The plague of blood was limited to the waters of the Nile River so as to emphasize the strike against their deity:

“He struck the waters in the river...all the water in the river turned to blood...and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river.” (Ibid. 20-21)

However, the water which they drew from the wells which they dug near the river (see verse 24) did not become blood. It was this water they drank for the seven days of the plague and it was this water which the Egyptian magicians changed to blood.

The purpose of this plague was to strike the deity of Egypt, the Nile River, and therefore only the river waters were transformed to blood. Now, if G‑d had increased this plague beyond the ability of the conjurers (by turning rain water into blood, for example), the whole intent and impact would have been lost. Therefore the waters outside the river were not converted and the plague of G‑d was not more than the Egyptians could do and there was no miracle which superseded the ability of the Egyptian magicians.

* * *

3. The opening words of the Rambam in the first chapter of Mishneh Torah teach us the mitzvah of knowing G‑d:

The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to realize (know) that there is a First Being who brought every existing thing into being. (Laws of Basic Principles of the Torah 1:1)

This concept may be traced to a similar rule found in the Zohar on the portion of Vaeira:

This is the first of all commandments... The knowledge of G‑d in a general way...namely that there is a Supreme Ruler. (Zohar II 25a)

The similarity of the Rambam and Zohar has been discussed and analyzed in several sources in Chassidus. My father has also analyzed the specific comparisons of the particular terminologies used in the Zohar and in the Rambam.

It has also been explained that there is a genuine unity between the revealed and esoteric aspects of Torah — just as in the Alter Rebbe’s name, Schneur, where the combination attains real unity — as the soul and body which unite into one entity.

In the first chapter of Laws of Basic Principles of the Torah the Rambam discusses the basic commandment of belief in G‑d. This basic concept of faith does not refer to simple belief in the existence of G‑d. It is illogical to say that the Creator commands us to believe that He exists. For, when we say that the “Creator commands” we already presume that He exists! Consider the words of Abarbanel (as quoted in Tzemach Tzedek Sefer HaMitzvos):

If we were to assume that belief in the existence of G‑d is a mitzvah, we will have already presumed that belief in G‑d precedes the mitzvah of belief in the existence of G‑d.

What then is the commandment of faith? “To know that there is a First Being” with all the ensuing details that the Rambam delineates.

The Tzemach Tzedek also follows this approach in his description of the precept of faith. Not to believe in the essential existence of the Creator, but:

The belief that the Holy One, Blessed be He, whom we already know exists, His existence is the absolute first and most perfect in all existence.

This faith encompasses two points: 1) A personal faith which precedes all precepts of the Torah — as just explained, that a commandment comes only after we know that there is the First Being who commands.

2) The commandment to believe which means to know that there is a First Being.

This precept — to believe — is one of the 613 commandments of the Torah and at the same time it is the most fundamental and most encompassing of all commandments. One who lacks faith (heaven forbid) transgresses against the negative commandment:” You shall have no other gods,” and additionally, “denies the most essential principle, which is the fundamental principle upon which all else depends.” (Basic Principles of the Torah 1:6)

This approach to faith in the Al-mighty is clearly alluded to in the language of the Rambam as well as the terminology of the Zohar.

The Rambam introduces faith by saying, “The basic principle of all basic principles and the pillar of all sciences is to know that there is a First Being....” This means that the precept of belief which is one of the 613 commandments is also the basic principle and pillar of all the other mitzvos.

The Zohar, too, says: “the first of all commandments...the knowledge of G‑d in a general way....” This, too, means that faith is a precept which precedes all precepts of and is the general rule of the mitzvos. So, Mishneh Torah established that faith is the “basic principle” and “pillar” of all mitzvos, while the Zohar adds that it is also the encompassing generality of all mitzvos.

In my father’s writings this all-encompassing generality refers to the complete order of the devolution of the spiritual worlds from the highest “crown” to the lowest level of the world of “action.”

This triad of facets in the fundamental principle of faith — belief in G‑d as the source of all existence, knowledge of G‑d is the prime commandment, and, the all-encompassing nature of the commandment — may also be discerned in the existence of the Jewish people.

The rule of Pikuach Nefesh (saving life is above all other considerations) is closely connected to the essential aspect of the Jewish soul. In fact there is no difference whether the threatened individual is a one-day-old infant or an accomplished and great personality. The same laws of supersedence apply because when we speak of the essential soul there are no degrees, although the actual attempts of rescuing the individual will depend on whether or not he is breathing (or has other vital signs — which is not a function of the innermost soul, rather a function of the revealed powers of the soul).

Now, saving a soul is an individual mitzvah. At the same time it incorporates an aspect which is fundamental, all-encompassing and overriding — for it supersedes all other rules of Torah; it is all-encompassing for it represents the sum total of all Torah and mitzvos as described in Torah:

Keep My decrees and laws, since it is only by keeping them that a person can [truly] live. (Vayikra 18:5)

and as the Talmud concludes:

but he shall not die because of them. (Yoma 85b)

This same structure may be found in a person’s process of Divine service. The essence of the soul — the Yechidah (unique one) — which normally transcends the normal functions of daily life — must nevertheless be drawn down and be revealed in the regular Divine service that functions through the revealed powers of the individual. The term Pikuach Nefesh carries the idea of “opening” the soul powers and this is congruous with Mesirus Nefesh — self-sacrifice — (which is closely associated with Pikuach Nefesh). In Chassidic parlance, a chassid is essentially self-sacrificing. This means that every step of his Divine service must be permeated with self-sacrifice and submission of ego, as explained in Tanya:

Occupations in the Torah and commandments and prayer is also a matter of actual surrender of the soul.... (Tanya 41)

It was the revelation of the teachings of Chassidus — the Yechidah of Torah — which precipitated this understanding through a new soul (the Alter Rebbe).

This uncovers the Yechidah of every Jew. As the generations have rolled by and more and more Chassidic teachings have been transmitted by the Rebbes and we study and greatly disseminate these teachings, we also bring the advent of our righteous Mashiach much closer — for Mashiach is the general Yechidah soul of the Jewish people and he will also reveal the secrets of the Torah.

May we merit the coming of our righteous Mashiach speedily in our days, when “arise and sing ye who dwell in the dust,” the Previous Rebbe and Alter Rebbe among all the righteous and pious.